I realise, now, that my relationship to making things, whether that be products, art, something useful for the home, or even a piece of writing, is peculiar. I grew up in an environment where the act of making things was special. Makers were special. What they made was significant and meaningful; not disposable and trivial. There was no higher good than to make something for somebody else, to help them out or empower them. Making had a sense of purpose and generosity attached to it.
What was jarring, to me, was entering the commercial world, where making was merely a means to the end of making money. The things that happened in-between were incidental, even inconvenient. It didn’t matter what you made, or for whom, or to what standard, so long as you could get people to part with their cash to have what you produced. The wastefulness this gives rise to was (and persistently remains) somebody else’s problem. In the commercial world of making things, all that counted was cash accumulation.
Within every system, there are people that are playing a different game, by different rules and this is certainly true, when it comes to making things. In every enterprise whose primary aim is financial, there are always people that didn’t get the memo. They make things with care and integrity anyway, for purely self-actualisation and transcendence reasons, because they think it is the right thing to do. Their efforts are frequently unrewarded and unrecognised, but are often the reason the organisation is able to sell their products at all.
These people are my tribe.
The house I grew up in was built by hand, by my father, as was every stick of furniture in it. He built it all with love, in order to keep his family safe, warm and dry. He provided us with comfortable, secure places to sleep, sit, work and eat. In making these things, he made damn sure they were strong, durable, safe and beautiful. Surrounding his most precious loved ones with objects that were an everyday insult to our senses, or a hazard to our well-being, would have been completely unacceptable to him. Indeed, buying manufactures that offered less than best always rankled him. He had a direct sense of how precious and scarce the materials he used were and how hard-won every successful construction was.
Effort was his currency and we, as his kids, learned that effort doesn’t come cheaply. You have to dig it out from the depths of your soul. When you make something worth having, you have to put your heart into it, as well as your sweat. Discouragement and disappointment will dog you, while you’re trying to make things and your resilience and perseverance will be severely tested. Every finished object is evidence that you passed the test. The accomplishment is in not giving up before you finish. Anybody that tells you it’s possible to make anything without putting this much of yourself into it doesn’t understand the first thing about making.
I have objects that he made for me that are nearly fifty years old and they are precious to me, beyond their utility and beauty. I also still have the hammer he used to build our house, which I cherish.
It’s possible to amplify human effort with machinery. The kinds of automation and mechanical effort you can apply to the problem of making something can be one of two types. Either it can cut corners and produce something of a lesser standard, to maximise margins, or else it can embody the heart, soul and care of the engineers that make the machines, to help produce items to a very high standard, consistently and with integrity. The problem is, when you buy machine-made goods, you can never tell how much human content was involved, or how much love and care was captured in the making of the machines and the process. Everything is hand-made at some level of abstraction.
Crappy mass-produced products look similar to machine-made products made with integrity, at first glance. It’s only in long-term use that the differences become obvious. By that time, the manufacturer has your money and there is little you can do about it. For that reason, many makers encourage a culture of ever-changing fashions, so that you discard and replace the product, before its inbuilt shortcomings become painfully obvious. It’s not very honest.
There is a television programme called “How It’s Made”, which produces short, documentary-style segments about how familiar objects are made, usually by filming the production line of a leading manufacturer and adding narration. I watch “How It’s Made” to understand how things should never be made. So many things are made without love. What’s the point of that? Who wants loveless products?
Products made with love take on a significance beyond utility and aesthetics. They represent somebody gifting you an improvement to your lot in life. These products provide some welcome relief from your burdens. They tend to be more durable. They tend to be used with reverence, rather than recklessness. Love changes the very nature of the relationship between the maker, what they made and the recipient of the object.
Loveless products, in contrast, promise much, but deliver little. You and the firm that made it both know the trade is all about money. They try to pass off junk to meet your needs, while you struggle with the object, trying to fit it to your purpose, but never quite succeeding. They don’t care about you and you don’t care about the product or its makers. It’s a mutually antagonistic relationship.
