Historians know better than anyone how many vital lessons lie hidden in the pages of our textbooks. So many of the problems facing us today—many of which we’ve written off as the cost of modern living—have been familiar to us for decades, if not millennia.
Today I’m going to talk about interchangeable parts: a thing some of us heard about while studying the Industrial Revolution, and which we’ve come to take for granted. But the truth is we’ve forgotten a lot of the lessons we learned during the rise of interchangeable parts. If the rise of the populist left in America during the march toward the 2016 election is any indication, greed is becoming a major, mainstream issue.
Interchangeable parts served as a powerful blow to greed during the advent of industrial America. Here’s how.
Why Are Interchangeable Parts Important?
If you know anything about interchangeable parts, you probably know the name Eli Whitney. The famed inventor of the cotton gin, Whitney also made a name for himself in the firearms industry by assembling muskets using interchangeable parts during the early years of the 19th Century.
Whitney’s contributions to the gun industry (and beyond) are almost incalculable. He helped other barons of industry produce identical products in quantities heretofore unheard-of, and was instrumental in bringing about an unprecedented manufacturing boom in our still-nascent country.
Simply put, Whitney taught us what’s possible when parts become common across different makes, models, and manufacturers. He showed us how to tear down walls.
Today, we’re still reaping the benefits of Whitney’s insights into interchangeable parts. AAA batteries are the same everywhere. Even less customer-facing industries benefit from standardizations of this kind. Case in point: in the world of rubber and plastic, certifications like ISO (International Organization for Standardization) make it possible for companies and governments across the world to do business with a common manufacturing language.
The same holds true for medical equipment. More and more hospitals are cutting costs by purchasing used hospital equipment; can you imagine a world where new and old medical and diagnostic tools are incompatible? If you think health care costs are high now, you haven’t seen anything yet.
In short, interchangeable parts have left an indelible mark on the developing world. So why are we trying so hard to undo that progress?
A World Where Greed Holds Sway
Okay; maybe “undo” is a bit alarmist, but it’s become very clear in recent years that we’re sliding backwards in a lot of ways.
For instance: could you, if you chose to, purchase a third-party battery and install it in your smartphone? For a small number of you, the answer might be yes, but it comes with a number of warnings and caveats. This kind of tinkering might void your warranty, or, in even more dramatic cases, might actually make you a target for litigation.
The truth is, consumer electronics are moving very definitively away from interchangeable parts. Your iPhone isn’t designed to be user serviceable. Neither is your Prius.
And while hardware incompatibility is bad enough, this is to say nothing of the ever-worsening state of software incompatibility. That we can patent something as abstract as software is bad enough, but it’s made even worse by litigious tech companies closely guarding trade secrets and APIs that would make our digital lives a hundred times easier and more pleasurable to navigate and use.
Consider, for example, a recent landmark case involving Google and Oracle. At stake was the role APIs play in the development of compatible software platforms.
Buy It for Life
If you understand what’s at stake here, you understand why corporations of all shapes and sizes guard their secrets more closely than ever before. They want customers for life, no matter what the cost, and no matter how difficult it makes life for said customers.
What Eli Whitney showed us was a world of true competition: a world where manufacturers embraced common standards for important components, and let their individual craftsmanship shine through in every other facet of the product. You could truly Buy It For Life, without worrying about built-in obsolescence.
That’s the world I want to live in. But for now, greed continues to manifest in countless ways, many of them unseen.
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