The Brittle Spear VIII: Will the New Fade Faster than the Old?


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In my Brittle Spear series, I wrote of how the tip of technology’s spear grows ever sharper but more brittle. One of the things I mentioned was that the Cubans were able to maintain American vehicles with ingenuity and sweat for over sixty years all while behind the walls of an embargo. Pulling off such a feat with cars today would be much harder. Cars are far more complex affairs nowadays. Many more materials and much more complexity are combined with more fragility to give you a better ride in a less resilient device. Similarly, I spoke about how we need to make things built to last, come up with new business models, and mine our existing things for an aftermarket for everything. A Boing Boing blog post from last year, however, keeps ricocheting around my mind, which includes a quote from a Star Tribune article:

“‘The newer machines, any time something breaks, you’ve got to have a computer to fix it,’ (BigIron owner Mark) Stock said.

There are some good things about the software in newer machines, said Peterson. The dealer will get a warning if something is about to break and can contact the farmer ahead of time to nip the problem in the bud. But if something does break, the farmer is powerless, stuck in the field waiting for a service truck from the dealership to come out to their farm and charge up to $150 per hour for labor.

‘That goes against the pride of ownership, plus your lifetime of skills you’ve built up being able to fix things,’ (Machinery Pete founder Greg) Peterson said…

The cheaper repairs for an older tractor mean their life cycle can be extended. A new motor or transmission may cost $10,000 to $15,000, and then a tractor could be good for another 10 or 15 years.

Folland has two Versatile 875s manufactured in the early 1980s in Winnipeg and bought a John Deere 4440 last year with 9,000 hours on it, expecting to get another 5,000 hours out of it before he has to make a major repair.

‘An expensive repair would be $15,000 to $20,000, but you’re still well below the cost of buying a new tractor that’s $150,000 to $250,000. It’s still a fraction of the cost,’ (farmer Kris) Folland said. ‘That’s why these models are so popular. They’ve stood the test of time, well built, easy to fix, and it’s easy to get parts.'”

In the Brittle Spear series, I’ve talked around this topic so often that it almost seems like we’ve been here before. Deja vu aside, however, I can’t shake the article. Not only is it a proof point for the rationale behind the Brittle Spear (You can start the series here), but its an entirely important point in and of itself as well.

On the one hand, could we have an entire technological age fade from memory, the record, our lives? Could the disposable decades since the 90’s simply vanish because things made then were of so low quality that they are useless?

A precedent for this has already been set in clothing. Vintage is hot for all age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds and has proven to be a lasting trend. With teens to parents shopping vintage, it’s difficult to imagine where the new vintage will come from.

Today’s fast fashion is inherently disposable. Indeed, much of it has so much plastic in it and is so poor in quality that it can no longer be recycled. It can’t be used for rags; it can’t be given to the economically disenfranchised; it can’t be used for paper; it simply was initially burned. A larger and larger proportion of relatively new clothing was burned because industry could do nothing with it.

The E.U. is clamping down on this and wants these materials to be reused. 10,000 items of clothing are ending up in the landfill every five minutes, in the U.K. alone. We’re taking something that was eminently recyclable before and we’ve turned it into waste. What has happened with clothing will happen with many other goods, such as consumer electronics items and houseware. Your grandmother’s clock and kitchenware will still be there in good working order; you’ll have some of your mother’s cutlery and kitchen machines, but your stuff is all gone, buried in the municipal landfill.

While this may be of interests to sociologists and cultural historians of the future, why is it relevant? Because, if consumers realize just how fragile and silly the things that they buy are, they will perhaps reduce their consumption. I really see a new relationship with things emerging in friends of mine who are engineers, designers, 3D printing people and environmentally conscious folks. They find consumption problematic and take care when buying goods or buy only items that last. A focus by younger groups on experiences could also be a result of the realization that the consumption’s happiness if more fleeting and less impactful as well. So, what if this became mainstream? What if no one wanted to consume because the bubble had been burst?

Now, that would be an impetus for change. Not business as usual aside from a single Corporate Social Responsibility webpage, but rather a change of ways of doing business towards more sustainability.

At the same time, if we look at the tractor example, could it also point to a change there? Could the addition of aftermarket upgrades make the tractors from the 1980s even more functional? Could we build on that older technology for a longer period and extend its lifespan even further? Could brands make simpler tractors that were engineered like before?

The tiny Mahindra tractors are currently popular in the U.S. and elsewhere for their simple but tough construction and low cost. Mahindra could be looking at a huge investment and time to get it right in order for it to catch up with John Deere. But, what if it instead focused on making 1980s John Deere tractors? What if Chinese firms didn’t have to ape, catch up with, or buy American companies to do battle with them, but what if they made robust, tough, reliable tractors that lasted instead? It would be far easier, far cheaper, and would perhaps let them grow much faster.

The Germans pretty much continually had the best tanks in World War Two, but these tanks needed precision manufacturing, lots of components and many materials. A lot of production machinery and steps, as well as materials, are complex when your supply chain is being bombed. The Russian T-34 was a rough and tumble creature, crude by comparison to the Tiger’s and other tanks. But, it was mass-produced incessantly and withstood rough terrain and terrible conditions. Hitler is thought to have said, “If I had known that there were so many of them, I would have had second thoughts about invading!” Some Germans called it “the finest tank in the world“, but it was more than that.

It was the finest tank with the best design for manufacturing. It was a good tank that could be made while under mortar fire. It could be repaired easily in austere circumstances, as well. Whereas the Germans were making the “best tank” the Russians were making the “best tank for the war” considering all of the circumstances. Could a similar logic and reasoning lead to people moving away from our current landfill thinking toward a more robust future technological paradigm? Could we instead of making the best gizmo, make the best gizmo for the world?

Images: 270862, David Stanley, 270862, 270862.

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