Quality, Black Holes, And Swimming Togs
I was squeezing the water out of my togs after a swim. A woman asked “did I know I could spin my togs” in the little machine she was pointing at. I did.
Three or four man-made twists of my snazzy swimwear and I was done. Even walking over to the tog spinning wonder seemed more effort than just squeezing the water out where I stood.
It is amazing what we have machines doing for us today. Or the logic we apply to justify using some of them. From cars that will soon ‘drive themselves’ through crawling motorway jams, smart phones that are becoming a remote control for reality itself, and a small army of household appliances that are becoming increasingly ‘smarter’.
I love my smartphone and technology and all the ways it makes my life easier. But more is not always better.
What do tog-dryers and the above have in common? Well, nothing and everything. In a word though – quality. Well at least that’s what I thought about that morning as I forced the chlorinated water from my togs.
I remember wondering why that was.
Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a wonderful examination of the meaning of quality and ruminates on the question of how it affects and permeates our lives. He concludes that quality itself exists independently of subjects and objects; that quality is a kind of higher-order pattern existing everywhere, drawing things into it. Excluding useless shite I hope.
Well so what? What we deem ‘quality’ has never been more important. We are living on a planet of 7 billion + people, with ever increasing demands on diminishing finite resources. We have all the facts and figures we need, yet we seem incapable of mitigating our march towards ever-increasing conflict with ourselves.
Pirsig maintains that quality really can’t be defined, because it is something that exists outside of strict definition. It’s that is closer to being a feeling, sitting out there on the edge of experience itself. More part of the moment than something we create.
It is the first filter through which we parse reality. How that filter is set depends on a worldview we each possess.
“The world comes to us in an endless stream of puzzle pieces that we would like to think all fit together somehow, but that in fact never do.” Robert M. Pirsig
Its activation often relies on events both dramatic and dangerous, of a type we would usually rather not participate in.
During the Second World War in England, rationing of food, fuel, and supplies was obviously difficult for many. Its was accepted by most because of the plain recognition that circumstances called for it.
More than that, however, most people felt a connection to a cause that was greater than themselves. People worked, lived, and survived under very difficult conditions and were capable of combining their efforts towards that common cause. The valiant actions of many in Britain during those years were as a result of an immediate and direct threat from across the channel.
Now as a species we face real danger in the form of all the human-generated problems that have been created by our progressive destruction of the environment. We are the generation that have a chance to make real change, every day and year that we continue business as usual it is moving us closer to a time in which we gain less control over our future. Less options.
Having lived in peacetime northern Europe for most of my life and being surrounded by most of the benefits and some of the detractions of capitalism, I wonder at our capacity to sustain whilst still maintaining some control of the rocket we’ve hitched ourselves to.
There is a fundamental quality-issue related to the continuous resource-intensive growth mentality of the West, and increasingly, everywhere else. What is the true cost? Isn’t the common cultural narrative consistently pushing bigger, better, faster, more? Temperance, sufficiency, economy, and sharing are secondary.
It is difficult for the rhetoric of nationality, belief systems, ideology, or even the most gifted of storytellers to break through to us as individuals, and create a picture of the change needed. The collective problems are almost too difficult to hold together in a single mental frame, much less form a cohesive view of what actions can be taken to effect change. This abstracts us from action as individuals.
In many ways, the change required to macro issues that can seem disconnected from us as individuals, is one that is felt, intuitive, and based in a kind of, well, quality.
Coming back to the offending tog spinner, the marginal utility gained from its use is not sufficient to warrant the resources it took to make it nor what it consumes in energy over its lifetime. It simply seemed ugly, everything about it low quality. Wet togs be damned!
Feeling the Difference
I am not interested here in quantifiable or even relative measure of proof for worthwhile goods, products, or services. Individual action often does not reflect the implications of facts and figures anyway.
It’s inward reflection, not outward. A certain weight is given to knowledge and another to feelings. Both have their time and place and both factor in most decisions. What we do is often based on what we feel, and it is personal. Judgments are often drawn from the society and cultural values we inherit and live in, but we can change them, make them based on our own vision of quality.
Our intuitive feel for quality is a central part to almost everything – the easy decisions and the bigger, more complex themes. Ultimately quality rests in personal choice, and true quality also includes an element of responsibility. The responsibility part comes from a closer connection with our environment and the earth itself, through which we can personally feel, if not directly see, the result of our actions. A bit like religious faith really.
I’m not suggesting we go Captain Planet all the time, but if as Pirsig suggested, quality is some higher order pattern drawing things into it, we might avoid making it a black hole of useless stuff that drags us in too.
“My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all.
God, I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out.
These can be left alone for a while. There’s a place for them but they’ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved.
We’ve had that individual Quality in the past, exploited it as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it’s just about depleted.
Everyone’s just about out of gumption. And I think it’s about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource — individual worth.” – Robert M. Pirsig