What makes a gift special?
On hand-made blankets, chaos-introducing computers, and whether the gifts of the future will come completely unique right off the assembly line
When it comes time to offer gifts for the holidays, one of the most powerful words is "hand-made". A blanket? Nice. A hand-made blanket? Somehow seems more thoughtful. The same goes for a sweater, a pair of mittens, or a piece of art.
■ What is it about "hand-made" that gives something additional value? It seems strange to assume that a hand-made gift somehow contains more love, especially since it is so easy to purchase those gifts on websites like Etsy. If the gift wasn't hand-made by the giver, then what difference should it really make whether it was crafted by a disinterested third party or by a machine?
■ Perhaps the implied extra value comes from the fact that something hand-made almost invariably contains slight imperfections or other irregular aspects that give the product character. After all, the main point of mass production is to lower prices through standardization and efficiency. Mass-produced goods are all alike -- by design. It is their consistency that makes them reliable purchases.
■ Suppose, though, that we could introduce randomized instances of "character" into mass-produced goods. After all, the computing power exists to account for adding certain irregularities into mass production, in such a way that each item to roll off the assembly line could contain something unique in its design or manufacture -- just by enough, perhaps, to make it look hand-made.
■ And therein lies the central question: If a consumer were to see two goods, side-by-side, one literally made by hand, and the other mass-produced by a process that introduced irregularities that made it unique in the same way as its hand-made equivalent, then would one still sell for more than the other?
■ Would the gift recipient, if they knew nothing about the actual provenance of the good other than that it appeared to be hand-made and was demonstrably unique in some way, draw any distinction between the hand-made gift and the like-hand-made lookalike? Does it actually make a gift more sentimentally valuable because anyone's hands were involved in the process, whether or not those hands were those of the giver?
■ People appear willing to pay for faux authenticity, in the form of ripped jeans and pre-distressed hats, so it might just be that the answer is right before our eyes already. But it is only now that we are reaching the stage when technology could plausibly offer ways to turn items like blankets that come off the assembly line a little too flawlessly and convert them into like-handmade alternatives, and do so without really introducing meaningful new costs to the process.
■ So, which is it: Do people favor the idea of the actual artisanal process, or are they invested more in the uniqueness of the goods they own? Perhaps in a holiday season or two, we'll discover someone has performed an experiment to gather the evidence. Surely it won't be longer than that before they will try.