Today in Tedium: One of the greatest innovations of the 18th century came about in wartime and soon helped to enable the industrial revolution. And it involved a simple idea: Machines in which all the parts could be replaced with other, similar parts. But as the parts get smaller and more sophisticated, one could argue that the big innovation at the center of modern repairability is under threat. Simply put, interchangeability, a feature that won wars and enabled much of modern culture, is falling out of fashion in favor of obsolescence and disposability. Today’s Tedium ponders the long tension between these two competing ways of thinking about the objects we buy and use on a daily basis. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s post is sponsored by the videoconferencing platform Sessions. More from them in a second.
“Potential gains increase in proportion to risks taken. The more you risk, the bigger your chances of winning … or losing. The most practical solution is to cover all risks from the outset, and then you can’t lose. This explains why you will not find in our balance sheet any medium or long term debt, a rare situation in today’s world where inflation makes borrowing very tempting.”
— Marcel Bich, the chairman and CEO of Societe Bic, in his very first note to shareholders after taking the company public in 1972. Bic is a company that has deeply benefited from the idea of objects built for disposability, such as pens and razors. In the letter, Bich also emphasizes an efficient approach to creating products that people are destined to re-use. “We are fiercely anti-technocratic,” he wrote. “The way to keep the price of beef down is not by government price regulation, but by producing beef efficiently.”
The man who came up with the concept of interchangeable parts
As you probably are aware if you have any cursory knowledge of world history, the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were particularly busy ones for France on the battlefield and on the diplomacy front alike, with wars, colonial expansion, revolutions, emperors, and kingdoms shifting the dynamic of the country numerous times.
And it’s in this climate, between a couple of wars, that a true innovation of modularity emerged. That innovation was a system of interchangeable parts for artillery, requiring that cannons be developed to exacting standards.
This system, developed by General Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval and called Le système Gribeauval, or the Gribeauval system. The approach relies on a revolutionary strategy for its time, as put by Gribeauval, first in French:
Tout se tient dans un système d’artillerie: calibre, longueur du tube, système de pointage, affût, munitions, voitures de réapprovisionnements et une lacune dans l’une des parties compromet le fonctionnement de l’ensemble.
Or as translated by Google Translate:
Everything fits in an artillery system: caliber, barrel length, pointing system, carriage, ammunition, resupply cars and a gap in one of the parts compromises the functioning of the whole.
Essentially, this system was designed to allow for a level of consistency in design that would eventually prove a major tactical advantage. If a cannon wheel was somehow damaged in battle, they could easily replace it with existing parts. Additionally, elements that might have previously in the past have been eyeballed, such as the amount of powder and shot put into the cannon, were standardized.
The innovation likely helped a former artillery officer rise up the ranks. Napoleon Bonaparte, who saw the benefits of this approach and utilized this artillery system, which balanced lightness and ease of deployment, heavily during his periods of military expansion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Despite being outranked in a 1795 rebellion, an outnumbered Napoleon was able to use Gribeauval’s artillery system to essentially beat back a rebellion—and bring the end to the French Revolution.
But before Gribeauval’s system took hold, it had to compete for mindshare against another kind of system that was less standardized and came with a number of technical weaknesses. The challenges were political in nature: A predecessor in the artillery leadership, Florent-Jean de Vallière, also built a standardization approach to artillery called the de Vallière system. The system de Vallière built had some important innovations for its time, but was held back in the battlefield by the cannons’ heavy weight.
Despite this, de Vallière’s son, Joseph Florent de Vallière, led the artillery efforts for France at the time, and at one point resisted Gribeauval’s effort to modernize his father’s approach. At one point, after the Gribeauval system had been put into place, the younger de Vallière rescinded the move, and switched back to the system his father invented. But as Gribeauval gained additional influence within the French military, his system eventually became the dominant one and even inspired more consistent approaches to other kinds of weaponry, like muskets.
Helping bring Gribeauval’s approach to the global scale was the then-formative United States, which borrowed deep influence from the French in its approach to military technology.
A key figure in this influence was Louis de Tousard, a former French artillery official who later left for the U.S. during the French Revolution and became a major proponent of Gribeauval’s idea, writing the American Artillerist’s Companion, a book that heavily promoted Gribeauval’s interchangeability idea at a time Napoleon was utilizing it heavily, in 1809. From the introduction of that book:
It is not to be expected that this publication will pass without opposition or criticism, nor indeed do we wish that it should, for this will excite an examination, and consequently instruction in a corps where continual study and application are necessary. If we succeed in evincing the innumerable advantages which may result from the adoption of an uniform system in the service of artillery; and if the method of instruction is rendered more agreeable and easy to the officers, our object will be completely answered. Finding in this treatise all the practical part of their service, artillerists will soon experience the want of mechanical principles deduced from mathematics, and will become sensible of the utility of theory.
I understand why it might be a little confusing to tie the concepts of standardized parts—say, the use of batteries of a specific shape, the ability to replace one vacuum tube with another, or the desire to utilize USB-C in everything—to the work of artillery experts in Revolution-era France. But in many ways, this thinking was the basis upon the industrial revolution, the idea that we can get parts for the devices we use, and the overall importance of standardization to technology.
