Great design disasters of modern times

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The Independent Online

I spent some happy hours the other day browsing on a website called howstuffworks - a brilliant resource for anyone dismayed by the ramifying complexity of the modern world. I learnt how my hard drive functions, how to make a firework and why I needn't be frightened of cookies, the little bits of code left on your computer when you've visited an internet site.

I spent some happy hours the other day browsing on a website called howstuffworks - a brilliant resource for anyone dismayed by the ramifying complexity of the modern world. I learnt how my hard drive functions, how to make a firework and why I needn't be frightened of cookies, the little bits of code left on your computer when you've visited an internet site.

I realised when I logged off that the site's boundless technological optimism had left a gap in the market. What I really wanted was whystuffdoesn'twork, a place to go when you seek an explanation for the deficiencies of advanced industrial capitalism.

I'm not talking about the big stuff here, like Third World exploitation and ecological meltdown. I'm talking about the kind of low-grade incompetencies that persist in the system, like warts, and that do not respond to the penicillin of commercial competition.

There would be no shortage of candidates for such a site, given the imperfections of the modern world. Motorway service stations are rich territories of such underfunctioning technology, from buttonless hot air dryers, with their utterly opaque systems of arousal, to those coffee cups that have been designed so that the hole in the handle is too small to admit any digit but a little finger.

The cups are one of my favourite design disasters, because their infuriating uselessness has been so carefully thought through. The unsung genius who created them knew that he could rely on the conductivity of fired clay to back up his masterstroke with the handle. If, by any chance, a customer was persistent enough to wedge the tip of an index finger through the aperture, it would be able to stay there only for a second or two without blistering.

The mystery here is not the nature of the design flaw - it is how such an object ever made it into mass production. What combination of misplaced aesthetics and manufacturing inertia allowed it to be born in the first place, let alone survive in the cup-eat-cup receptacle jungle? Answer that question and you'll find yourself telling a larger story about the world we live in.

I know there's a story when it comes to CD boxes and cassette cases ("jewel boxes"), because I made some telephone calls to find out how it was that such a ubiquitous piece of packaging came to be made out of one of the most brittle substances known to man. I exaggerate a little, I know, but even so, there's an enigma here: crystal polystyrene may have many virtues, but robustness isn't one of them. The other day I even opened a new story-tape whose box had been pre-broken in the wrapping, thus sparing me the immeasurably tiny expenditure of energy needed to break the hinge off and render it useless.

The answer to the conundrum is a neat little parable of industrial Darwinism. We can blame Philips in the first place, since it invented the CD format and established an industry standard for its box. Crystal polystyrene is cheap, offers transparency, which helps with marketing, and also works well for speed moulding - important when the machines can run at up to 100 units a minute. And getting to this ecological niche first turned out to be an advantage that would for ever outweigh the disadvantages of a material that splinters if you look at it in the wrong way.

Attempts to introduce a sturdier, polypropylene rival have foundered on the fact that the expensive machines that insert CDs into their boxes are now geared for the original design. In any case, consumers are resistant to any improvement that might disrupt the anal uniformity of their collections.

The whystuffdoesn'twork entry for "jewel boxes" would end, as would all entries, with the site motto: "If it's broke, don't fix it - until enough people complain." sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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