Is yesterday´s crap today´s premium?

by Freddy GdiP

Old is better

Last week I took my old home stereo to get the CD player fixed. I’ve had it for quite a few years now and asked the specialist if it was worth repairing it or if it was more convenient to buy a new one. The store also sells new equipments so I’m pretty sure the answer wasn’t biased. His answer was that I should definitely fix it because the craftsmanship and the quality of my old home stereo were far superior than the ones found in newer devices -We’re talking about an old Philips mini component here, not some expensive hi-fi gear- I even remember the time when I first bought it: It was a good piece of equipment but nothing too fancy. I got it to replace a previous model I had which didn’t have CD player and I also recall that even back then on the last repair that device had gone through the specialist told me the exact same thing about that home stereo: the quality of the materials and the construction were far superior than the models being produced then.

This next example is a musical one because I’m a bit of an instrument geek and I can speak with a certain degree of knowledge about this: I bought my first electric guitar in 1998. A decent yet beginner’s model, really basic and cheap. Or at least it was when I first got it brand new: By today’s building standards my guitar is the equivalent of a semi-premium instrument. The quality of the woods used, the different components and the craftsmanship are far superior to the ones found in an entry model guitar built today.

And one more: I bought my first iPod in 2005. It came with Bose ear buds, usb cable, Itunes installation cd, paper instructions and a wall socket adapter. I bought a new iPod in 2008 at the exact same store. It came with generic ear buds, usb cable, no cd, no instructions and no wall socket adapter. Even the packaging was far less appealing than the older model. The price? Practically the same.

So, what´s happening?

The common corporate answer to this is that lowering the quality standards has allowed all sorts of people access things that otherwise wouldn´t be accessible to their budgets. Back in the day, only the rich guy in the neighborhood could afford to buy a TV, a luxurious device with high quality components and fine craftsmanship. But since the TV companies started making cheaper models every household could have their own set. Which is quite alright up to that point but what really happened was that the lowering of the bar didn’t stop there.

It happens with everything: domestic appliances, musical instruments, furniture, building materials, food, you name it. Chances are, if it was built a few years ago, it has a superior quality compared to something manufactured today.  And it’s not just a thing of nostalgia where old stuff is better than new stuff. This is not just a feeling. At some point we all have experienced this: How walls are thinner than they used to be. How things are becoming increasingly more expendable. How everything seems to wear and break down quicker. How things seem to come with less accessories each time. How things that used to be taken for granted are now considered high-end.

Yes, lowering the costs by lowering the quality to become more accessible can be understood –up to a certain extent- but the fact is that we end up paying more each time just to maintain the same quality because what yesterday was considered crap, today is considered premium.

The anti-corporate answer to the question above is that the real reason is good old fashioned corporate greed: The capitalist concept of shortening the lifespan of an object by worsening the quality to ensure a more frequent purchase is not new. From that story about light bulbs originally lasting forever and how the light bulb companies decided to shorten their lifespan so people had to go back and buy a new one each time one burned out to the 1920´s concept of Styling -the process of embellishing the outer surface of a product to disguise structural flaws- we have been consistently fed worse things each year in a progressive manner for quite a long time now.

I don’t know if that’s entirely true but it certainly illustrates a principle and it’s hard not to believe it when you see a printer built today vs. a printer built 15 years ago. The evolution of technology and safety are counterbalanced by the decline of quality.

We have gotten used to a fake sense of luxury by having things that were once considered extravagant and now are deemed standard. Everybody seems to have huge houses, seemingly better clothes and better cars than the previous generation had. All of which would be great if things were really better but at the same time all this new fancier stuff has far less quality than the stuff our grandfathers possessed. Things used to be more modest and at the same time had a far better quality than their contemporary versions manufactured today.

I´m currently addicted to that restoration show on the History Channel which features a tattooed guy in a sleeveless shirt who restores old stuff to its mint condition. In the opening sequence of the show this guy says something like “Remember the days when things were meant to last?” Yes, I do. And I don´t know about you but I want those days back. Until that happens I´m sticking to my old home stereo. This doesn´t mean that I´m rejecting evolution or technology on my life but I´m definitely sticking to the stuff that has real quality and I´m getting really picky when it comes to new stuff. After all, there´s a huge selection of everything out there and a huge number of products for every single category competing for my bucks. We can afford to be picky, it´s not an issue of budget but an issue of looking in greater detail. It takes more time, yes, but it improves your quality of life and that´s worth taking the time. It´s either that or getting used to own worse things or pay more money each time, you choose.