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If an object is replaced piece-by-piece, is it still the same object? Turns out there is a thought experiment to this very effect
If you are a fan of the ins and outs of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you might have recently been introduced to a philosophical concept that is very key to this discussion. It involves a ship.
This discussion, which took place on an episode of the Disney+ show WandaVision, discusses the Ship of Theseus, a famous thought experiment that debates whether an object that has all of its components replaced is still the object that you started with.
This concept is not just something invented for the benefit of Disney+ customers. It dates to the days of Plutarch, a Greek philosopher and priest from the 1st century AD that proved deeply influential to generations of philosophers that followed in his footsteps. Thomas Hobbes was an acolyte to this debate, adding another plank to the debate: What if someone created a second ship from the parts of the original ship?
From The Philosophy Foundation, a basic explanation of the concept:
In order for this session to be philosophically fruitful it is necessary to understand the philosophical subtleties involved in an exploration of the thought experiment. The embedded question to bear in mind in this whole discussion is if it is a new ship when all the parts are replaced then at what point does it become a new ship? This is where a lot of the philosophy will lie because here we are faced with the ‘problem of vagueness’.
If it is a new ship when the parts are all replaced and only then, would that mean that when it only had one part left to replace, it was still the old ship? If so, this seems a little odd. If not, then when does it become the new ship? This particular problem is known as the sorities paradox (from the Greek word for ‘heap’): how many grains of sand make a heap?
In many ways, the ship is a metaphor for personal change, the way that we, as people, may evolve over time (that’s the angle Wandavision leans into). A more obvious example of how this might play out for humankind: Does a child become any less of a child if their baby teeth fall out and are replaced with new, completely different teeth? In some ways, yes—it’s a sign that they’re growing up. But in other ways, they are fundamentally the same person.
But given that it’s talking about a ship, we can also apply it literally to the parts of a machine, around these interchangeable parts. A cannon is still a cannon if you replace its wheel, but is it the same cannon?
So let’s apply this thinking about ships and cannons and lighters to the right to repair debate
It’s in this context I think we should discuss the more philosophical considerations around right to repair.
To a company like Societe Bic, right to repair almost goes fully against what it represents to customers—a way to get inexpensive goods on the cheap. It makes no sense to repair a Bic pen or lighter—they cost so little and would take so much time to repair that there is no value to doing anything other than replacing it wholesale.
Bic most certainly has molds and machines they use to build razors. You could technically remove the blades, but what’s the point, when you can literally buy the full product or buy them in bulk and just use another one?
The point where I think all this becomes extremely complex and it turns into a deeper debate is that we’re now seeing companies like John Deere, or Apple, or HP—companies that develop products that are intended to last many years—approach design from the approach that the object is one piece, and if the device has fallen out of date, the solution is not to repair it or to change the parts, to remove the elements of the ship, piece by piece, but to buy a new ship.
Now, to be clear, when Apple builds you a laptop, it is using a pool of largely interchangeable parts. But what Apple does with those interchangeable parts is that it meshes them in a way that they can’t be taken apart.
There’s a video from a couple of months ago where Hugh Jeffreys, an Australian YouTuber who focuses on repairing devices, took apart a MacBook keyboard in a device that was otherwise relatively repairable. The problem? Apple riveted the keys down, despite the fact that earlier models used screws. At one point in this process, Jeffreys tears up his hand a little pulling the keyboard off, eventually switching to gloves.
This is the computing equivalent of trying to replace the razor blades in a Bic razor. Apple literally pushes people to simply replace the top case, a relatively wasteful approach, instead of going to these lengths. But that’s the point this debate is at. Folks like Jeffreys do this because they can make a broader point in the process.
I think the fundamental construct here is that companies that are opposed to right to repair efforts think they’re selling you a ship, wholesale. They are not selling you the ability to replace the ship. While there may be planks, and parts, they have no value from a manufacturing standpoint. They are taking a Bic-like approach to things that cost significantly more than a Bic razor to own, and are arguably more wasteful to throw out, because of the use of far more complex materials.
This shift, this move to take the innovations of modularity and reusable components and remove them from the consumer’s hand, feels relatively new in the grand scheme of things.
And you can tell they don’t want to give this up. Apple’s new right-to-repair program is an excellent example of this. The clips of YouTubers getting shipped 100 pounds of machinery to get the glue off a device with a cracked screen? Comical. Possibly even worse than that.
We should be offended by this by-the-letter-but-not-the-spirit approach to right to repair. The goal is to prove to us that the ship can’t be pulled apart without a whole lot of trouble. It’s kayfabe, considering other companies sell repair equipment for much of this technology that does the same job for significantly less and with far less machinery.
We have allowed large companies to take a Bic-style disposability approach to objects that, for many, may be the largest product purchase that they might make in a given year.
As consumers, we should call this out—because these decisions to lock down the machines are not being made at the end of the manufacturing process. They are made at the beginning. They are designed to be like this.
If we’re buying a ship, we should also be sold the ability to put in our own planks.
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