August 3, 2007

Craftsmanship in Consumerism

Filed under: Uncategorized — alsuren @ 6:01 pm

I have just finished reading The Culture of the New Capitalism (Richard
Sennett) and there is a section dealing with craftsmanship, and pride in
quality. There is also a chapter on consumers, and the way we are taught to
crave new things, and then not value them anymore once we have them. When
evaluating what to buy, we need to make decisions even though we often have
very limited knowledge of the production of the item. So what rules should we
use when deciding which items to buy?

One way to approach the problem is "How would I design this item?". My friends
will be able to pre-empt my answer: "unix", but when is this valid?

"Simplicity of implementation is more desirable than simplicity of interface."
This goes directly against the modern consumer's way of thinking: "If I can
buy something that is easier to use, why should I reject it because it is
more complicated to make? Let me give a few examples:
"Serrated knives vs straight bladed knives"
Serrated knives are often slightly more effective at cutting when they are
first bought, but have you ever tried sharpening one? I would go for a
straight knife, and buy a knife sharpener. It is possible to get a
microscopically serrated knife with just a single stroke of a knife
"Manual doors vs Automatic doors"
When I was in america, they had some busses with pneumatic doors, and some
that the driver had to operate by hand using a simple lever. The busses all
looked about the same age, and the doors on many of them were failing. The
difference was that the failing pneumatic doors were deathly slow, because
the driver pushed a button and waited. The manual doors were often just as
slow to close, in the wrong hands, because they often closed with the wrong
door on the outside, but the more experienced drivers could get them to open
and close in maybe a tenth the time of the pneumatic ones.

So when is it beneficial to pick the unix design in these cases?
"When people will be working with it for a long time". The reason being that a
complicated interface can be learnt over time, while a complicated
implementation will often get warn out, and be very difficult to fix.
Annoyingly, a commercially successful product must aim for the opposite

In the case of products like the bus door, the products last longer because
the operator has more subtle control over them, and can optimise them to make
them work better for longer. I could sharpen a knife so that it could saw
through meat, or I could sharpen it to give me a nice fine shave. I enjoy
that kind of thing. I think that learning subtle control of simple tools like
that could be automatically done by machines in the near future. Obviously,
it will be the electronic tools that get tuned first, and I can't wait for
zigbee devices to come out and for standards to emerge to enable remote
controlled machine learning systems.

Those who know me will know that I have a long history of being dreadful at
buying clothing: it takes me ages, and I often buy items that I quickly tire
of. This is mainly because I don't have much practice: I buy new clothes very

I'm sure I could have phrased this better…


1 Comment »

  1. Without wanting to comment on the actual spirit of your post (not something I want to get into right now), I’d like to make a point about knives. Choice of serrated or straight blades is not how you make it out to be: the key factor is “what do I want to cut?”.

    The qualities of the material to be cut have a huge effect on how efficient the knife is: try cutting tough red meat with a straight blade. No matter how much you sharpen it, you will *never* be able to cut it as easily as a serrated blade; more importantly the straight blade will become blunt quicker than a serrated one would if used on tough meat. The serrations give it a far, far longer life, and make it easier on every occasion, *so long as* you only use the serrated blade for things that a serrated blade is better for.

    Draw analogies back to your main argument from this if you wish 🙂

    Comment by Stuart — August 4, 2007 @ 12:35 pm

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