The Brittle Spear Part II: The Pointy End of the Stick


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Roman spears were often brittle by design (perhaps). Sharp, tough spears were useful, but had the disadvantage that the weapon you threw at the enemy could be picked up and thrown back at you. If we believe some scholars, Roman javelins and throwing spears were designed to bend once they were used. Others contend that pilums were designed to break with one weak joint made just so that, if it penetrated a shield or hard ground, it would be rendered useless.

Still, other scholars believe that the pilums were at one point redesigned so that a metal and a wooden one replaced two metal pins anchoring the metal spear point to the wooden shaft. Once the redesigned pilum penetrated a shield, the wooden pin would break, causing the head to scissor, making the spear difficult to pull out of the shield. The shield would then become unwieldy or would have to be discarded, which would either make the enemy less mobile, less likely to attack, or, in either case , take away the efficient use of their main protective item, the shield. 

Perhaps the pilum redesigns were one of the first cases of planned obsolescence or maybe they weren’t at all. The example does illustrate how difficult it is to prove design intent retrospectively. It would be hard to know if a firm was creating a product just to fail at some later date or had other reasons for making certain decisions. Planned obsolescence is a charge leveled at a greedy corporation. I wish it were so cut and dry. Instead, I think that the system of the human world that we are building and shoring up is unsustainable by design. As I tried to explain in the previous article in this series, a tragedy of the commons is being perpetrated on us all by us all. 

Roman Pilums. So either the long thin shaft or the sharp point was meant to bend. Or perhaps they were just made to penetrate armor and people. Instead, the top of two bolts, visible here, could have been wood causing the entire point to pivot downward on the lower metal bolt. It certainly seems like the third option is most likely, especially if you look at how they married the metal and wood in the second from right spear. If it wasn’t meant to pivot and scissor, this coupling could be both simpler, easier to manufacture and more robust.

I’ve written previously about the brittle spear, 

“In Cuba, the country was cut off from spare parts, service manuals, support from the car companies and new American cars themselves for 59 years. During that entire time a lot of hard work and ingenuity let them use basic tools to keep these cars floating. The cars they were working on so intensely from the 30’s to 50’s are relics by today’s standards. But, they are beautiful relics. Beautiful, robust and functional. Could you keep a modern Toyota or Volkswagen on the road for 59 years? Could you do this without having access to the software, complex assemblies and spare parts? In the interim spare car parts and assemblies have gotten so precise and complex that this would be a problem. You’d also need a lot of parts, tools and skills that would be difficult to acquire. Modern cars are in many ways much better than those of the 50’s and 40’s but they are not as robust and easy to service with few means at low cost.”

Modern cars bought today can routinely be run to 200,000 miles. In some markets, over 15% of Toyota LandCruisers are run for over 200,000 miles (321,000 Km). While only 1% of vehicles in developed countries typically have more than 200,000 miles, 1.8% of Toyotas sold second hand, and 1.6% of Hondas and 1.4% of GMC vehicles have reached that milestone (significant exports of older vehicles to the developing world means that the actual proportion is likely to be much higher). 

So, on the one hand, vehicles last longer and are better, but what to me is the essence of the “tip of the spear becomes more brittle” concept is the idea that products, on the whole, are improved, but more fragile, and that they become more difficult to maintain. I could drop an abacus on the floor, and it would have survived. A TI calculator would also survive a drop and be a more capable instrument to boot. A modern cell phone could do much more still, but its screen would shatter if dropped. 

I love Kitchen Aid mixers, but the current crop has more plastic and less metal with certain parts designed to be less expensive. This on the whole is a development that we can see repeated across industries. To me, the current system of commerce is spitting out many more products destined to fail us faster at higher rates. Cars may be more comfortable or safer, but will break more quickly with more expensive parts and skills needed to repair them. It is not so much that things are built to fail; they’re built to selectively shatter expensively. To me, planned obsolescence isn’t the problem, it is selective survivability.

A Greve shoemaker making a last by hand.

New sophisticated sneaker designs use materials, CAD, and innovative methods to make cool shoes that are super comfortable for a year before you toss them. Meanwhile, I have ten-year-old leather, handmade shoes that can be repaired, resoled, and rejuvenated for many years to come.  

The maker movement shouts about a right to repair and a newfound passion for sustainability can counteract this to a certain extent. But, it isn’t as if five companies are doing all the harm. It isn’t a conspiracy of one or two designers who wish to landfill the known world. The invisible hand itself has turned against us and holds us by the throat.

Damaging the environment is free. Using a less expensive part imparts only benefits on your bottom line and bonus, the negative consequences are left for others. Indeed, will there be any perceived negative consequences for firms? Can we blame us all for the disaster upon us? If everything sucks, will we blame Adidas? Or Nike?

No, we’ll get used to everything being worse until the newer generation doesn’t even have that memory. We live in a world where everything is retro except quality. We cannot fight the system whose very fabric is our spending decisions and product choices. We could boycott all of the things or just consume less of the earth, but on the whole, we are punching waves.

3D printing does, however, have answers for us. We have a potential role to play in solving this morass and it is digital kintsugi. 

Creative Commons Atribution: Alexander C. Kafka, Diego Carranante, Joe Haupt, Alvaro Perez Vilarino, Sling.

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