To our veteran subscribers—and to our many newcomers—welcome, again, to The Free Press (formerly Common Sense). We’re so excited you’re here.
If you haven’t yet been introduced to our columnist Walter Kirn—author of eight books, including “Up in the Air”—we think the essay below is a good place to start.
About five years ago, for seven dollars, I bought an old citrus juicer at a thrift shop. It was one of those vintage small appliances which seem built to survive gas explosions and hammer attacks. When I turned on the motor with a metal toggle switch, a drive shaft spun a heavy ceramic knob that gouged out the hearts of lemon and orange halves, leaving not a scrap of pulp uncrushed. The thing worked beautifully, almost like new, so I looked up its serial number on the internet to see when the unit was manufactured, guessing it might be almost 40 years old.
Wrong. It dated to the 1940s. It was 70, the stubborn monster, still giving satisfaction with every use.
I can’t say the same about my coffee grinders. I use the plural because I’ve owned a lot of them, all bought in their original packaging and dead within a year. They’re good ones, supposedly, with burrs not blades, but they stop performing before long, ending their long journeys from overseas factories in unmarked graves in my local Montana landfill.
I have a whole ghost kitchen in this landfill, and soon I will need to reserve a bigger plot. For the nifty under-the-counter fridge that has stopped getting cold after three years and no one in the area can fix. For the cool, bagless vacuum cleaner that clogs and chokes when I run it over a rug. For the set of glass measuring cups whose numbers and hash marks are swiftly fading and becoming illegible, much like those on the dials of the washer my wife bought just three years ago. For the remains of the Pyrex casserole that shattered when I removed it from the oven, strewing the floor with blade-like shards, some so tiny I probably won’t find them for another couple of months, and only when they lodge in my bare feet.
Should I go on? I think I will. It’s important to get to the essayistic part, where I ask what it means when the objects in our lives demoralize us in a blizzard of malfunctions that seem to be hastening by the month. But it’s also important—to me, emotionally—to bury the reader in details of the unceasing material disappointments I’ve faced. Disappointments of the sort we will all be facing en masse in a few days. Merry Christmas!
Like the cute yellow mittens my wife picked up at Target which unraveled the second time she wore them. Or the new suitcase which won’t stand upright when it’s full. The laptop computers that have turned to bricks within months of their warranties expiring. And the hybrid sedan with 50,000 miles on it that also turned into a brick while going eighty down the freeway, losing its power steering, its power brakes, its power everything. I survived, by some miracle, issued legal threats, and the car’s manufacturer repaired it, free. Then it bricked again a few weeks later.
It’s the little things too, of course, because they’re constant. The staples that won’t pierce five stacked sheets of paper. The matches that sizzle and smoke but won’t catch fire. The grocery bags split by the corners of the milk cartons whose inadequate seals leak drops. The strangely short power cords on electronics. The two or three new pens I use each week that, because no ink comes out of them (at least not continuously, in lines) aren’t really pens at all, in fact, but tributes to pens. Potemkin pens, mere props.
Baffled by how to measure this decline in the quality of common wares—a decline whose significance I promise to cover once I’ve further gratified my rage—I opened the matter to my Twitter audience and quickly garnered more than 2,000 replies, by far the longest thread I’ve ever triggered. The complaints were specific and formed patterns. One was a loathing for newer washers and dryers because they don’t wash or dry well, and then they break. The clothes that go inside them were disliked, too. (A former top executive of Levi’s chimed in to confirm that jeans aren’t what they used to be.)
My favorite replies were the picky ones. One person noted that the “juice content” of juice is going down. Another observed that the “foaming liquid hand soap” which suddenly is dominating store shelves is really just normal liquid soap, diluted.
Many blamed these problems on the government. They believed it had crippled certain products (major home appliances, especially) with environmental regulations, causing them to function poorly and turn rapidly to landfill fodder—an ecological net loss, perhaps. Some folks blamed our trade agreements with China and the evils of capitalism itself. Weak-link computer chips in items that don’t require them also came in for abuse. One highly philosophical reply spoke of a sinister general trend toward the degradation of everything human. “There’s a war on value that’s going that’s comprised of three parts: war on quality, war on money, war on life.” Lofty rhetoric, but I understood. When my suddenly de-electrified hybrid car became a hurtling giant stone inside which my wife and I were helplessly strapped—all for the crime of trying to save fuel and, ultimately, earth—it was hard not to feel tricked.
Only a couple of my correspondents challenged my premise—and the flood of testimony—that stuff is getting crappier, and acutely so. They made an economic argument. They claimed things are worse because we want them cheaper, but if price is adjusted for inflation, they’re of the same quality as always. These rant-killing sophisticates annoyed me. Our new washing machine with the faded dials and the vanishing enamel on its corners (I forgot to mention that defect) is the costliest model we’ve ever purchased. As for the much of the cheap stuff—those Target mittens, say—they aren’t merely inexpensive, they’re valueless. In fact, they’re of negative value when one considers the waste of materials involved, and the wasted energy of driving to buy them, then driving to return them later—a second trip that, in this case and many others, wasn’t worth making. Instead, we took the loss. And the world took the loss. A small one, but they add up.
In England in the 19th century there arose certain thinkers—John Ruskin, William Morris—who believed that the quality of material objects reflects and affects the quality of society, even of the spirit. “Have nothing in your home,” wrote Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, which aimed to elevate the lives of the working and middle classes, “that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This would be a tall order nowadays.
Recently, my wife needed a carrot peeler. She needed one rather quickly. Off to Target. The one she bought (the only one on sale) looked handsome enough, and the brand was one she recognized, but it failed in the useful department, miserably. It wasn’t sharp enough to peel a carrot. Like my pens which aren’t pens because pens put ink on paper, her peeler which didn’t peel was a nullity, a simulacrum, a representation of something, not the thing.
The world is going digital, we’re told, and someday there will even be digital real estate inhabited by people in digital clothes drinking digital orange juice extracted with digital juicers. People will play at the lives they once took seriously, lives that had once had heft and weight, and the juice content of juice will fall to zero. I suspect my old physical squeezer will still be working then, but the rest of my kitchen gear won’t. Not much of it. I might not last, either. I fear I won’t. The psychic toll of goods that don’t endure is that one loses faith the future will even come, and then one loses interest in it coming, for little that we own or use or cherish seems likely to be there with us to meet it.
One wonders whose obsolescence is being planned—our products’, our belongings’, or our own? %%%