Things wear out
I have a pair of shoes that are about to wear out. This sucks because they're shoes I wear pretty often (which is no doubt why they're wearing out). I'll probably have to replace them. I was mulling over a possible post on the universal experience of things wearing out, when it occurred to me that this experience may not be quite as universal as it used to be.
No doubt everybody has had some things wear out, if only a favorite t-shirt, but it's not like the old days when wearing out was the most usual reason that things needed to be replaced.
Failure modes other than wearing out
I bet that nowadays people much more often find that things need to be replaced for other reasons.
- Things break. This is different from wearing out. I've got some drinking glasses made of glass that will never wear out--there's no reason people can't be drinking out of them a thousand years from now if they don't break. Of course there's some overlap--some things break because one small part--a hinge or latch or switch or battery--wears out. (And this is not accidental--companies spend millions of dollars to make sure that the things they build will last long enough to make their customers feel like they've gotten their money's worth but no longer. Having a small but critical part that will wear out in a predictable amount of time--so that the item is broken and needs to be replaced--is the easiest way to do this.)
- Styles or fashions change. Any particular year, for example, fashion dictates that men's shorts should be some particular length (just now this seems to be 9 to 11 inch inseams). I try to stand unmoved by changes in style and fashion, and mostly succeed--I wear the shorts I've already got until they wear out. When fashion turns sharply against my own tastes I've been known to let my wardrobe dwindle rather than buy stuff I don't like. Still, it has an impact on a lot of people.
- Things become obsolete. This does bite me. For example, I've got a couple of perfectly good computers that won't run the next release of MacOS because they've got PowerPC processors. I try to lean against the winds of obsolescence. For one thing, I continue to use obsolete stuff for as long as it still works, if I can. More important, I try to gauge a thing's "obsolescence potential" before deciding whether to buy it--and the higher the likelihood that it'll be obsolete before it wears out, the more disinclined I am to make the purchase.
Prefer things that wear out
Generally, I prefer things that wear out. It's not that wearing out is a good thing, it's just that wearing out is a pretty good sign that whatever it is doesn't suffer from one of these other reasons that things need to be replaced.
Of course, it's best if they won't wear out for a long time. Garden tools (spade, rake, hoe) will wear out eventually, but ought to be good for a generation or two. Well-made furniture can last for generations as well. Photos taken with old-fashioned film will last a hundred years with ordinary care and quite a bit longer if dealt with in an archival fashion. Well-made books can last a very long time indeed. (The University of Illinois library here in town has perfectly readable copies of the Proceedings of the Royal Society dating back to when Isaac Newton was publishing.)
But even things that wear out in an ordinary amount of time are still better than things that need to be replaced early because they're obsolete or out of fashion, for lots of reasons:
- Things that wear out can be pressed into service even after they're threadbare.
- Things that wear out can be made to last longer with gentle use.
- Things that wear out can sometimes even be kept in service with simple repairs.
Things that go out of fashion are second best. As long as you don't mind being out-of-fashion, such things tend to be perfectly serviceable long after you're supposed to have replaced them with some newer, trendier thing.
Things that become obsolete are less satisfactory yet--unless you're one of those rare people who can can go right on using an obsolete device that still serves its purpose. (Grandparents seem to be good at this.)
Things that break are probably the worst--especially if the way they break is by having some small essential bit wear out. Sometimes, as with glasses made of glass, it's kind of a trade off. My glass glasses aren't going to become obsolete or go out of fashion, and they certainly won't wear out. They will no doubt break eventually, but it seems to me like a reasonable risk to take--the need to exercising a certain amount of care is a reasonable price to pay for glasses that will never wear out.
Prefer things that wear out, because it's a sign that they don't suffer from the worse failure modes. Then, use them gently so they last as long as possible.
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