Children in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World receive hypnopaedic messages as they nap. The architects of the utopia hope to worm slogans into future citizens’ subconscious so socially advantageous behaviors become inexorable truths. All of these slogans are interesting, but one seems especially prophetic, “Ending is better than mending.”
Huxley had good reason to offer this warning in 1932 when he published this novel. The 1920s saw dramatic refinement of modern marketing—lifestyle advertising, easy credit, consumer comfort goods, and built-in obsolescence. The period’s idealistic materialism led, in some measure, to the crash of 1929. Without economic protection, the capitalistic fantasy couldn’t continue. Instead of mending our delusions however, we pursued them anew.
“Ending is better than mending” is a given now. In any contest between the new and the used or the novel and the passé, the latest nearly always wins. Corporations learned long ago that repurchasing is more lucrative than repair, and some current products can’t be fixed. Even if a consumer wanted to restore them, many don’t have access panels or screws to re-screw. Few are built for future enhancements or adaptability. And even if the consumer could find a suitable repair-person, mending can be prohibitively costly, troublesome, and time-consuming. Why bother? Who abides delay when access to new products, advertised everywhere and constantly, is unlimited?
Engineers and designers would be better qualified to discuss the environmental advantages of mending over ending, but the broader philosophical assumptions of preferring change to development seem patently self-destructive. Every job site on the web offers statistics about how many times the average person will switch careers. Those statistics are descriptive, but they are also prescriptive, contributing to employees’ expectations for sticking with and growing into careers. The new reality of switching jobs also encourages flailing industries to turn to lay-offs first as the clearest, cleanest, and quickest way of cutting costs. Employers who favor reducing personnel save themselves the trouble of enhancing workers’ skills. It’s much easier to find someone who can do the job now than to make a current employee into that person.
We seem just as devoted to change in politics. We prefer the latest candidate, the firebrand who promises to alter everything. For those in power, a new policy—any policy—barely begins before backlash follows. The opposition’s chief role becomes obstructionist, expressing no clear purpose other than ending any attempt at mending currently underway. Sometimes the opposition seeks a return to what existed before, but, more often, they have novel agendas of their own to push. Some of these solutions might work, but the public hasn’t the patience to wait and see. They want decade-old troubles to end immediately.
In medicine we prefer drugs—new and improved and lucrative drugs—to patient education, prevention, or long-term treatments. Mental health, for example, becomes more and more pharmaceutical as insurance companies, doctors, and drug corporations recognize how messy and expensive any “talking cure” is. Mood enhancers—much like Huxley’s soma—promise to end what might take much longer to mend. Patients want relief from symptoms instead of addressing and mending underlying issues.
Our economy suffers especially. Pundits pin its health to continually increasing production, purchases, and employment. Yet our faith in growth may be the problem and not the solution. Belief in unlimited new products and new markets seems short-sighted. We might fix the economy by acknowledging our addiction to a materialism and turning more toward repair and renewal as a vision of economic health, but we haven’t the patience for complicated remedies. We could be happier doing more with less—or, more accurately, valuing what we have more—but we don’t seem to be willing to ask what, besides a new car, house, or iProduct, might make us happier.
Maybe Huxley is wrong, and our affection for novelty is intrinsic enough not to need training. Perhaps we’re hard-wired to love starting over. However, if that is true, ending certainly doesn’t need reinforcement, for what will happen when we kill the impulse to mend altogether? What will be next then?