For Ever

Fast-changing technology obsoletes products, but the obsolescence is also present in other fields that do not benefit from it. For example, almost every electric kettle on the market today is designed like an aerodynamic tractor; it is fit for purpose but there is no beauty in it, no allure. Nobody will care to pass on their electric kettle, because, while not necessarily being the cheapest of goods, it is not designed to last. Cheap materials (plastic), cheap construction (China), weak design (changed with every new model).

Not all kettles are like that. The iconic Alessi 9091 and 9093 kettles by Richard Sapper and Michael Graves are still made and sold today, around 30 years after they were first designed. Granted, they are not electric, but their design also is not of a typical stove-top kettle. They are products of immense passion and care. The excellent design, the build quality, the fit and finish all make them things one enjoys using rather than things one uses for the sake of function alone. Indeed, so powerful is the design that today these kettles are displayed in many museums of design, including the Victoria & Albert museum. The kettles are quite expensive, but they are made for life.

Today’s media is always focusing on the very latest, on the new. Remember the military intervention in Libya that helped oust the despot Gaddafi in 2011? What happened to the country since then? The West, under the sovereign will of its citizens, shaped the geopolitics of the region, yet the only time this whole affair was broadcast by mass media outlets was during the intervention. Nothing is shown now, no followup, no evaluation. The media forgot the affair the moment our active role in it was over, while the people affected by it will have to live with the consequences of that intervention for the rest of their lives. Yet, no lessons were discussed in the public sphere, no debates took place. The sad truth is that neither the journalists nor the public actually care, and it is the same for almost every other issue that does not affect the people directly. By giving value only to the very latest, only the event of the moment, we are destroying the depth of our thought, leading to uninformed, uncritical, pathetic perspectives and beliefs that permeate our world today.

Technological obsolescence in the sphere of product design, coupled with the media’s obsession with new, creates a positive feedback loop that keeps reinforcing the idea that recency has great value. We are obsessed with the latest model or the latest story, continually buying into the freshness narrative, and, in turn, generating more incentive for makers to focus their energies on churning out more new stuff rather than better stuff.

Why do old places interest us? Why do we maintain the old buildings, what pulls the tourists to historical landmarks? It is communion, a very special form of communion that takes place not just with our contemporaries, but with the people of the past, and perhaps those of the future. By looking at historical architecture, we are put in the same place as the people of centuries past, experiencing, in that moment, the very same sight and feelings that they experienced when they were there. This connection, not just in space but in time, elevates us beyond the span of a single life, giving, in that quick moment, a perspective on our civilization from beyond the confines of our individual self. Where the product of obsolescence narrows our horizons, the timeless work broadens it.

Every human action gains in honour, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard to things that are to come. It is the far sight, the quiet and confident patience, that, above all other attributes, separate man from man, and near him to his Maker; and there is no action nor art, whose majesty we may not measure by this test. Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such works as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’

John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

March 2015