"Some Assembly Required"

Misadventures with do-it-yourself tasks!

By Richard Glover Published Apr 22, 2024 13:17:16 IST
illustration by Sam Island

Flat–pack furniture was once a small segment of the market. Those who were up for a challenge could visit IKEA and test their wits against the evil geniuses who wrote their instruction manuals. It all worked out, provided you were attentive to every tiny detail and had the patience of a saint. 

These days, though, nearly everything you buy has “some assembly required.” When you order a chair, a bed or a barbecue, you get a bag of tiny parts and an instruction leaflet that needs a magnifying glass to decode. If I bought a new car, I’m sure I would be given 1,043 pieces, a wrench and an oxy-acetylene welding set.

Recently my wife, Jocasta, ordered two outdoor lounge chairs so we could enjoy some time together in the sun. When they arrived, she suggested that I assemble them. The instruction pamphlet had a picture of a tiny, straight-shouldered man and a clock indicating that the job would take 45 minutes.

They could have entered the pamphlet in the Booker Prize for Fiction. A more accurate ideogram would have been a clock spinning to infinity and a bent-double fellow whose spirit was broken. I started work on the chairs at noon and finished, ironically, just as the sun was going down.

There were endless possibilities for error. Which was the chair’s left leg and which was the right? The tiny arrows indicated that you must get this correct or much misery would ensue. Yet there was no way of telling.

Worse, the mesh fabric on which you would hopefully lie had to be stretched across the frame under high tension. This was achieved with a series of bolts that had to be turned with an Allen key whose movement was restricted by the crossbeams of the frame.

And so I laboured, making a series of quarter turns, grunting with effort, the bolts moving with reluctance as the fabric slowly tightened. My only point of gratitude: the possibility that at least one chair might emerge; after this, I would definitely need to lie down.

Since when did companies palm off so much of their basic work on to their customers? It’s not only furniture. Airlines now require you to print your own boarding pass, affix your own luggage labels and heave your own bags onto the conveyor. They are three steps away from “Sir, could you please turn left upon boarding the plane? You’ve been chosen to fly the aircraft today.”

At restaurants, the ‘deconstructed’ meal is the big thing. Why make a cheesecake when you can serve up two strawberries, a dollop of cream cheese and a crumbled-up biscuit and call it ‘trend-setting'? Soon they’ll give you a cleaver and a pot, then point you to the chicken coop out back. “Enjoy!”

And at the supermarket these days, you’re encouraged to use the self-serve checkout. Oh, and if you could stack a few shelves before you go, it would be most appreciated. Social media companies represent the high point of this trend. Why employ anyone to create content when you can invite the customers to entertain each other? And if there’s disinformation, defamation or cruelty, you can say it has nothing to do with you—you just sell the ads that surround the field of battle. Back in the gathering dusk, I finally complete my task, with one screw left over. I gingerly lower my bulk onto one of the chairs. Miraculously, it holds.

As Jocasta settles into the other one I offer her a celebratory beer, which, amazingly, the brewery has actually made; all I have to do is pour it into a glass. I wonder if they know how outdated their business model is.

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