The Magazine

Rage Against the Machine

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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My wife, back from walking the dog in a rainstorm, was drying her wet sox by the electric space heater in my attic office. I told her to be careful.

"Careful of what?" she said.

"Well," I said, "the space heater."

"What about it?"

What do you mean, what about it? Drop a newspaper next to a space heater and you'll burn the house down. Lean something metal alongside and it could pass through the grate, short the circuit, and burn the house down. Kick it over inadvertently, ditto. In fact, all it really takes to burn the house down with a space heater is to operate the thing normally until the iron in the grate gets hot enough to send the floorboards up in flame.

To anyone who grew up in a suburban-style house in the 1970s, mere ownership of a space heater was a form of insanity. We used to read about them on the front page of the Boston Herald all winter long. "XMAS TRAGEDY IN HUB TENEMENT" the headline would read, over a picture of fire trucks and--in an inset on the lower right--the charred space heater that was to blame. Space heaters were like syphilis--something poor people acquired through their own incorrigible foolishness, and then died of.

But every appliance was unreliable back then. People got electrocuted by toasters and concussed by refrigerators. They had their heads gashed by the corners of air conditioners and their hands minced by malfunctioning blenders and Disposalls. There were exposed nails, nuts, blades, and levers practically everywhere, good for ripping the sleeve off a shirt or poking an eye out. In the 1970s a screen door was a creaking slab of cheaply made, raw-edged steel. At our house, by the end of the summer, the bottom of our front hallway would have blood stains from the skin it had carved off the Achilles tendons of unsuspecting kids from all over the neighborhood.

It was the apotheosis of the industrial age. For about a hundred years, the goal had been to mechanize every corner of domestic life. Quite naturally, by the time I was a boy, households were primarily places for equipment. The humans who happened to be there were interlopers, and subject to almost nonstop industrial accidents. Every other day or so, you'd hear a bloodcurdling oath from some corner of the house. That part of the hippie ethos that urged people to get rid of their mechanized junk--their dishwashers and televisions and cars--has always been music to my ears.

But sometime when I wasn't looking, appliances became safe, efficient, and well made. Mankind somehow got the upper hand. A 1975 trash compactor does not even belong to the same family as a 2010 iPod. It is not that houses are any less full of contraptions than they used to be--it is only that now they are shaped to human comfort.

Consider the modest can opener. Back in the day, a can opener was rough and awkward. Opening a can of beans, your odds of drawing blood were about 1-in-4. I remember my astonishment the first time I went into a fancy kitchenware store--in Baltimore, around 1990--and saw a Zyliss can-opener. What a revelation. Modeled to the human hand, locking easily onto the can, and actually designed to open it effortlessly.

That is why my wife, not quite so dim as I about what is going on in the world, was less terrified of our space heater. It has no grill but a thin mesh of alloy covered with Teflon so it won't catch fire even if you put it on a stack of kindling. Tip it over and it shuts off. And, since it's Chinese-made, the whole unit costs about a dollar and forty-nine cents.

As with so many other changes in our consumerist life, it's hard to tell why this one came about and what it means. Are everyday objects getting more elegant? Or are we all living more like poor people? Is it that Reagan put an end to screw-you socialism, with the shoddy workmanship that was its hallmark? Or is it that those hippies who now design our appliances and clog our statute books with regulation put an end to soulless, every-man-for-himself capitalism? Is it that our own culture is, actually, deep down, as anti-humanistic as people used to say, and that the Chinese, even in the aftermath of Maoism, have a better sense of human needs? Or are today's appliances designed for the benefit of those who lost a limb on older models back in the 1970s?

CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL