#38: Agathonicity

Designing things worth keeping.

This is yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing and adjacent considerations. The first issue explains the project; you can see all the issues here. My book, The Uncertainty Mindset, is about uncertainty, innovation, and cutting-edge cuisine. It’s officially out on July 28, but you can already get the ebook worldwide and you can pre-order physical books.

In the 1930s, T. H. White wrote that “few people are interested in things, except the mechanics who like engines. They are more interested in themselves and humanity, and theories, and emotions. I suppose quite a large percentage of people would not be able to name a grain of wheat from a grain of oats, or perhaps even a blackbird from a rook. Our ancestors of the nineteenth century grew up with things, so that they were real to them and had a sort of comfortable companionship now lost. That is why their things are so often more individual than ours. An old hobby-horse, turned up in an attic, will sometimes be so real that it is a piece of art, and clamours to be put on show in the hall downstairs. Not so the mass-produced Dobbin of to-day.”

These days, the situation seems even more dire. Things increasingly seem worth keeping around only until they break—they’re so junkily made that we discard them and buy new ones instead of repairing them. And in our aggregate consumption, we seem to increasingly prefer new things to old ones that have been repaired.

My working theory is that this change in objects and our relation to them has come about as the relative cost of time and materials has changed. We used to spend more time and effort in making and maintaining things when human time was cheaper and materials were more expensive. Throwaway culture emerges when materials began to feel inexpensive relative to time. As materials become cheaper, we become more willing to throw things away rather than invest time in rehabilitating them. After a while we get used to being told that buying something new is better than having something rehabilitated.

As things become less worth keeping around, we’ve become less accustomed to having things that get better with use, to the point that tell ourselves that we don’t want these types of things. Yet, as White points out, nearly everyone still secretly longs for these agathonic objects.

Agathonicity is usually described as the property of objects getting better with use. The paper that introduced the concept of agathonic design illustrated it with a baseball mitt or hiking boots being worn in—which is intuitive. But it isn’t only the process of wearing in that can make something “better.” There are in fact a range of distinct agathonic mechanisms each associated with change in one of four places:

  1. The object—the original main locus for agathonicity.

  2. The user.

  3. The context within which the object exists and functions.

  4. The function of the object—what it does for the user.

The list of seven mechanisms below is almost certainly non-exhaustive, and in practice, there’s nothing to obstruct multiple mechanisms from operating simultaneously.

  1. Object: The object changes by losing information such that what remains is better suited to the use. As objects are broken in by their users, they become better at their function. Examples include scissors as their blades wear down through a single barber’s use and become easier to use, a fountain pen as the nib wears microscopically through a single writer’s use to provide a smoother stroke, and hiking shoes that have been worn enough to no longer rub and cause discomfort and callusing.

  2. Object: The object changes by accumulating information such that what it becomes is better suited to the use. Examples include libraries which increase their collections in particular areas, cast-iron cookware which gradually acquires a patina that makes it non-stick, Wikipedia as its scope of coverage expands with new contributions, a good social club or circle of friends as it gains members.

  3. Object: The object changes by selectively losing bad/irrelevant information and gaining good/relevant information, thus becoming better suited to the use. Examples include your portfolio of belongings after you have Mari Kondo-ed them, code after it has been refactored or re-implemented, teams when their membership changes through negotiated joining.

  4. Function: The object remains unchanged, but use and user action changes how its function is perceived by users. Examples include stone mills, low-intervention wines, Modernism, Impressionism, and other schools of art practice after they become popular, and representative democracy.

  5. Context: The object remains unchanged, but use changes the context so the object is more adapted to it. Examples include telephones, the VHS video format, the idea of bond pricing, the concept of the corporation. A single phone on its own is much less useful than a network of phones, but the phone itself need not change. The Black-Scholes concept of pricing bonds is not very useful until everyone uses it, though the concept itself need not change. This is related to network externalities, performativity and actor-network theory—using the object creates an ecology which makes the object more useful.

