Adam Savage of MythBusters fame has a Savage Rule of Tools: If you think you need a new tool, buy the cheapest one you can find. Then, when it breaks or wears out, you’ll have a much better picture of how you use the tool and how often you need it.
It’s a counterintuitive form of common sense. Living by that rule, however, illustrates how awful a lot of products are. It’s ridiculous how many times I’ve ordered something from AliExpress only to realize it is of terrible quality and often not fit for the purpose. Still, “poorly made by the cheapest bidder” is the name of that game, so perhaps terrible quality isn’t that surprising. What I find far more worrying, though, is how often midrange products are, in a word, useless.
Sitting with this reminded me of Sam Vimes’ boots theory. Terry Pratchett’s take on that theory in the Discworld series (Book 15, Men at Arms) presents a profoundly simple and poignant illustration of economic inequality and the implications of short-term versus long-term investment. Paraphrased, the theory argues that it’s cheaper to buy expensive, high-quality goods that last a long time than buying cheaper, lower-quality goods more frequently.
However, as we traipse deeper into late-stage capitalism, a paradoxical phenomenon is taking shape. Despite economic prosperity enabling more people to afford high-quality goods, there seems to be an overarching trend toward lower quality and disposability. In a nutshell: Even if you can afford high-quality products that are designed and built to last, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to find and buy products that meet that bar.
Why is it that in a world rich in resources, technological advancements and consumer purchasing power, it’s becoming harder to find high-quality, durable goods? Why do companies continue to sell us products that are built to fail, ensuring we’ll need replacements soon enough?