Built to break: the forced collages of everyday life

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“We only sell items that last for a couple of years,” said the salesman, “so we don’t bother getting spare parts for them.” That’s not exactly what you would expect to hear when you go back to an established furniture store hoping to redeem the functionality of your much-loved, yet very broken new purchase. My sister had bought herself a beautiful floor lamp that she accidentally knocked over on one dark night’s electricity cut. She stood next to me at the store as baffled as I was, when she realized her salesman couldn’t care less about what had happened. He just shamelessly hinted that it was time for her to buy something new, “this looks just like it!” he added pointing to another floor lamp.

It didn’t. She had bought the floor lamp around two months ago, far away from the store’s two-year replacement cycle. The amount of disrespect was almost illegal, some sort of continuous and very blunt rip off, but the salesman’s fifty-something eyes hiding behind blue colored lenses conveyed an uncomforting, eerie normality to what was going on. I’m not sure the shop owners are keen on their salesmen communicating their stocking strategy, but we were lucky enough to have one of the blunt ones.

It’s true that she broke it. It didn’t explode. It wasn’t a malfunction, but the peculiar shape of the bulb looks like it’s impossible to find one that fits anywhere else. He obviously knew that. It could have been considered her fault that she bought it without asking about the details, but this wasn’t supposed to be trick-or-treating. It was supposed to be shopping with the standard amount of trust you would give to retailers of your choice. Bad decision? Maybe, but anyway the only way to use the lamp now will be a collage of some sort, semi-functional as we install a random lampshade on what’s left of the floor lamp structure. But as thoroughly as we tried to explain that he’s not making sense, the salesman, our present authority figure, obviously wouldn’t summon the energy to care.

Like most relationships with any form of authority, whether mundane as that man or serious as our local ruling parties, there’s not much one can do. You can voice out your concerns. Your concerns will exist for a period of time until you figure out a way to collage them to make your life better. Everything remains a matter of fact. We are eventually forced to live within piles of semi-functional collages, in the privacy of our homes and in public.

We somehow have to deal with the fact that our lives are being designed as such: temporary and low quality. I’m not saying this as a conspiracy theory, but it’s like we are walking on imposed treadmills at unstoppable speeds. Living is too fast to stop at relatively silly events such as breaking a lamp or fighting with a salesman that’s nothing but a tiny façade in a sea of problems. Within this continuous motion forward, as a common person, how do you pause? How do you make time to snap out of this vicious cycle? Are minimal reforms possible? I’m not talking about anything major, just the redemption of the luxury of respect.

It’s a cycle that feeds on itself, yet remains constantly hungry. In the process, we are expected to get used to staying hungry as well. That broken lamp is an example of everything we have to deal with. Everything nowadays is built to break. I’m 28 years old and I have changed more refrigerators in the past five years than my grandmother did in her entire lifetime. Design briefs nowadays dictate expiration dates on manufactured products. Electronics are now made to malfunction. Computers are made to become obsolete. Fabrics are made to thin out and woodworks are made to crumble. We are always in need of something, products that meet our basic needs expire before our eyes. It’s too hectic to handle, but we handle it. We patch our lives into semi-functional collages, and try to pretend that everything is okay.

It’s really not. This cycle is killing everything. These imported, temporary products that we consume are not only killing us, but they’re flushing our economies down the drain. I never understood how someone making money off everyone else’s backs could continue doing so. It’s criminal. By offering these continuously misleading products with programmed expiry dates at reasonable prices, our entire production sector is dying. It’s hard to find something local that is well-designed and affordable these days, and the middle class is somehow forced to buy bad products with bad customer service. There are no alternatives.

Fighting for our right in a good producer/consumer relationship is worthy of our time. As we prioritize political formalities over mundane trinkets of everyday life, we’re missing the point. If retail stores pay high taxes on imports, wouldn’t they want to make the best of each shipment? If they would be interested in making it last while making continuous profit, their after-sales service must naturally develop.

Everybody can win. These extra taxes will also help save what remains of our local makers. They will have to compete within more reasonable conditions. They will produce more, and consequently be able to price less and become more accessible. With local production, the consumer wins too. If products were local, there would obviously be no problem in finding spare parts when needed. Additionally, when craftsmen make things based on a lineage of passed on knowledge, and if we’re lucky some contemporary training, their products are more likely to be much better than machine-jerked items on an assembly line. This could sound prehistoric because in Lebanon, we are prehistoric in the production sector. Baby steps are natural. We can stop pretending we’re a first world country just because we have multilingual citizens that look hip sometimes and work towards a more functional, honest and respectful life.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

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