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.


Alex Niven said...

"He thinks his success lies in his 'engineering' but really it lies in the aesthetics of his products ..."

Tru dat. It seems they had to find a way of making hardware as "fun" and "disposable" as pop 45s were in the 50s and 60s, hence the emphasis on multicolour and the illusion offered in those pictures that you can have multiple versions of the same bit of kit (when in reality you'd have to drop a g for just one).

Maybe this has shifted latterly though, under "austerity" - a bogus return to functionality?

Steve said...

Interesting perspectivem and all good points, but one good thing about Dyson is he seems to pay more tax than most:

Phil Knight said...

Dunno about The Speng, but one book that does explain the infantilism of neoliberalism is Ariel Dorfmann's "The Empire's Old Clothes".

Dorfmann's view is that childishness is an implicit facet of American expansionism for two reasons: the first being that America as a "new" country untainted by the vices of the Old World is necessarily innocent in its dealings with others, and therefore can morally do no wrong.

The second is that in order for it to "save" the rest of the world via the liberating ideology of unfettered capitalism, it must return it to the childhood state of innocence from which America itself was born.

Of course the cult of endless youth is something of an infinity complex, but I think that's incidental in this case.

Alex said...

"offer minor amendments to already established goods" > incremental bad

"making incremental improvements in hand tools" > incremental good.

engineering, in general, is a service?

Dell and Apple don't know anything about manufacturing? Are you sure you know that?

Paul Bird said...

What a nasty peevish and negative article. Why can't we celebrate when our country produces an engineer of note, can you imagine Brunel receiving this kind of treatment.
Dyson's bagless cleaner has been a vast improvement on the vacuum cleaners of my childhood, his hand dryer works very well, far better than the fan only ones. What a pity you didn't think twice and write a more balanced article.

Culla said...

of course 'dysons' for those little trainee adults are readily available

William said...

Alex: I didn't say that increasing productivity thru' changes in hand tools, was 'good'. I said that this is what actually happened in 19th century England. The point is that fancy technology is not representative of the wider economy or even the 'future'.

Well engineering - in sense that Dyson uses the term - is not agriculture, mineral extraction or actually making a product. It is designing products, and so is a 'business service'. Obviously the Dyson company has its products manufactured somewhere. But Dyson himself has said that this is not important anymore – it’s all about the value added R & D stuff.

Dell and Apple 'know' about manufacturing, but they haven't bought in new factory equipment or organisation that has made a fundamental difference to other sectors. In the industrial revolution textiles invented the factory in effect, and by 1900 many other sub-sectors had moved to this form of production. Apple and Dyson have bought out new products with features rival products don’t have, but with no accompanying supply side innovations. Apple did bring out the home computer, which is the equivalent to inventing the vacuum cleaner or artificial fibres, but that was 25 years ago. The overall point is that despite the obsession with ‘tech’ innovation has actually slowed down.

Anonymous said...

I worked for Dyson for a year, and I got to see inside the machines. (They didn't let me, I just stole some motors). There is no quantifiable difference between a Dyson and a £50 vacuum cleaner.

David Kasper said...

I had a Dyson for a while - they don't respond to damp very well & short circuit easier than cheaper ones. They feel easier to use, but take longer to actually clean up.

Telling people this, they insisted it must have been my fault. The power of the brand!

Phil Knight said...

Filipino house boys ftw.

David Kasper said...