Ideas, truth, beauty, and ‘quality’ re-post from the past

Ideas, truth, beauty, and ‘quality’
March 27th, 2006

I started this little blog essentially as a place to work out ideas; we are regarded as somewhat odd if we talk to ourselves in public – but no one knows what we write as we sit there in the café, coffee readily at hand, and a book or two to provide questions, insight, answers, or relief from writing. Ideas need to be worked on. I have never had an idea that was in any way related to the Divine, ergo they are not perfect, and I must labour intensively sometimes to hone the argument that backgrounds the idea proper. And, that’s why this blog is here.

When I go to the coffee shop just a couple minutes walk from where I live I almost always take a book or two. Sometimes that is all I take. Other times I have a sketchpad (though my drawing is in no way ‘art,’ but I learned to draw the things I wanted to make, so they may be crude but workable), a notebook, a camera. Or not.

Lately I have been re-reading two books, both of which I laboured through twenty or thirty years ago, and both of which are rewarding the renewed effort magnificently. Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ (ZAMM) is one, and J. E. Gordon’s ‘Structures or Why Things Don’t Fall Down’ appear at first glance to be written from vastly different perspectives, with equally different goals. Yet I think these books are arguing for a common audience.

Pirsig is presenting, in the guise of motorcycle maintenance, a treatise on philosophy and life – if there is any difference – and I am not enough of a fan of philosophy in general to argue the matter. I just have a very difficult time with the ‘how do we know it exists’ type of question, in particular with the physical world. If it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t much matter, because we are all sharing much the same illusion that it does exist. But the notion of ‘quality’ is the ever present concern in ‘ZAMM,’ and I believe that the pursuit of ‘quality’ is a worthy one.

I am not, contrary to Phaedrus (Pirsig’s doppelganger perhaps), positive that there is an absolute quality, but rather that there is a good enough variety. This good enough quality is experiential, relative, perhaps fluid would be as good a term as any. To provide an example: two people are building boats, both identical, perhaps from plans. They are experienced at this. They have built other boats, repaired much that was broken, value the time, effort, and rewards of the project. But, in one critical area, they differ.

Their difference, is summed up in this question, asked by one – of the other. “Are you building it for five years, or for five hundred?” At first glance perhaps this seems trite, childish, a sleight of some form.

But Pirsig’s philosophical search for ‘quality’ in built, bought, or even ‘thought’ material goods is vitally important here. We live in a society, virtually worldwide, that has more material goods per person than any other society in history. Granted this absolute distribution is not even, there are some with more stuff or money than some tens of thousands of others. But there are also incredible gains in the amount of stuff that even most poor people have made over earlier generations.

An important caveat to this vast increase in quantity however is the question of quality.

If we build the boat to last 500 years, a figure both arbitrary and convenient, it will be expensive. It will probably bankrupt the builder, who will have the pleasure of leaving it to fifteen or twenty generations to follow. Will the price be worth it? Will those generations want, use, appreciate, maintain this boat in ways that ultimately justify the expense?

What if we build the boat to last five years? Will it be amortized over that period of time? Will the builder have achieved what they intended, something quick, relatively dependable, convenient, and cost effective?

Are either, or both, of these situations reflections of quality?

Gordon’s book, hereon ‘Structures,’ presents a series of arguments for well informed design – primarily in what might be considered ‘mechanical’ fields – those machines both fast and slow. This would include ships and aircraft, but bridges, houses, high-rise offices, bicycles and a range of built structures and mechanisms left to the readers imagination.

There is no need, in Gordon’s view, for mass-produced ‘stuff’ to lack quality. As a first example Gordon draws on the block-making machinery at the Royal Dockyards in England, originally designed by Sir Marc Brunel, and in Gordon’s’ words “not only good-looking but also very effective” having machined hundreds of thousands of blocks for Royal Navy ships during and beyond the Napoleonic Wars.

Granted these machines were built to a higher order, arguably, than a toaster bought at a mass-market retailer. But the toaster has to satisfy an entirely different market, more price sensitive in the immediate present perhaps than the Royal Navy’s long-term need. Does that toaster have Pirsig’s quality? I’m afraid I believe it does.

I’m not arguing here that a better toaster cannot be built. I am arguing that if quality is not fixed, then a less expensive toaster, is a better toaster because it actually exists in the here and now. Ford found this with automobile production: produce more, for less, to increase market size, and reap the benefits.

The boats, built for five years rather than five hundred, have not bankrupted the builder, nor locked generations not yet born into some chattel relationship simply to pay for the thing, nor fixed for generations the only option with respect to what one does, and the way in which one does it.

And, in this way, I hone the ideas in the coffee shop. Are they ‘good enough’ to do the job? Not perfect, no doubt about that, but good enough in the ‘here and now’ to engage the reader, to satisfy both my needs and yours?

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