A Solution Looking For a Problem

03.10.2013

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If you own any portable Apple product, this situation will be familiar. The cables are terrible – they always break between the wire and the plug. And the new ‘Lightning’ cable is the worst of all. Just look at the reviews in the Apple Store:

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I was moaning about this at length in the studio, (I don’t moan a lot, but when I do it’s impressive. Emotionally exhausting for me, and staggeringly boring for everybody else.) The studio rapidly descends into commuter mode – nobody’s looking at each other and everybody wearing headphones. But I still need a working cable, so I go around poking them all, trying to borrow one. Which is when Dan suggests I buy some Sugru.

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According to the blurb, it’s a “new self-setting rubber for fixing, modifying and improving your stuff”. Apparently it’s been around a while, but it’s news to me, and very good news. Right there on the pack is an illustration of Sugru solving my big problem.

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When you open the packet, if feels like Play-Doh. You can easily mould it with your fingers. Leave it to cure for 24 hours and it sets into a strong, flexible silicone based plastic. I set about fixing my broken cables.

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And here they are. Fixed, and colour coded so I never get to a hotel and discover I packed the wrong one. Red is iPod, blue is phone. They are also conspicuously mine, which is pleasing for the obvious reason (everybody knows who owns them) but also because I now feel a surprising affection for them. They are my cables. They were born bad, and I made them good.

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I do my headphones too, strengthening the joints and colour coding the earbuds left and right. It’s hugely satisfying. But these are all well documented uses for Sugru. The problem I solved is so universal, and Sugru is so good at fixing it, that they even put it on the packaging in an effort to explain what the product does (Trying to explain Sugru without a prescriptive example like that is nearly impossible). And yet the applications are limitless, as Sugru’s sizeable online community will testify to. Thousands of people fixing things and posting the pictures.

I decide to share my enthusiasm with the studio, and give everybody some Sugru to experiment with.

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First back is Tom, with chair that has lost a footpad. At first it seems prosaic. Boring almost. And then you realise how annoying it is to have an entire chair rendered useless by a single missing part, and how liberating it is to simply make another one. The whole chair comes back to life.

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Next is Ed, who wants to fix our tea problem. Specifically, how to get four cups of hot tea (there are four of us) from the kitchen downstairs up here in a single trip. It’s not as easy as it sounds. You need to keep one hand free to operate the doors between us and the kitchen, and also to distribute the cups when you arrive. The shiny white stairs make using a tray nerve-wracking, and if you try to just fistgrab four mugs they slip about and boiling tea goes everywhere. It’s always two trips.

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The solution? Hexagons.

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Finally Dan, who addresses the safety issue, and inadvertently creates one of the most Pet Shop Boys looking houseplants I have ever seen.
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Sugru is a brilliant material. It should be a huge success. But I wonder if it will be, because it is so hard to explain what it’s for. The fact you can use it to make pretty much anything is very challenging for the modern consumer, who simply cannot cope without clear messages, and is not really interested in solving his or her own problems. That’s the point of most consumer products. They solve the problems for you, and often ones you never knew you had. It reminds me of this:

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Here is Lego explaining to the adult population that it is empowering for children to make things themselves. It doesn’t matter what it is, what matters is that she made it. It’s very seventies, and the pedological insights are slightly creepy; (“Younger children build for fun. Older children build for realism.”) but it has a good heart. It’s telling you that the moment you stop being servant, doggedly recreating whatever is illustrated on the box, and start making things yourself, is the moment Lego becomes really interesting. Just like Sugru.

Except that Sugru is for adults, and most adults have completely forgotten how to make anything. Sit your average group of adults down with a pile of Play-Doh and watch the panic spread across their faces. Then tell them they can use it to make anything they like, and watch it get worse. The embarrassment of doing something so childish, and being so bad at it. The horror at their own lack of imagination. Give them Lego, and they might do a bit better, because it’s blocky and universal, but they still don’t like it. They are seriously out of practice.

And fixing things is all very seventies too, isn’t it? Distinctly pre-China. Why bother fixing an iPhone cable when you can buy ten of them for £9.99, including postage? They might only last two months, but it doesn’t matter, because you have ten of them. And they are all new. It’s important to look professional.

I hope this will change. It’s terrible environmentally, but also aesthetically. Everything looks the same, there is no interest in authorship, and the pressure to conform is shocking. Go back to Tom’s chair. How many of you were disturbed by the little yellow foot? “Why didn’t he make it black?” “The feet are supposed to be black. He should have used black”.” “It must be an example, for the photo. He’s not going to leave it like that.” “I don’t think Eames would approve…”

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But you can’t know that, because Charles Eames is no longer with us. And it’s not his chair anyway. It never was. It belongs to Tom, and the little yellow foot is evidence of that. Perhaps that’s why it’s disturbing.

Because you buy those chairs to fit in. To be identified as part of a group. They scream “I respect design”. But Tom is undermining that respect. And then you have to re-evaluate, and suddenly it’s much more complicated. Is he one of us? Is he being knowing? That yellow foot’s a bit annoying, isn’t it? I mean, the chair I get, but what about the yellow foot? What is it saying? I’m trying not to think about it, but it’s just so… noticeable. God, Tom is irritating. Why can’t he just have a black foot like everyone else, and stop being such an egocentric twat?

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And then you get to Dan’s cactus, and the questions become overwhelming. I mean, what is going on there? Am I now obliged to think about this too? If you don’t want to be stabbed by a cactus, DON’T BUY A CACTUS. It’s that simple. Idiot.

So that’s what Sugru is up against. An economy that desperately doesn’t want you to fix things, and a fearful internal troll that is threatened when you do. But I hope they win, if only because they’ve already taught Apple something very simple about making cables.