On Razors & The Nature Of Technology

I am not facially hirsute, and so shaving has never been something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. My bathroom cupboard has housed the same Gillette Mach 3 razor for the last 15 years, and with the cartridges being extremely pricey, I’ve long lived with an uncomfortable, blunt shave. As I’ve aged, and have had to start shaving more regularly, I’ve started to question if there is not a better way to do this. Is it possible to get a cheaper, better shave?

Initially, Sweeny Todd in mind, I thought about switching to a cut throat (or straight) razor. Closer cut, lower cost…a lot more focus required. I sat on this idea for a while, before remembering an older friend who used a “safety razor”, which I never fully understood. A little reading confirmed that this kind of razor, known as a double-edged safety razor in full, might do the trick. Dating, so Gizmodo tells me, from the late 19th century, this invention is what made Gillette the leader in shaving. Like most products, it was, in fact, an improvement on a less economical solution invented by Jean-Jacques Perret. In time, Gillette would move on to pioneer the disposable cartridge razor that most men use today, although they do still manufacture and sell traditional double-edged blades.

Sitting on this information for quite some time, I perhaps would never have gotten around to changing an old habit. Fortunately, taking a hint from an off hand comment, my wife gifted me a safety razor shaving kit for Christmas. Although not cheap (in terms of cost and level of quality), the initial outlay for a nice set is, in retrospect, well worth it. Shaving in this style offers a slower, more thoutghtful experience, with a closer shave, at a far lower cost (per blade). If you are not careful, it is possible to rip yourself up, but with a little care and attention to detail (and a YouTube video for good measure), you can produce a great result. In terms of sustainability, something with less plastic that is easier to construct and smaller to ship seems like it should be a win.

But to be honest, I don’t really care too much about the shave per se (amazing though it might be): what really gets me is what this teaches us about the nature of technology, and our relationship to it. As a civilisation, we almost universally believe in the myth of progress: new technology must be better than old. And whilst the cost, for example, of computers, keeps plummeting, alongside gains in quality, this is not the case across all industries and products. In this case, I think we’ve been collectively had: it really does appear here that an older, simpler technology, available at lower cost, offers a better result. And I’m pretty sure, if we are willing to look hard enough at our fancy cars, disposable clothes and ready meals, we might find other areas in like in which the same is true. Perhaps, after all, those hipsters are onto something here…

Image credit: Vintage Gillette Ball End Tech Safety Razor image by Joe Haupt on Wikipedia Commons, under Creative Commons BY-SA

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