Thursday, December 17, 2009

Perceived Obsolescence: A Dental Diary

There I stood: in the dental care aisle of Big-Box Pharmacy Store. Been there lately? Amazing place. First of all, on coming in the door, you can easily note how all these places are set up remarkably similar. There're always women's products within eye-sight of the door, as well as seasonal products (shovels and pails and such in the summertime, Christmas decorations this time of year). The pharmacy, sbeing presumably the raison d'etre of the store, is of course always in the very back. You have to walk past all the other products to get there. There are food products, miscellaneous cheap technology (it seems to be one of the only places left where one can buy a portable CD player), cards, stationery and office gadgetry, and basic houseware-type stuff (light bulbs, hose connectors, weed killer).

The health stuff is all on one side of the main aisle. Usually somewhere in the middle is the dental care area.

So, there I stood, in the dental care aisle, looking at a wall of products. I didn't take time to count, but I think it reasonable to assume that there were about 25 different kinds of toothpaste and twice as many different varieties of toothbrush. I was in the market for a toothbrush.

Now, my last toothbrush was, by any consideration, a roaring success. I've had the same model multiple times now, and my experience is consistently excellent. It's just a good toothbrush, despite all of the advertising gimmicks. It looks like the Swiss Army Knife of toothbrushes, and might be priced about the same, but it's really that good. It has rubber edgy thingies that get your gumline, and a protruding nose of sort that ducks down behind the molars. It has a magical color change item that tells you when it's getting tired, and a tongue-washer on the back. Honestly, the tongue-washer I'm not too thrilled about. The bristles seem to do a better job on that essential task, even if that might somewhat reduce the life of the brush.

I should note here that I'm a yeoman when it comes to my routine in the washroom. I've admitted some technology to the process over the years. For example, I used an electric razor before I had a beard (now, I shave my neck the old-fashioned way, that is to say the "plastic blade-cartridge with moisturizing strip on the end of a battery-operated vibrating stick" sort of way). My shower and toilet are scrubbed by Elves who take the form of bubbles that are automatically dispensed after each use. But when it comes to the work of cleaning my mouth, I like to do the work myself. Although I'm intrigued by newfangled brushes that utilize sonic booms or whatever to blast the plaque off your teeth, and the spinny-jobbers and shaky-doodads that are becoming increasingly "affordable" (that is, to the consumer in the instant of purchase), I stick to the normal arm-operated brush.

Well, after much searching and bewilderment by the bright colors and variety of the display, I finally located my reliable brush in the fray. I was dismayed to find that I couldn't purchase a single unit, but only two-for-the-price-of-(slightly-more-than)-one. I've tried that before. It never works out. Invariably, I either lose the spare brush, or leave one at my parent's house so that I have it available when I travel and end up never using it, because it doesn't feel right and I'd need to run boiling water over it and I bring mine along anyway. If I manage to keep and not to lose the spare brush, I find that I am uncontrollably urged untimely to begin using it. Although my last brushing with each of these brushes is good on an objective scale, it must be admitted that nothing compares with the first time, when the bristles are brand new. And having one laying around that can provide such an experience is too great a temptation. I end up throwing my old one away before the magical color indicator tells me to, and travel back to the Big-Box Pharmacy within the same time frame that I would have done had I bought only one brush.

I didn't want to buy two toothbrushes. I only needed one. On the same level, hanging a few brushes away from my old faithful, was another brush. It was shiny. And it cost much less than the two brushes I knew to be excellent. They weren't shiny, but they were good. This new brush, on the other hand, was shiny. It caught my eye. I knew it was shiny - this was not a subconscious perception. I might have said aloud, had I had someone in the aisle with me (not necessarily someone with whom I'd traveled to the store, but just a fellow shopper) - I might well have said, "That's shiny." But there wasn't, so I didn't. But I did think to myself, "Well, just because it's shiny doesn't mean it won't be good." And I went the way of all flesh. I gave in. I submitted to the allure of shininess on which our whole modern consumerist state depends. And I have found like so many other shiny-consumers, that it seems very little which glitters anymore is gold.

The gimmick of my new brush (all brushes have a gimmick) is a grippy-spot. On the front and back of the brush, right around where it contorts between the handle and the bristles, is orange, bumpy grippy stuff in a little spot on one side and a big spot on the other side. Presumably the little spot is for the tip of the thumb and the big spot for the side of the index finger.

Last night, I used my old brush one last time in a sort of mournful decommissioning. The hazy blue indicator area made me think how true it is that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

I tried out my new brush this morning. The bristles perform well. It lacks something of the gum-sexing that the old brush offered, but I need to learn to floss better anyway and maybe this will motivate me, because I'll miss that tingly feeling. My new brush is annoying, though, in its gimmicky grippy-spot. I found that the rest of the handle of the brush seems to have been made deliberately slick and slippery in order the enhance the perceived benefit of the grippy-spot. I took my old brush from the top of the trash pail and felt the bottom of each handle. Sure enough, my new brush is remarkably less grip-able. The grippy-spot isn't an enhancement on a normally grip-able brush. But it's a gimmick, placed on a brush that has been manufactured to (outside of it's special place) be less grip-able than a normal brush. Perhaps someone will tell me that, for effective brushing, one ought to grip the indicated spot because it's on the pressure pivot of the brush and enables the best control and maneuverability. I say, hogwash! I do grip my brush in the proper place, but occasionally a repositioning or what-not is in order, and I want to be able to perform these tasks without the risk of dropping my brush in the sink and needing to boil the damned thing before I'm satisfied with its sanitation.

Anyway, I tell this story so as to invite a reflection on the role of perceived obsolescence in our consumerist culture. I think the principle - which, basically defined, means the creation of an impression on the part of the consumer that old stuff isn't good anymore and they need new stuff - is apparent in many ways in Big-Box Pharmacy Store. I think you can find it operating in many instances in the story: in the superabundance of dental care products in the aisle; in the technology-enhancements of toothbrushes to vibrate and make noise; in the psychology that operates on me when I have purchase two of the same brushes at the same time; in the grippy-spot being manufactured to seem more necessary by the compromise in the grippyness of the rest of the brush.

The concept of perceived obsolescence is an important one of which to be aware at any time, but especially in a season of heightened commercialism and consumerism like the month of Christmas. I hope my story serves in some way to illustrate how this principle can motivate us both without our knowing it (my "two-for-one" woes) or with our knowing it (my attraction to the shiny). I invite any further reflection anyone might have on the matter with another gentle reminded that this is, hopefully, a place for discussion.

Also, this would be a good time to remind everyone of my lexicon post from a while back. I'll be revising this soon to add some new terms, like perceived obsolescence. Since I sometimes do get technical around here, everyone should know that this post can be easily accessed at any time by clicking the Terms label in the sidebar. Should it seem necessary at a later date, I'll add a permanent link somewhere. For now, I'm trying to keep the sidebar tidy.

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