Recently someone on Twitter posted a picture like this, commenting that this kind of stove still works after a hundred years, but “thanks to ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’ you have to replace your new one after 5 years.”
Of course, durability is not the only attribute that matters.
A stove like this burns wood or coal. That fuel needs to be hauled into the house (and up the steps of a tenement), and the ashes carried out. Solid fuel, unlike natural gas, also generates smoke. If all is in proper order, the chimney carries the smoke away so that it merely pollutes your neighborhood. If not, the smoke could leak into the home, causing a major health hazard to both the lungs and the eyes.
Note also a few missing features:
- An on-off control. This kind of stove, which is only one step advanced beyond an open-hearth fireplace, requires that you build the fire yourself. (One young woman’s 1868 diary entry reads, “Had an awful time to get breakfast, the fire would not burn.”)
- A temperature dial. You build the fire and you get what you get. A skilled cook can vary the temperature by, e.g., moving the pots various distances from the firebox. But basically, good luck following a recipe.
- “Self-cleaning” mode. Or, for that matter, any enamel or other protective coating. Cast iron stoves need to be cleaned ~daily and waxed regularly, or they will rust and wear out.
So, for most people, the convenience, cleanliness, and safety of a modern stove far outweigh its shorter lifespan (which, incidentally, is not 5 years, but 13–15, according to Consumer Reports). In other words: yes, modern stoves do represent progress and improvement, no scare quotes required.
The advantages of gas/electricity, in particular, also outweigh the downside of risking an interruption in these services—an example of Matt Ridley’s observation of how we move “from precarious self-sufficiency to safer mutual interdependence.”
But why can’t a modern stove last a hundred years? I don’t know the technical answer. The electric connections needed for the temperature control are sensitive, presumably. Probably the walls and door are thinner—using less material for cost and efficiency, vs. thick, heavy cast iron.
But I think I know the economic answer, which is: a modern stove designed and built to last a hundred years would be too expensive. It would take a bigger engineering effort (fixed cost) and probably more/better materials (variable cost). And it’s totally unnecessary. While there is something quaint and romantic about very long-lived items, there’s just no real reason a consumer needs them. So no one would pay for the hundred-year stove, and even if someone made it, it would fail in the marketplace.
A mid-tier range costs ~$1500. Amortized over that 15-year life, that’s just $100/year, which is very affordable. Besides, by upgrading every decade or two, consumers get the latest features. Why build a stove to last a hundred years if it’s going to be obsolete long before then?
A few people might, nonetheless, prefer old stoves. And all of us might occasionally enjoy cooking over an open flame on a charcoal grill. But the vast majority of consumers have voted with their wallets to make the old style of stove into an antique.
Some lessons here:
- Evaluate products as a function of all attributes, including convenience and cost—not just one attribute taken in isolation.
- Be careful of romanticizing obsolete technology. Usually, we moved on for a reason.
- The ideal is not a static state where everything lasts forever and nothing ever changes. Such a world is impossible and undesirable—even if we could create it, it would be stagnant. The ideal is a dynamic world of progress, of continual upgrading and renewal.
Source for many of the details above about old cookstoves, including the 1868 diary quote: Chapter 3 of More Work for Mother, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan.
This post is based on a Twitter thread.
Stoves may be a bad example, but there are plenty of things that they don’t make like they used to. Without even leaving the kitchen, we can give many examples:
Sure. My meaning is perhaps essentially as you say, but with rather different emphasis. I do not think that it is terribly useful to look for personal biases here (and it seems unlikely that you should have any unique or unusual bias in this regard).
It seems more likely (or in any case it’s more fruitful to approach the matter thus) that the bias is “in the water”, so to speak. Neophilia (and its complement, which the internet informs me should be called ‘paliophobia’) is deeply ingrained in modern Western culture. The assumption of progress, too, is deeply ingrained (the OP is hardly making a novel or surprising argument, for instance). From this it follows that anyone who prefers the old to the new, in any context, cannot be doing so for any ‘rational’ reason. And thus when you hear that someone has this preference, you assume that it’s due to nostalgia, etc.
But the consequence of this is that it’s more difficult for you to notice cases where the old is better than the new. You see that someone prefers the old; you say “ah, m... (read more)
I'm a bit skeptical about this point. It seems reasonable to avoid focusing all the effort into designing a very long-lived stove, but I wouldn't be too surprised to learn about someone who did the very opposite (intentionally designing short-lived stoves even if some minor modifications would have had large impact on their lifespan). I agree that new items are generally better than old items in many ways, but Planned obsolescence is a thing. According to Wikipedia, in 2015 the French National Assembly established jail terms of up to two years for manufacturers planning the failure of their products. Knowing this, I would strongly suspect that some manufacturers do plan the failure of their products. To me, this seems less like positive continual upgrading and more like Moloch...
The Phoebus Cartel
Why would Moloch (the metaphorical God for "coordination problems are hard") be the appropriate metaphor for conspiracy?