Often, you will use the product to destruction, in sheer frustration at the sub-standard nature of the thing. You quiet your conscience about the sheer waste of money, time, materials, energy, human resources and the need to dispose of it somehow benignly, that all of this involves. Somebody ultimately pays for this folly, but for the time-being, it isn’t you and it isn’t the company that made the crap.
What you have paid, though, is an opportunity cost. You could have spent your money on something durable and had surplus to buy something else, rather than having to buy a replacement. Would you rather have a fridge and a holiday, or have to buy a new fridge to replace the first fridge? If all you do, with your earnings, is periodically replace prematurely failing fridges, it’s not much of an existence, is it?
In software development, making things with love mostly leads to better outcomes than being a perfectly lean or agile (or both) development shop. Agile and lean are in-vogue processes that tend to distort priorities in favour of the firm’s economic performance, at the expense of customers and developers. Product Managers struggle to get people within the company to care about their customers and what they make, yet the systems that these people work within explicitly value speed, profit and an endless stream of marketable features, of dubious actual value to users. The yawning gap between what is needed and what is made is hardly surprising.
When you make something to make somebody else’s life better or easier, you put yourself in a vulnerable position. Saying,”I made this for you,” is a courageous act. You’re open to having the gift you have put so much effort into creating utterly rejected. It’s an expression of esteem toward the recipient of the object that might not be reciprocated.
However, if you say, “I made this for you, but only if you pay”, a different message is conveyed. Now, you’re saying the recipient is nobody special and not valued at all, unless they have money to give. Now, the maker is potentially rejecting the recipient. In saying that the customer is both anonymous and interchangeable, there is also no way the maker can claim he made it especially for them. Money changes everything.
That’s not to say that the love embodied in a product shouldn’t be reciprocated. It absolutely should. Makers have to eat. If somebody makes something helpful especially for you, it is only good grace to respond with appreciative gratitude and to return the favour with whatever you can make for them in return. Money can be a proxy for this communicative expression of mutual benefit, but often it only confuses the messages.
The antiques trade, in particular, heavily discounts and diminishes the amount of love that went into making something, through the pricing mechanism. Yet, the same trade paradoxically demonstrates a marked preference for products made with love and integrity, over those newer wares stamped out in industrial quantities. Most commerce does the same, in fact. The mountains of waste, necessary to keep Capitalism ticking over, are a silent testament to love that lies bleeding. Every broken, or prematurely obsolete appliance, or discarded piece of furniture, has a piece of the maker’s broken heart locked inside of it.
For millennia, the making of things, to raise the living standards of others, was a sacred act. It was not undertaken or received lightly, unless you were the basest sort of person. Love for humanity was an essential ingredient in the things that people made for each other.
It’s only in the recent past that making has been so debased and denuded of its original purpose.
Turning making into an activity that is all about increasing waste, profit and efficiency defiles the very act. That shows contempt for humanity. It’s deceit. It’s disrespectful on so many levels. When somebody cares so little about your life, the use you will get out of what they shoddily make and obviously isn’t concerned about your long term relationship with them, we’ve reached a state of subtle violence. It has become more about the taking, than the giving. With so little mutual respect involved in the transaction, the goods made are collateral damage; unloved, undervalued, underappreciated and unsuited for their purpose.
When a maker makes something for you with love, do you appreciate it, or do you pretend their work has equivalence with cynically-produced, sub-standard, soulless products? Do you value the love the maker put in, or do you try to take advantage of their generosity and vulnerability? Would you steal it, if you could get away with doing so? In the mid 1990s, musicians the world over woke up to the uncomfortable reality that a huge population of music lovers would happily steal music made for them, rather than pay even small amounts of money for it. It was perhaps the biggest collective slap in the face in history.
You can pretend that all products are produced without love and treat them and their makers with contempt universally, so that you can enjoy low prices and being able to throw things away without feeling a pang of conscience, but you’re lying to yourself. Similarly, if you make things, you can pretend that cutting corners and short-changing your customers is a viable, long-term product strategy, but you’re not being honest with yourself either.
Making things ought to be carried out with purpose and meaning, or it becomes just another form of insult. If you believe in humanity and wish to live in a world where humanity remains valued, then you need to start thinking about the sanctity of making a little more deeply.
It isn’t about the money. It never was.