Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Long Model Number

Here’s something funny: on my new dishwasher, the model number is longer than the serial number.

The serial number is already longer than mathematically necessary, with four letters, then four digits, then four more characters that are a mix of letters and digits. That’s long enough to imply that the manufacturer is making hundreds of trillions of dishwashers, when the actual number is merely billions.

The model number, though, is eighteen characters — the model number is longer than the serial number. On the surface, that would seem to imply that the manufacturer is making more different models of dishwashers than the number of units it makes. I am sure that is not literally true, but the long model number serves as a reminder that the factory is changing designs at the drop of a hat. Years ago, manufacturers stopped making a separate owner’s manual for each model, and that makes it feasible to have arbitrarily short production runs, often just a few minutes, conceivably as small as a single unit. This would seem to suggest that the factory is never making the same thing long enough to get really good at it.

But there is more to it than this. The long model number is partly obfuscation. Manufacturers may assign thousands of different model numbers to functionally identical items just to make it more difficult for purchasers and competitors to keep track. This is a practical that became commonplace as a way to meet retailers’ low-price guarantees — good luck trying to find the same model number in a different store! — but now it has gone well beyond that and serves, for example, to make it difficult for consumers to compare reviews online.

It may be demassification, but it is not the kind of functional demassification Alvin Toffler was telling us about in 1979. The proliferation of model numbers is the demassification of tokens, a minor salvo in the current era’s information wars.