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Japanese junk shopping disproves Moore's Law of continual growth

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martin pawley

Gordon Moore was one of the founders of Intel. He retired this year as chairman emeritus but his name lives on in the law he propounded in 1965.

Moore's Law says that the power of a silicon chip will double every 18 to 24 months, thereby continually accelerating the pace of technological change.

Most of us only experience this acceleration when we get cat-kickingly vexed at the way the computer we just bought is already obsolete, but there are other ways of dealing with it.

Take, for instance, the Japanese concept of zakka - the name given to workaday designer products that also possess qualities that appeal to the superior beings prepared to pay through the nose for the sensory pleasure of handling them.These desirable qualities include things like simplicity, small size, satisfying weight, pleasing texture, unusual colour, transparency, and so on.That there is a specialist market for such a thing as a transparent tin opener or a kettle with a soft-touch handle may seem surprising, but it is true.The Japanese market is valued at £2.3 million a year but, of course, zakka is manufactured and purchased all over the world by foreigners who do not know the Japanese name.

Zakka products represent the ephemera of the global retail industry. Unlike large and complex products as airliners or cars, which have a useful life that can be measured in years and can have attached or related subsystems with zakka qualities - the cutlery on an airliner, for example, or the pleasures of the electric seat adjustment in a car - most of this flotsam and jetsam of the product ocean is not zakka .

Nor, for that matter, are buildings, nearly all of which are no more than empty shells, with their cleverness confined to hidden places behind the rainscreen cladding, inside the cable duct and above the suspended ceiling.

A Boeing 747 is not zakka . It is not obsolete as soon as it is manufactured, nor is a Ford Mondeo.

These products are the privileged beneficiaries of a planned life and a designated fate. But the shortlife products of the pre-zakka era - corkscrews, cigarette lighters, ballpoint pens in the shape of tiny champagne bottles, and so on - had nowhere to go and were obsolete even before they were made. In the product ocean they were plankton, not whales, simple organisms wandering to and fro at the behest of currents that they could not control, and all destined to end up as worthless novelties, victims of Moore's Law.

Now zakka promises to give these nebulous krill the value and status of luxury goods. It is an extraordinary achievement.

The transparent tin opener becomes not a means of opening cans - we have an electric kitchen appliance to do that - but an abstract object with certain tactile and visual qualities that justify its outrageous price.

The arrangement of the objects has changed, too. Today, the wares in Japanese zakka boutiques are displayed not according to function, as in a department store, but according to colour, texture and shape. A 'soft-touch' handled kettle may be next to a handbag because both 'feel' the same, and the transparent tin opener can bask in the reflected glory of a transparent iMac.

The atmosphere generated inside has been likened to that of a small museum. There is no pumping rock music, no halogen lights. People spend a long time looking at the merchandise before they buy.Zakka has changed the final drive ration of consumption. It has taken things out of the invisible utilitarian category and turned them into something like art.No longer trash but the credentials of civilization.

Gordon Moore, there is a law in this somewhere.

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