A touch-screen fridge? A seven-blade razor? Why is everything suddenly so complicated?
I started shaving, tackling the wispiest of bumfluff, 40 years ago. I did so in an attempt to stimulate growth in order to make me look older, so I would have a better chance of getting served in pubs. Not one of these three things came to pass. The razor I used had two blades. I remember thinking how that felt excessive for my needs; one would have done. This was 1983 – 11 years after, according to its website, Gillette came up with the “Trac II®, the first twin-blade shaving system”. And it was a good 15 years before Gillette was “breaking the performance barrier with the MACH3®, the first three-blade technology, for an even smoother, closer shave”.
The blade arms race was on, providing a rich source of comic material for, among others, Billy Connolly, I recall, and Mitchell and Webb. But on the razor makers ploughed regardless, breaking new ground with ever more blades. Gillette, with a fine flourish, skipped four blades and went straight to five in 2006. And at five it has stuck, instead coming up with other stuff to keep our excitement high, most recently a heated razor that “delivers instant warmth in less than one second at the push of a button and provides a noticeably more comfortable shave”. Reassuringly, though, the blade race continues apace with the Dorco Pace 7, “World’s First and Only Seven Blade Razor”. Seven!
Innovation, we’re told, is a wonderful thing. But what about innovation with no real purpose other than to drive sales?
Look, everyone’s got to make a living, but this is getting silly. We’re approaching Spinal Tap territory, with their amplifiers calibrated to 11 instead of 10. Innovation, we’re always told, is a wonderful thing. But what about innovation with no real purpose other than to drive sales? To be fair, I’m sure Gillette and others could provide evidence of improved performance, but while my dictionary defines innovate as “to introduce something new”, it also, tellingly, has it as “to introduce novelties”.
Kitchens are crammed with cooked-up novelties. We need ovens to get hot, fridges to get cool, and dishwashers to wash dishes. But oh, the features I’ve fallen for in my time. Ovens that spurt steam and are equipped with integrated temperature probes, for a start. Both vaguely useful, I must admit, but both conked out before long. This is another unhappy outcome of innovation: there’s ever more stuff to go wrong. The top-rated American-style fridge freezer on Which? will set you back around two and a half thousand pounds. It sports a large touch screen on which you can see who’s at your front door, play music and videos and plan your meals. Inside, believe it or not, there’s a camera so you can use your smartphone to see what’s in there, alert you to use-by dates and even add to your online shopping list. Why? Please make it stop.
Lighting, too. I was sold a lighting “system” for my flat. (I appreciate this might put me in your more-money-than-sense category, and you’d be right.) Different combinations of lights come on at different levels depending on which of an embarrassment of buttons you press. The control panel would look extravagant on the Starship Enterprise. It’s never worked properly – lights flicker, lights fail – but even if it did, it would drive me mad. The permutations boggle the mind. I exploded at an electrician last week who told me I could “look at another system”. I don’t want a bloody system. I want lights with switches that, possibly, can be dimmed. That’s it. No more.
Imagine what good could be done with the creative brilliance of everyone involved in these innovations – the techies, the financiers, the copywriters – if it was channelled elsewhere, to achieve efficiency and develop things we actually really need, individually and as a planet, rather than stuff we can merely be persuaded we need.
Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist