The six stages in a product’s life

To preempt complaints about the title (with shouts of “Boo! False advertising!”), I should probably include an alternate title or subtitle this early: An Allegory for Historical Materialism and Modern Political Economy. Or maybe this: Science Fiction: Utopian and Scientific.

But let me get straight to the point and answer my own question: What are the six stages in a product’s life? I can think of six. There may be more if you add regional variations, or less if you see enough commonalities. But I’ll stick with six:

Scene from 2001 Space Odyssey: big ape meets monolith.
Scene from 2001 Space Odyssey: big ape meets monolith.

1. The home-hack stage. A need arises, and a home-grown genius hacks a quick-and-dirty solution using materials near reach.

Think of Mr. Australopithecus scavengerii trying to get at that hard-to-reach part of a rotting wildebeest carcass, to feast on the still-yummy meat. So he finds himself a hefty but sharp stone, perhaps chipping it to impart a still sharper edge, and starts hacking away. Voila. He succeeds in feeding his growing brain with more protein—“Important for my evolution,” he tells himself—and thus begins the Paleolithic Age!

(To Digital Age hackers: Now you know who your ancestors are.)

2. The folk-craft stage. Friends, workmates, neighbors see the stone tool as a nifty hack. They soon follow suit. The product is still basically home-made, but it’s making the rounds and morphing into local adaptations. You could say it’s now a folk craft. The rival tribe can still get a copy through trade (or raids). They can reverse-engineer the tool, even improve on it, and not be haled to court for patent infringement. It falls under the category of, you know, IKS, which stipulates fair use for non-commercial purposes.

(Hey, I just realized: that’s how the IKS guys were able to push for the early launch of the Neolithic, onward to the Chalcolithic.)

3. The mass-produced-commodity stage. An enterprising guy from downstream turns the home-made hack or folk craft into a regular, standard, mass-produced item, coming out of sweatshops using steam power and slave labor. At this point, you and I can no longer make one. Or making one would be too costly. It’s now more economical to buy it off-the-shelf. The product is very useful, has in fact become essential to daily life, so you have no choice. And besides, everybody else has bought one, your neighbor even got them cheaper by the dozen, so…

(Think of your standard kitchen knife, and how it’s manufactured. Such enterprising guys are found everywhere—from the Sumerian craft guilds, to Silicon Valley defense contractors, even Saruman in his Isengard uruk-khai sword factory. But capitalism has an edge because… well, it has lots and lots of capital to invest.)

4. The sexy-addictive-fashion-statement stage. Then comes the relentless capitalist crises of overproduction. The product is being churned out by the millions. But less and less people are willing or able to buy, given their limited wages. So the factories that manufacture the product slow down, close shop, throw workers into the streets. This makes matters even worse. Solution: make the product sexier. Turn it into status-symbol brands, and churn out new colors, new flavors, new upgrades every year. Oh, and wipe out the IPR pirates.

My thick Swiss knife has more tools than your thin Swiss knife. My cellphone is thin and smart while yours is dumb and clunky. I have iPhone7 now, you still have your kludgy Lenovo Basic. (So who’s dumb, really?) My Doc Martens has GPS, snow chains, and laser-accurate fog lights. My CK underwear comes in 50 shades of gray. (Imagine being able to come in 50 shades of gray. Really now.) Meanwhile, millions starve in Africa and the Middle East, and thousands drown crossing the Med.

5. The back-to-basics stage. Parasitical, decadent, imperialist, and monopoly capitalist dystopia then begins a long and painful 300-year down-slide into final breakup and collapse. At first, the resulting social fabric looks like a thousand fragments torn from the old, not at all woven from new yarn. They look like a thousand hordes of Germanic tribes, crossing the Rhine and spreading out to plunder the luxurious Roman villas. The resulting societies don’t immediately fall into standard categories.


In some areas, society adopts this or that variant of socialism. The types of production, distribution, services, governance and culture may envision and strive for a still more egalitarian Stage 6—or not. Utopian? Or scientific? I’ll choose Marx and Engels over Fourier and Saint-Simon. In many ways, this system contain a hodge-podge of features found in Stages 2, 3 and 4, as well as 5, of course.

People under socialism learn to make do with whatever they have, make only what they need, and improvise for whatever they can’t make yet. From each according to their ability, to each according to their work. Everyone practice thrift, save for the future, and care for nature. Build the community and defend the homeland. Be comradely to each other, but fvck the capitalist roaders. Products are functional, ideas must be practical; nevertheless, let a thousand flowers bloom. Reject the revisionists, and everybody push in the direction of Stage 6.

In other areas (ever smaller and ever shrinking), the remnants of the formerly powerful global financial imperialist elite entrench themselves in high aeries. There they party with their last remaining hoards of daurenki caviar, Merlot wine, Agent Provocateur, Bulgari, and young girls abducted from the Ukraine.

They are so far removed from the production process, that they’re living in a dream world already. Yet they continue to plan for a grand global comeback, like some mummified Pharaoh sealed inside his pyramid tomb with his dying coterie. Sorry to disappoint, but only tomb raiders and future archaeologists will be interested. (I do hope the young girls escape, aided by an Imperator Furiosa, and make their way to Stage 6.)

In other areas, society further deteriorates into worse kinds of anarchy. We see a dystopia of feuding tribes: Neo-slave? Neo-feudal? There is some innovation, yes, but more like improvisation on legacy technologies, of the Mad Max and Water World kind. The aim is for each fortress-state’s ruling class and its slave force to survive on depleted resources, prey on the other tribes, or kill them off. Looks like a dead-end world, unless you are into steampunk.

Meanwhile, in all these fragmented societies (except among the mummified elites), the 900th-generation home-grown geniuses continue to design and upload new blueprint stuff to various servers as available to them. They manufacture and innovate new but hardy products (sturdy and field-serviceable) with their 3D printers in grungy shops.

They scavenge among desert junk, like young Anakin and later Luke in Tatooine and Rey in Jakku, and barter and trade as needed. They acquire skills and share them without thought of self. Some of them live together in small religious communes, sharing everything (think Lor San Tekka, Shepherd Book, and the Qumran Essenes). Their dream is to reach Stage 6 (however they imagine it to be), or at least for their future folk to join Stage 6 societies.

6. The Star Trek stage. A.k.a. fully humane, stable, and sustainable communist era. Every product is customized for definite use. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

At this stage, you could prototype a Klingon mekleth or an Etruscan gladius—even a Neanderthal stone axe if you want—for your martial arts training exercise. War has been abolished as a tool of statecraft, but people still need to be prepared.

In a certain sense, it is back to Stage 1 and 2 (which Marx termed as primitive communalism). There are no longer social classes, only distinctions of status, job and rank. The big difference is that, unlike the primitive humanoid, the future humanoid will no longer be reaching into the carcass of a rotting antelope with his stone scraper for his next meal. Rather, he will be reaching out to the stars in his self-sustained colony, hurtling in deep space for a chance at immortality.

My only biff with this vision is this: Why are there no seat belts in the USS Enterprise? Apparently, the 1,000th-generation home-grown geniuses who designed the spacecraft would have to continue reminding themselves to remain grounded. Design and produce based on real and evolving needs. Implement some user-feedback mechanism, for Scotty’s sake! #

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