Sunday, 2 December 2012


For years I considered Richard Branson to be Britain's most over-rated businessman, but now I think it's James Dyson. Partly because such a grand reputation could be built on a small and over-priced line of white goods. Unlike the original Hoover or the Singer sewing machine, there really has been no wider economic or social impact of Dyson's products. More than this though he and his products are perfect embodiments of the tech-fetish that has bedevilled our times since the launch of Windows 95 and the spread of mobile phones.

Dyson's products all offer minor amendments to already established goods. He replaced the wheel in the wheelbarrow with a ball; he took the bag out of the vacuum cleaner. I still can't work out what's new about his hand dryers other than they are sought of upside down. He thinks his success lies in his 'engineering' but really it lies in the aesthetics of his products, his marketing department and, of course, in outsourcing the manufacturing to East Asia.

The Dyson vacuum cleaner is finished in primary coloured plastic and allows you to see inside and watch the working parts in action. It makes a fetish of its own machine-ness. It is playful, and suggests, consciously or unconsciously,  a child's toy.

When it appeared in the 1990s it was not alone in doing this. The original iMac also came in bright plastic and let the user see inside. So did the wind up radio.

 I'm sure Phil can find a good Spengler concept to capture this infitalisation of manufacturing and design. These products, I would also argue, are related to the ludicrous boosterism of Silicon Valley: particularly the claims that 'tech is the future' or that IT will bring about a new Industrial Revolution. Both the Wired crowd's love of 'tech' and Dyson's overestimation of engineering show a profound misunderstanding of the Industrial Revolution itself. It was revolutionary in world historical terms not because there were lots of innovations in machinery, but because manufacturing became, for the first time, the dominant sector in the economy. Seeing as IT and engineering are part of the services sector, which has already become the dominant sector in the western economies, it's hard to see how they could lead a similar fundamental shift in the economy.

Furthermore, in the 18th and early 19th century innovations in machinery were overwhelmingly concentrated in textiles. This was in order to make better and cheaper cottons and woollens which there was a huge mass-market for, not to sell gizmos to bored consumers. As Raphael Samuel showed long ago almost all other manufacturing sectors in Britain expanded through increasing the hours worked by labour and making incremental improvements in hand tools. There were hundreds of thousands of 'engineers' in the 19th century but their main role was to supervise and mend steam engines not to invent stuff.

In our time, the great change in manufacturing has been its relocation and, in some areas like car-making, the use of robotics. But Dell and Apple have not pioneered any significant manufacturing innovations which others sectors might want to use. Textile technologies have not really altered since the invention of the artificial fibres nearly 100 years ago. Cotton is still picked by hand in the open field, and garments made up in sweatshops with sewing machines. The future is low-tech and long hours. It's just that the Western middle class, including its liberal commentators, no longer have to see it from the study window.