The Brittle Spear VI: Built to Last

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Of course, our utopian vision of making our readymades or using digital kintsugi is a beautiful idea. If we then created a commercial aftermarket to extend the life of and repurpose all of the things, that too will have significant impact on making everything more sustainable. 

Guttural mega masculine “built to last”, “built tough” slogans echo in our minds. Many things are now made to look tough. As previously stated, we can see and feel an effect where our mercenary world is iterating products and making them weaker. Terminator tough looking things that are, in reality, fragile and brittle. All Achilles, but they’re all heel. Pre-broken things engineered to selectively shatter. We cannot extend the life of something if it, at its very core, is poorly built or destined to break. 

We could build 3D printed Kitchen Aid accessories for decades or build many products off of nigh-indestructible things, such as the Coleman Coolers or Stanley Thermoses. Sadly, the super reliable objects are, maddeningly, old designs that have resisted being redesigned to fail faster. My Insta is populated by ads of items purporting to be strong, tough, durable, and indestructible; I’m skeptical. There is an industry of hyper-masculine “tactical” pens, flashlights, and other gear. However, though all of the new stuff looks butch, much of it doesn’t measure up.  

Do yourself a favor, get one.

Products such as Le Creuset and Lodge pans have to be specifically handled. Cleaning may take longer, and you have to take care of them. But, if you do, you have a pan that will outlast you. Other things are much more convenient, but may not last beyond a few years. 

We’ve perverted Dieter Rams’ principles of good design by creating shiny facades for things that subvert the good. Quality is now a slogan; durability is a term bandied about by a marketing team whose tenure will not go beyond the legally mandated minimum warranty term. The right to repair, making, and things like digital kintsugi are meaningless if the very core our devices will not work beyond two years. With the quality of everything abating, it’s super nice that we can theoretically 3D print spare parts, but what will we print spares for?

It would be genuinely pathetic if we were making many spares for things made in the 1930s or 1960s but were unable to make many for items made in the 2010s because all of those objects are so broken that their lives can not be extended. Any further reduction in the quality of things will be an environmental burden that our planet is ill-equipped to handle.  

Mass manufacturing is efficient at making millions of things. Whereas it initially had to demonstrate value, it now just needs to be marketed well. A further reduction in quality is likely, as more fly by night low-quality firms proliferate. 

There are no quality symbols or associations that let consumers know that your product is actually built to last. Beyond recommendations from trusted friends and family, it is difficult to know what will work for a long time in advance. Social tools like the excellent Reddit forum Buy it For Life are being infiltrated by increasingly sophisticated unscrupulous marketing folk. There are quality review options such as America’s Test Kitchen, but many similar tests and reviews are not as thorough.

Without a central arbiter for quality, it is difficult to sell something more expensive that under the hood is far better. I love the story of Clotaire Rapaille, a psychological marketing consultant who found the deep need for the SUV in the reptilian brain. There is a PBS Frontline episode about this that is truly excellent. The birth of the need of the SUV as a protective cocoon to treat and keep yourself safe is traced by many back to his work. The video and interviews are from 2003 and 2004 and feel refreshingly naive. They seem fearful of a world that is far less scary than the present.

What happened next is clear to see on today’s streets. The SUV became the all-conquering lord of the driveway. Dirt free, the most nature they see is the golf course. You now have small SUVs, tiny ones, coupe SUVs, Golfs with extra plastic to become SUVs, BMW Motorsport SUVs, and every brand has them. In 2019, 70% of US car sales were of SUVs

The new Kia Telluride seats eight and could set you back from 30k to 60k. Kia. I’ll say it again, “Kia.” Mercedes Benz has eight SUVs. Kia. One of the very original SUV-style cars, the Range Rover, continues to sell well in astoundingly high-value configurations. The Land Rover Range Rover SVAutobiography Dynamic costs 266,000 Euros in the Netherlands (and with an MSRP $178,000 in the US). The Adventum Coupe, which is a two-door Range Rover Coupe is 290,000 (estimated at $300,000 in the US). 

Meanwhile, the future of another original SUV body type, the Toyota Land Cruiser, is less certain. The venerable off-roader beloved by aid agencies, wealthy people in developing countries, and the rugged outdoor set, will exit the US market in 2022. Amidst the SUV gold rush, the Land Cruiser sold 3,500 units in the US last year. Mercedes sold 4,280 AMG GTs in the same year. 

The Land Cruiser is the real deal. It’s expensive, starting at $85,000. But, from the ground up, Land Cruisers are engineered to be tough, durable, and dependable. The 60-year-old car model only upgrades to new features once they’ve stood the test of time. It rarely has the latest onboard tech in any category. The current V8 has essentially in slightly altered form powered the car for decades. The begin 2020 model was introduced in 2007. Some car models are updated every two years now. Since 1951 the car has sold 10 million units. So, its no slouch in the cumulative sales department. In the current SUV market, however, Toyota considers it not worthwhile to continue supporting the car in the US. 

The videos below illustrate just how great this car is and how limited it is in cool features. Only one USB port, shallow cupholders, but on the upside, it lasts decades and takes you anywhere.

Features scramble our minds. We can make a list of how many cup holders something has and how we like the dashboard and then cause them to eclipse our knowledge about how long the thing lasts. We’re irrational creatures, but to be fooled into buying a more expensive item that imitates the long-lasting quality better than the original is special even for us humans. 

The smoke and mirrors win yet again. And it is this that will be our biggest obstacle going forward. If high-quality things do not provide sufficient returns, then they will be replaced by good looking rotten things instead. The gilded age was a time of rapid growth and expansion in the US, but beneath the shiny gold surface lay suffering and corruption. We seem to now be in a gilded age of product design where things are designed to look good and seem durable while they actually are not. Beauty is only skin deep; now quality is as well.  

Part I of the Brittle Spear is here, Part II is here.

Images: Dave.See, NH53,Ray in Manila, PeterHolthof

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