The downward spiral of progress

Why companies keep ruining your favorite products

FOR MORE THAN a decade, starting nearly 20 years ago, I believed that I would never need to think about buying sneakers again. When I needed new sneakers, I simply went to a suitable shoe store and found a pair of Jack Purcell sneakers, size 12, a clean white replica of the dirty and fraying shoes I'd worn into the store.

The badminton champion Jack Purcell had designed them in the 1930s: plain canvas, long rows of metal eyelets, a white rubber cap toe, a flat blue sole, and a correspondingly flat canvas insole. The shoe had survived through whole epochs of modern shoe design, secure in its atavistic simplicity, like a horseshoe crab. It was handsome and comfortable.

Then, a few years ago, the shoes were gone. In their place was something that almost looked like them - cap toe, eyelets, canvas - but, in the words of the manufacturer Converse, had been "reinvented with a ½-inch thick comfort insole, lightly padded tongue and upper sockliner....along with a redesigned outsole for added comfort."

Whose comfort? There were already plenty of sneakers out there with padded soles and tongues; if I'd wanted them, I would have bought them. In the name of making the shoes better, they had made them into something else. The Jack Purcell sneaker had been improved out of existence.

There are plenty of criticisms of American consumer capitalism and its guiding ideology, the notion that the Invisible Hand of the Market is as all-capable as the hand of God used to be (back when God was what people worshipped), only more helpful and efficient. It's not hard to spot cases where the market is inadequate to answer moral or ethical questions, such as how to pay to fix an 83-year-old retiree's broken hip.

But consumer capitalism is also a disappointment at the thing it's supposed to be good at: the ordinary buying and using of stuff. It's especially frustrating when the market decides to improve something that customers didn't want improved. If the consumer marketplace allows useful, effective products to disappear, then what is it good for? Or who is it good for? Not the person who's buying.

On June 12, after one last round of delays, the last analog television signals in America are due to be cut off. People who were happy watching old-fashioned television with rabbit ears - the most frugal, least demanding television customers in America - will have either bought a digital converter kit or they will see their pictures go dark.

The government's TV-transition website assures the analog-TV holdouts that "digital broadcasting allows stations to offer improved picture and sound quality." This is debatable: where you might watch a weak analog signal on a snowy screen, a digital signal would go blank or curdle into unwatchable, unmoving pixel-chunks. And because digital signals take longer to digest, it will become impossible to flip instantly from channel to channel - a maddening lag I first encountered on digital cable, after my provider insisted on upgrading me. But digital is officially better, so everyone gets digital.

This sort of ruination-through-improvement has a rich history. The most notorious example was the introduction of New Coke, when Coca-Cola announced it was replacing its ubiquitous, wildly popular flagship beverage - an avatar of American capitalist culture around the world - with a new version that people would like better. No one wanted New Coke, and it was quickly withdrawn, to be remembered as a humiliating failure.

What's mostly forgotten, though, is that old-fashioned Coca-Cola never came back. What replaced New Coke was a drink called Coca-Cola Classic - made, like New Coke, with cheaper and more cloying high-fructose corn syrup in place of cane sugar. Now, people who care enough to want the actual, white-sugar taste of Coke end up hunting for foreign bottlings or hoarding the corn-free Passover version.

Things like New Coke, digital TV, and the smaller, easier-to-handle daily newspaper are all changes meant to make things easier or more profitable for the producer, which are presented to the consumer as improvements. As Facebook grows from a social-networking site to a data-mining site for marketers, the home page becomes a gabble of personality quizzes taken by people you haven't seen since high school. The bait-and-switch is crude and obvious.

More insidious are the disimprovements through which the producer genuinely believes it's making its product more attractive. Why, one day in the '90s, did a capering anthropomorphic paper clip start jumping out at you when you tried to write a letter in Microsoft Word? Why did a particular brand of toilet paper - and in short order, nearly every brand of toilet paper - turn crumbly and linty in the name of "extra softness"? Why does the first Star Wars movie now teem with swarms of excess spaceships, computer-pasted onto the original scenes?

It's not that everything old is inherently better. A piezoelectric starter on your stove beats a pilot light. I don't miss rotary phones, carbon paper, cloth diapers, or dial-up modems. I would rather send you a text message than talk to you on the phone (although that's partly because the lack of an old-fashioned analog feedback loop makes cellphones annoying to talk on).

When a product gets disimproved, the company behind it is trying to give you more - but not you, personally, exactly. Someone else, some other person, who still must be wooed. The satisfied customer, his or her needs having already been accounted for, can be dispensed with; it's the dissatisfied customer, who still wants to buy things, who makes the system run. The moment you're comfortable enough to stop thinking about your choice is the moment your choice is most likely to be yanked away from you.

This is the source of the auto-industry truism that any small, lean car will inevitably evolve, model year after model year, into a bloatmobile. The people who didn't buy it in the first place would prefer something a little bigger, a little more like a regular car. The Ford Thunderbird, a little two-seater in 1955, acquired over the next 20 years a full set of seats, four feet of length, and nearly a ton of extra weight. The Scion xB, an American-market version of Japan's popular box-shaped economy wagons, just bulked up and dropped below 30 mpg - the better to attract people who prefer SUVs to Japanese economy cars.

So it was that when I went to replace my old MacBook, the smallest and most portable model, I learned that the new smallest model was an inch bigger. Apple wanted to give people a wider screen, the sales clerk said. That there were already wider models didn't matter.

Sometimes the market really will correct itself, as the economists promise, reversing a disimprovement, or even coming up with an improvement. No-boil lasagna noodles, with their weird parchment-y texture, seemed to have driven all the real lasagna noodles off the shelves a few years ago; now the normal product has made a comeback. If you pay a little extra when buying a Windows computer, they'll strip out the Vista operating system and let you have a plain, older version. Soft-drink makers are formulating specialty products with sugar instead of corn syrup.

But mostly, unwanted progress is here to stay. The market can't be trusted to keep supplying you with what you like, because the goal of the market is not to have sold things but to be selling more things, tomorrow. It's not about the loyal customer, but the one whose loyalty still needs to be negotiated - on new terms, if need be. The loyalty of the old customers is strictly one-way. The ideal customer is someone who doesn't want the product.

Tom Scocca is working on a new book, "Beijing Welcomes You," from Riverhead Books.  

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