Last night I tried to trim my beard but the trimmer wouldn’t work.
It appeared the battery would no longer hold a charge. But who can be sure?
My electric shaver died, and I realized, I don’t know anything about shaving technology. This is something that touches my face regularly and greatly impacts my appearance, and it doesn’t work anymore, and I know nothing.
Should I get a new beard trimmer? How would I approach such a decision? How would I know that I’m right, or wrong?
Does it even matter?
We live in a world of designed objects we only barely understand. Things I use, touch, put against my skin, consume, and rely on every day yet I have only the slightest understanding of them - let alone appreciation.
But the thing is, I remember, actually, I sort of hate my beard trimmer.
It was always broken.
Everything is Broken
Imagine a world in which everything’s broken. A world in which the spigot and the drain are on the same end of the tub, so you have to slosh water around to get it clean. A world in which the stoplights turn red at two in the morning, even though no one else is around for miles. A world in which you have to turn the CD player on, even though you should just be able to press “play.”
Now, take that world, and add in people, lots of people. Not people that fix things. People who just keep making more and more broken things, because, as far as you can tell, they like things that way. Broken. Because they don’t seem to realize it’s all broken, that none of it really works. At least, they don’t admit to it. Maybe the people are broken. Maybe they wouldn’t be so broken, if anything else actually worked. That’s the world I live in. And I’m beginning to suspect it’s your fault.
— Carl Steadman, “Just One Question for Carl Steadman” http://www.theobvious.com/archive/1997/12/24.html
When I was 17 — in high school! using the web on dialup! — I remember reading Michael Sippey’s Stating The Obvious and thinking about clocks and design and brokenness, and here I am again and it’s the same.
Carl is right. I just want things to work.
(And Carl, oh dear, Carl was right about all of it! I do have a luxury car with a GPS that requires me to set my dashboard clock by hand when it should do it for me. But I do have a watch that sets itself: my iPhone. I hope Carl got one for Christmas.)
The 80% Is Worse Than Nothing Rule
The trimmer was a Norelco [something] that had a vacuum in it that I thought would save me time, but a vacuum that only catches 80% of the hair is more infuriating than a device that catches 0% because you plan accordingly.
It was broken.
The guard had a spring that popped about a month after I bought it, so it never felt quite right to use.
The entire thing was an ugly blue plastic that never fit together cleanly.
It was broken from the start.
Why did I put such a thing on my face regularly?
I could have bought another one for less than a bag of groceries at Whole Foods. But I never did.
The King of Objects
The king of objects, the monarch among objects are not fancy objects. They’re not high-tech objects, they’re not organic objects, they’re not biological objects, they’re everyday objects. Things that you’re with every day. Whatever is in your time most, what’s taking up most of your time, or in your space most. The stuff that’s closest to your skin, on your skin, inside your skin, in intimate areas. Space and time. That’s what’s going on, that’s where it’s at. That’s where it’s happening. Common everyday objects. You need to have the best possible common everyday objects. Bruce Sterling’s reboot talk
— Bruce Sterling, Reboot 11 Speech, 2009 http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2011/02/transcript-of-reboot-11-speech-by-bruce-sterling-25-6-2009/
Bruce Sterling gave this speech and you should read it or watch it if you haven’t, because it’s amazing, but he lays out four categories of objects:
Four variety of items: Beautiful things; emotionally important things; tools, devices and appliances that efficiently perform some useful function; and category four, everything else.
And then says we are going to have to ditch category four.
It’s not going to hurt you to lose all these things. You don’t need them. After you go through this particular discipline, you will look different, you will act differently. You will become much more what you already are.
I started to try and do this. I began in my office and started throwing things out. Things that were in my closet. Clothes that I’d never wear again.
But it did hurt, it was hard, I had to stop. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it all.
But will any of it matter? Will rationalizing the objects around me make me more of who I am? Is this some sort of misplaced consumer design fetishism?
After spending 20 minutes reading unhelpful things online, I ordered a new beard trimmer from Amazon. Mostly because I couldn’t pull my car out of my garage due to construction and I don’t think they’d be “testable” at a store anyway.
But if it’s bad I’ll send it back and keep going until I find one that isn’t broken.
I’ll shave my beard off.
A plan of attack
I started a spreadsheet of every object I used during the day along with some notes.
It has a “broken” column.
There is much to fix.
It’s a first step in trying to understand the objects around me, and fixing them.
So that’s what I’ll talk about: the objects around me, my relationship to them, and how to deal with them.