  6. User: The object remains unchanged, but use changes the user to be a better user of the object. Users can also be broken in by their objects. The first way this happens is when the user learns the idiosyncrasies and affordances of the object, thus becoming better at using it. Examples include pianos and other complex musical instruments (the triangle is plausibly excluded), smartphones and other complex consumer electronics, Photoshop and any other complex software, complex programming languages, and large bureaucracies and other complex organizations. The second way this happens is related but distinct: when the user is changed by using the object. Examples include weights and training regimens, public transit, and theories of action in general (including philosophy and religion). In these examples, the user is transformed through use (physical condition improves, tendency to use public transit increases, systems of value/morality change), becoming a better user of the object.

  7. User: The object can either change or remain unchanged, but the user’s perception of it changes. Examples include an album played on loop during an enjoyable roadtrip, software when the right documentation is discovered, a restaurant after a particularly good service interaction, a favourite spoon or bowl.

Agathonicity is commonly associated with entropy because of the mechanism of wearing in, but thinking more broadly about it (as above) shows how it can also arise through mechanisms that increase local order at the level of object, user, context, or function. From a product design and management perspective, agathonicity thus seems inextricably intertwined with maintenance:

  1. Properly conducted maintenance can enable or enhance agathonicity. Developing and applying the right maintenance protocols can allow an object to fulfill its potential for agathonicity. An example of this is a cast iron skillet. In itself, it has the potential to get better with use—but it doesn’t actually get better with use unless it is correctly maintained after each use by scrubbing scrupulously after each use (without soap) and applying a thin coating of the correct type of oil.

  2. Designing for agathonicity can enable or require particular types of maintenance. Objects that are designed to get better through use are often designed to encourage their users to interact with and modify them. These design decisions impose requirements for maintenance. Raw denim illustrates this. It is designed to shrink to fit and lose pigment in relation to the user’s wear pattern and habits. This more or less requires the user to do things like wear raw denim for a prolonged period before washing it for the first time and to wash it in highly specific and inconvenient ways.

  3. Designing maintenance into some objects can enable agathonicity. If an object is designed not to work well unless it is continually maintained in specific ways, it becomes more likely to be maintained in those ways. A good example is a carbon steel knife. Carbon steel is relatively soft compared to stainless steel. A carbon steel knife (such as an old Sabatier or one of those very fancy Japanese knives) can be sharpened to a fine edge but not a durable one. Choosing carbon steel for a knife material imposes the requirement of much more frequent and careful sharpening and honing compared to stainless steel—and can therefore result in a sharper knife with repeated use.

  4. Agathonicity can encourage maintenance. When an object gets better with use, the user wants to use it more and wants to keep using it. This makes the user more likely to be motivated to invest the effort and time in learning how to maintain it correctly and in doing that maintenance. For instance, hand-made leather shoes are often owned by people who enjoy spending an evening every few months cleaning and conditioning them thoroughly.

Agathonicity and maintenance can be a mutually reinforcing nexus—but also one that backfires by asking too much of the user. It is easy to imagine, for instance, how a cook might accidentally destroy the seasoning on a prized cast iron skillet through incompetent maintenance. Or how a cook might react to the burden of required maintenance by abandoning the carbon steel knife for the easy mediocrity of stainless steel. (Or how the steep learning curve on LaTeX might drive someone to use more “user-friendly” word processing software.)

Fear of such outcomes may be why we seem to default to trying to design products that are easy to use out right of the box: things that don’t demand much are less likely to repel users or become less functional because of user error. So begins a vicious cycle where users unchallenged by demanding products eventually become less sophisticated users for whom only undemanding products will do. The fear of having to depend on unpredictable user responses is how throwaway cultures start and then become entrenched.

One way to break this vicious cycle is for the designers of things—and by this I mean products, services, systems, organizations—to decide unilaterally that the things they design should ask more of their users. Such a decision will run against conventional business wisdom because it will almost always make things more expensive, harder to make at scale, or harder to learn to use.

Designing things this way may mean lower initial adoption. It requires possibly unfounded faith in users. It thus exposes the designer to uncertainty. But it also gives them the potential both to get better with use and to be used in ways that make them better. And it creates the possibility that a self-selecting group of loyal and sophisticated users emerges.

Taking the long view, this decision seems to be a no-brainer.

Am I a fool to care?

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Find me on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, on Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.