Monday, March 25, 2013

Why Can’t We Stop When We’re Ahead?

Occurs to me that humanity has not yet learned to stop when it’s ahead—and leave well enough alone. The occasion for this thought (it’s an old one) is the second failure of our expensive front-loading GE washing machine, Model WBVH6240FWW. In both cases the dial up front, intended to select the kind of wash you want to do, has failed to work.

Up to the time when we bought this machine, we’d owned other kinds that, when they failed, I could, to be sure with lots of study and effort, fix myself. But this GE machine is of the modern kind. It is much more consistently electronically controlled. Therefore failures such as these require replacement of entire structures. The defective part, containing valuable heavy metals and such, becomes a problematic waste—because teasing the traces of gold and other metals out of it is too expensive.

The very forces that produce innovation later produce excess of innovation: too many features, too much razz-ma-tazz. Briefly, and always only briefly, new features benefit producers. But very rapidly every maker has the same features. A simple-enough function, like washing clothes, become Boeing-like complex. We began our household with a simple washer-wringer machine—something like the one I’m showing (link)—which was itself a marvel of technology. It had a simple on-off button. It washed the clothes. The wringer squeezed them dry. Yes, we had to change the water and do some rinsing. It took a little attention—but habit filled in for the future electronics…

My point more broadly is that we could, theoretically, stop when we’ve produced a decent tool. But the madness of letting the Market do our thinking causes, in due time, perfectly useful products to disappear. Things are in the saddle?—something’s in the saddle. If this repair doesn’t do the job, our next washer will be a Maytag wringer washer. Looking around I see that I could get one for about $60-$100—much less than this repair will cost.

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