I don't think any conspiracy is necessary, just information asymmetry. For example, suppose modern stoves are controlled by microchips, and microchips can be programmed to self destruct after X hours of use. The manufacturer can choose any value of X, and the consumer has no way to determine the value of X. Since every broken stove represents a new potential customer, (and especially when the largest "competitor" is stoves that are already installed and the user is happy with rather than new competing products,) each manufacturer has an incentive to choose the smallest value of X that the consumer will tolerate without resorting to extreme measures (e.g. living without a stove, or politically banning self-destructing chips). The consumer cannot "vote with their wallet" since each manufacturer faces the same incentive and will arrive at a similar value of X. Manufacturers also have an incentive to spread memes which encourage people to accept even smaller values of X, such as this very post.
I understand the economic arguments for this position, and I do agree with them up to a point. Basic "companies have just gotten greedier" arguments certainly don't work by themselves and require further questionable assumptions, like a monopoly or collusion between competing companies, or a consumer base that always accepts the price-quality tradeoffs.
But I don't have the impression that this essay passes the Intellectual Turing Test of its opponents, nor that it mentions or argues against their strongest arguments. Was it written in a spirit of genuine curiosity of whether the claim was true, or was its bottom line already written in advance?
Anyway, here are some stronger arguments for "consumer products are getting worse" that sound reasonable to me:
... (read more)
- Modern review culture (on Amazon, Youtube, etc.) reviews tons of products directly after they're newly available (e.g. because Google and other feeds promote new content over old content). So reviews optimize for criteria they can immediately check and neglect those they can't, like most types of durability (whereas e.g. "does this smartphone display get scratched by the keys in my pocket" is easy to show in a 5-minute video review).
A more pessimistic interpretation is that competition placed pressure on manufacturers to cut costs without a corresponding increase in quality. While in theory, competition should tend towards creating products that maximize consumer satisfaction, it won't do so if consumers cannot fully evaluate the quality of a product. Or if consumers have sufficiently high discount rates that they are not thinking about the long-term.
As clone of saturn noted, one need not posit a conspiracy for planned obsolescence to occur. The ordinary process of increasing profits combined with information asymmetry is more than sufficient. I wouldn't go as far as saying that the old products are better, but I'd suspect that over time, manufacturers starting placing greater emphasis on "what will sell" relative to "what represents high quality craftsmanship."
"safer mutual interdependence" - I challenge the "safer" part. As we have observed throughout the pandemic, an interdependent system fails easily. Multiple single points of failure exist, and since reliability isn't the goal - economy is - fixing them has proven near impossible.
Self-reliance is much less efficient, hence disappearing, but more robust. If major shocks happened more often, we'd see more of it.
The example you give feels like a strawman. Have you considered:
Planned obsolescence is a thing.
You don't need the last gizmos. A gas stove made in the 70's has all the important features: The heat is controllable with a single dial. A single button triggers electric arcs that start the fire. A pipe leads gas to the stove from your gas tank. It doesn't make smoke. It's safe. Mine last 40 years and would have lasted longer if they produced parts for replacement.
I agree with the overall point of this post, that most of the time stuff gets better over time (the oven is a great example).
However, I think there might be small and specific counter-examples where large infrastructure shifts take place. Lets say that some particular consumer item really is at its best and most cost effective when made of cast iron. Then perhaps at some point in history when a lot of things are made of cast iron infrastructure and expertise are widespread and the item gets better. Later most of the economy moves on because other technique... (read more)
I do frequently find myself in that "they don't make them..." frame of mind. I also believe that part of the answer is located on that planned obsolescence axis but also realize that is a complicated issue to fully establish if you're not part of the decision-making structure for the particular item.
I have also heard of some other views that suggest the less durable nature of many modern products may be influenced a bit by the rate of innovations across a wide range of margins (direct inputs, new functionality/options, build materials, digital versus... (read more)
Another common belief is that older cars are more crash-resistant than modern cars, with varying explanations. I'm not sure about this but I suspect the belief is very wrong, as can be evidenced by this crash test between a 1959 Chevy and 2009 Chevy.
One thing I don't see mentioned too often in these discussions: I often don't care if something doesn't last as long as it possibly could. I like new things so I get them. I don't want the ratty lookin stove I had 20 years ago. I want one with an induction cooktop, "smart" features, and a design that matches my current decor. Some people derisively call this "consumerism". I call this a benefit of living in the modern age. (Note that I do not dismiss the downsides of consumerism as invalid.)
I'd be way happier with this state of affairs if... (read more)
Cherry picking. How many of those stoves were made 100 years ago? How many are around now?
Some of our 2021 stoves will be around in 100 years, too. Not many. Will someone point at one and say "back in 2021 they built to last"?
(Same reason old European cities are prettier than new American ones - the ugly buildings got torn down and replaced, the pretty ones didn't. After a while you have a lot of pretty buildings.)