“The whole experience had been so bewildering to him that he put it out of mind as soon as possible, but he had dreams about it for months afterwards, nightmares. Saemtenevia Prospect was two miles long, and it was a solid mass of people, traffic, and things: things to buy, things for sale. Coats, dresses, gowns, robes, trousers, breeches, shirts, blouses, hats, shoes, stockings, scarves, shawls, vests, capes, umbrellas, clothes to wear while sleeping, while swimming, while playing games, while at an afternoon party, while at an evening party, while at a party in the country, while traveling, while at the theater […]. […] figurines and souvenirs and mementos and gewgaws and bric-a-bac, everything either useless to begin with or ornamented so as to disguise its use.”
– Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
I recently went to buy a potty for Monkey. Not because we’re seriously starting potty training, but to introduce it, teach him what it is, etc. I just wanted a basic potty. You know: it’s basically a plastic bucket you can sit on. Your child pees and poops in it. You dump the contents and wash it.
I did eventually find such an artifact, but first I had to sort through a bunch of potties that were shaped like animals, that lit up and made noises or really flushed (because it’s not like they make seats for kids that go on the actual flushing toilet – right?) and so on. And of course they were all expensive because of their extra features. I kept thinking, with a kind of low-level rage: “I just need a container for him to sit on and poop in. How freaking hard is that?”
After I went home with my basic, boring potty (which Monkey thinks is awesome), I kept wondering where the demand for these toilets was coming from. Were American parents actually sitting around thinking, “Man, if only somebody out there made a frog-shaped potty that would sing Old Macdonald every time my child peed, with an attached Pez dispenser that dispensed candy when his poop triggered the motion sensor”? (No, I haven’t actually seen that feature yet, but I’m sure they’re working on it. Or will be after they read this blog post.) Were parents writing in droves to corporate headquarters to request that such a potty be sold? I doubt it.
People say that market competition fosters innovation, and in some ways that certainly is true. But face it, a lot of the innovation it fosters is stupid.
Because companies are competing for you to buy their product, there’s an incentive to distinguish their product – somehow, anyhow – from everyone else’s. Even if the product is a potty. Now, one way of distinguishing a product is to make it genuinely brilliant – but brilliant people are hard to come by and notoriously difficult, demanding, etc. That might work in computers, but not in designing potties. Another way is to make the product very good quality – but most companies don’t want to do that, because it’s easier and more lucrative to use cheap overseas labor and flashy features to catch your eye. Plus, if it breaks after a month, you’ll have to go buy another one. Especially since the kid is now unable to pee except into a singing Pez-dispensing frog. Win!
Americans are literally flooded with useless, often poor quality items that we neither need nor even particularly want. And the irony is that, for many individuals and families, this surplus coexists with an actual need for basics. I tried once to write a letter to relatives tactfully explaining that what we really need for Monkey is not more toys, which we don’t even have space for, but clothing, food, and formula. (It turned out not to be possible to be tactful, and I never sent the letter.)
What if the resources and energies that go into designing and making these hollow innovations went, instead, towards meeting real human needs? This doesn’t have to make life boring – the need for beauty, for art, for entertainment, are real needs too. Given a bit of free time and space, there will always be brilliant (and even ordinary) people sitting around coming up with ideas just because they’re bored.
What if instead of working frenetic jobs to put food on the table, we had time to sit around playing board games, go hiking, talk, read, tell stories, cook big meals together, take a siesta? What if innovation was allowed to be the genuine expression of human imagination, creativity, and play, instead of a marketing tactic?
I’d trade a singing light-up frog potty for that world.