Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Cornflakes and Quadricycles

Penned upon the 23rd of January, 2008

Last night, while eating cereal and reading a complete guide to Buffy, I had a realisation. We – that is to say, us in the world – have, to put it bluntly, got the whole thing arseways around. We had the Industrial Revolution before the Information Revolution!

Okay, so that’s a big claim, and not very good history. But think about it this way: early industrial production was much more chaotic than today’s. Take cars, for example. The first cars were manufactured by hundreds of different companies. On the one hand, this was a technical nightmare – nothing was intercompatible. On the other hand, though, more people manufacturing independently meant more room for experimentation, and thus innovation. Eventually, the most successful producers absorbed or eliminated the competition, and we eventually reached the state of affairs we have today – a few big names providing the bulk of the world’s autos, all more or less the same.

Now, with the Information Revolution, for all its flaws, we have the potential for ideas and designs to be shared globally, to bounce off different creative processes, to improve and evolve. After a century of industrial production, though, we basically think this to be bad business sense. Certainly, the net gets used, and people still make a big hooha about how radical they are when they let an idea float around and harvest ideas for a few months before they release it – but, basically, when Mr Industrialist manufactures 1,000 things, he expects to sell 1,000 things and for there to subsequently be 1,000 things out in the world. Then he can invent Thing 2 and do it all again. This is the same whether the things are rubber ducks, or cars, or songs, or anti-virus software. And so we end up with DRM software, which effectively sabotages your possessions to prevent you rom using them according to their natural potential.

Many of those early auto developers would no doubt have been happy to achieve what Henry Ford achieved – one manufacturer, thousands of identical cars, lots of money for them. What they wanted doesn’t really matter, though, because what they achieved was cars which ran on petrol, steam, kerosene, electricity, four wheels, three wheels, two wheels, overhead rails and the sweat and tears of the housewife who assembled hers at home. These experiments became a pool of deas for future designers, then and now – most of those are still viable, even underutilised. Perhaps if they’d had the communications networks we have today, industrialisation might have remained in this experimentative, independent mould – being better for industrial design and better for our understanding of production and consumption.

Now, as I say, this isn’t good history. Speculation rarely is, and I’m not even factoring in the rise and fall of the Soviet Union or what have you. But it’s an interesting thought experiment, no?


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Commentary upon “Cornflakes and Quadricycles”

  1. Nathan was heard to remark,

    Upon the 23rd of January, 2008 at 9:28 pm,

    I’m not sure that even a higher level of communications ability would have slowed the standardisation of car design. The primary innovation Henry Ford achieved was the development of the assembly line, which allowed cars to be produced faster and more efficiently, which therefore allowed people other than property magnates to afford them.

    The problem is that assembly line production mandates standardization of parts and materials as much as possible. The reason all original Model T cars are black is because at the time, the only paint that dried fast enough to allow assembly line manufacture was black Japanese enamel. To summarise, I think that the standardisation of car design was an inevitable consequence of practical engineering. It simply isn’t viable to produce widely varying car designs in the same plant, as the expenditure both in time and money to retool for each new design is prohibitive.

    Only nowadays, with modern robotic assembly plants can any sort of variation take place at all, since robots are versatile enough to allow simple retooling. However, even today the most unique cars are the most expensive, not only due to the exotic materials used in their manufacture, but also due to the fact that such vehicles often require special assembly plants, or are even built by hand, and humans just aren’t that efficient at building things.

    Of course, I’ve only mentioned car design, but this situation can be applied to any mass produced product. Until we develop a more direct way of producing goods (by which I mean nano-assembly and the like), we will be cursed with beige boxes, so to speak. Or to put it another way: you can have a product quickly, cheap or innovative, pick two.


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