We’ll be brief this week as travel is imminent, and we take extra time when it’s raining. The pups always know when they’re about to be left behind. They read the signs, know the clothes for work and the outfits we wear for puppy related business, and so my too-big-to-be-a-lap dog is competing for space with my laptop this morning.
It’s remarkable how many systems, how many individual parts and pieces have to work reliably for travel to be successful, not to mention the condition of the road, the proper functioning of traffic signalling equipment, and last but not least, the minimum level of competence, awareness, and cooperation from other drivers. If any one part ceases to function properly you can find yourself stranded, or worse.
You might say that a minimum level of quality is also required for all of this to work, and quality, or indeed the lack thereof, is the inspiration for this morning’s discussion.
The other day I was ready to start on a project a home. Tools were gathered, workspace arranged, materials assembled. Time was a factor, and an essential safety element to the successful completion of the work was the pair of chemical gloves I had just purchased. I removed them from the shopping bag and noticed straightaway the eye catching label with a lot of information no one would ever read – stapled to the gloves designed to prevent chemicals from contacting the skin.
I carefully removed the staples and the label and decided to ignore the holes left behind. When I pulled the first glove on, it tore exactly where the staples had been, creating a glove that protected my hand but not my arm.
I immediately thought of the expensive rain gear which I recently returned to the store because the collar had been punctured to attach the label, precisely where water would leak onto the back of my neck. The replacement was returned for a refund because it also had been pierced in the same manner.
Irritation can be like ripples on a pond, and my thoughts meandered to the grocery store apples stuck with labels that tear the peel as you remove them. Of course we don’t eat the peel unless we grow it. Industrial agriculture has given new meaning to the phrase, “chemical peel.” But we don’t feed plastic labels to our chickens or put them into compost, and an apple with a hole in the side doesn’t keep long.
Annoyance had the bit in its teeth as my mind raced ahead to the logical conclusion of this obsessive need to label everything so that every nanometer and every milligram can monetized. “Price check on Register 9! I’m sorry sir, but one of the grapes in this bunch is missing a barcode.”
Human nature remains constant, but different civilizations, even different eras within the life of a civilization are marked by shifting values. Quality has always been available to those who could afford it, but the vintage tools hanging on my shop wall tell me that quality was generally more widespread, and therefore more highly valued by the producers of the things we buy.
Perhaps as consumers we also value it less than previous generations, preferring the instant gratification of our wants to the more onerous path of sacrificing short term desires for long term goals. It’s also probably true that fewer of us can afford quality, and after generations of cheap consumer goods, fewer still even recognize it.
Yet we are still quite capable of achieving quality. One would never expect the engine in a 1967 Chevy to last 100,000 miles, but virtually every car produced today will surpass that. And as some economist-apologists are keen to remind us, flat screen televisions have never been more affordable. But when we do achieve quality, a flexible pair of chemical gloves, a reliable rain jacket, or even a picture perfect apple, and then punch a hole in it to advance the primary goal of profit, it’s difficult to claim that our civilization is progressing.