Modern life is broken -- why?

Here's an hilarious video in which Seth Godin enumerates the essential broken-ness of many contemporary things, and takes a stab at explaining why all this broken junk continues to exist.

This is broken


  1. hehe, i never considered the batteries before. of course you’d still need the little symbol to tell you which way they should all go.

  2. “So, the pharmacist knew it was for a dog, but it’s not her job to decide not to put the sticker on it.”

    The sticker has the dosage instructions on it, printed onto a label which already carries the warnings. It’s still not much use to the dog, but the owner might want to know how often to give it the pills, and it’d be crazy for the pharmacist to have to choose from an array of different labels bearing different warning information whenever they needed to print instructions.

    I love his basic premise, and he makes some great points, but I think some of the weaker examples dilute it.

  3. In all honesty, I don’t feel like he thought about most of these examples for more than the time it took to make the sign. I’m not very impressed with this guy.

  4. Actually, he was referring to the little sticker that is added to the label that has the various warnings or instructions that are generic. So yes, the pharmacist could have simply not put the extra sticker on.

  5. This seems to break down roughly into thirds:

    1/3 things that are broken
    1/3 things that are funny
    1/3 things that Seth doesn’t understand the wider context that makes the situation not broken

    It’s fun and all. But not that eye-opening of an experience.

  6. Swedish sign at 16:27

    Big round sign: Traffic by vehicular not allowed…
    Small square sign:
    … during workday between 11:00 to 6:00
    … during Saturday or other day before red letter day between 11:00 to 6:00
    … during Sunday or other red letter day between 11:00 to 6:00

    All times in 24-hour format.

    This sign is not broken because everybody who needs to know what the sign means will be able to read it. The design makes it space efficient, simple and cheap to produce or alter and easy to read at a glance. The only thing that is slightly “broken” is that you are supposed to know what days are red letter days (days like Christmas Day, New Years Day et.c.), but if you are a foreigner in Sweden you can always look in a Swedish calender (red letter days are … red).

    Stupid analogy

    It’s like when Americans complain about European tube containers. The Americans have tubes that are impossible to open by anyone with the slightest dysfunction in their hands and are complicated and expensive to produce. The Europeans (most countries) have tubes that can be open by anyone with 2×2 digits (or toes if you don’t have hands, or with just one hand/feet with the help of a simple tool) and are cheap and efficient to produce. Yet Americans always complain about European tubes, simply because they are to dumb to figure out what to do with them and to dumb to ask anybody for advice. Yes, it’s something you may have to learn from somebody else (usually at age 2, but kids that age usually figure out how by themself), but once you learned the skill (at most 20 seconds, even if you are really, really stupid) they are a lot simpler to use then the “simple” solution. The only good reason to use American style tubes is to prevent kids below the age of two from being able to open them; but most people above the age when the fingers start to get crooked or weak, need help from their five-year-old grandchildren to open American-style tubes.

  7. I think Tommy @5 pretty much got it right. With the addition of several of the broken things Seth mentioned could indeed be fixed with the addition of tons of money. Which gets us into another entire genre of brokenness.

  8. Having just watched the video of Seth Godin’s “This is Broken” presentation, I want to make brief factual correction. He points out the lack of bicycle parking places and says that there isn’t any one whose job it is to make sure there are more of them. I’m certainly not going to argue the first point, but there are several decent sized American cities that have a Bicycle Coordinator or some such on their staffs. My Father was one such person in two cities and I personally know the people who did it in Philadelphia and Seattle (although they may not be there anymore; it’s been a while since I talked to any of them). So it’s not that there isn’t anyone trying to address bicycle related issues, it’s more that there are *more* people who don’t care or are fighting those changes. And if you ever want to hear a long diatribe about how things are broken, just ask any of those hapless Coordinators about their jobs…


  9. Tommy: I agree.

    I used to work retail, and there were tons of people who wanted to pay for a single purchase using multiple methods of payment. (i.e. put $40 on a card, $14 on cash or similar.) That’s not “broken” that’s “flexibility.”

    I do agree with him about cab lines, those are retarded.

  10. Although many of his examples seem to be just for laughs, I think his ‘Not My Job’ point is one of the main causes for ‘brokenness’ in organizations.

    I’d figured it out myself already, as have many others, no doubt, and regularly remind myself that if someone tells you they won’t fix the problem because that’s not their job, that is not the end of the line. Make it their job! Make it your job! Just do something to rearrange responsibilities when you recognize a problem, so that there is someone who can actually go in and do something about it.

    I’ve done it a couple of times and made some people dislike me for it, but I’ve also actually fixed problems and improved things.

  11. Ironically, the site redirects to The last post is from 2007, and seems to be abandoned. No followups, or explanations.

    I was interested enough to type it in, and they leave me hanging – missing a chance to build on my visit.

    Broken, and not a good experience.

    Of course, my site is sitting fallow as well, but I’m not giving presentations about it.

  12. Many thing are broken in the name of profit. His first example of the debt cards is a perfect example of this. Human error is another reason and usually these are not fixed because there is no money to do so or no profit to be made in doing so.

    But lots of his examples are not broken. Some of the signs for example. If your looking for that 3 letter acronym then the sign works great, if your not trying to get to that 3 letter acronym then you don’t need to know what the sign means. Another example was some no parking sign or something from another country where I’m sure the general public knows what the symbol means, just because we don’t doesn’t mean its broken.

    But in the end most broken things in the US are due to the legal system. Most of what business dose is to protect their legal ass. Loosing 50 customers vs a $5,000,000 lawsuit.

  13. I can’t help but be annoyed by those people in the audience laughing. As if none off the topics concern them.

    HAHAHA aren’t people stupid and we’re so clever!

  14. #4 samu –
    The orange sticker that gives the warnings is separate from the dosage/patient info sticker. Conceivably the pharmacist could leave it off with no ill effects on the dog, but I’m guessing there is some reg somewhere that dictates it must be on.

    I’d also venture it’s good to have it on in case a kid eats some of Rex’s ‘Candy’.

    /have a cat that’s on people meds
    //he rarely operates heavy machinery
    ///fark slashies on BB crosses the streams

  15. Context is important for a lot of these. That BQE EB sign looks silly unless you are already on or looking for the Eastbound BQE. If you are, you already know what the sign means. If you are not, it doesn’t matter what the sign means.

    Graphs are an efficient way to communicate and illustrate sometimes extremely vast amounts of sometimes very complicated information. They’re not just a dumb-it-down-for-me conference tool. If all the information in that graph he doesn’t like were presented as equations and raw data, it could be pages and pages long, but of course since the graph cannot be easily and quickly understood out of context by a layman, it must be broken.

    His idea seems to be that if he, Seth Godin, cannot suss out something’s meaning and purpose within ten seconds of seeing a picture of it on his computer, then it must be “broken.” The problem is always with the person who did/made/designed a thing – taking a moment to understand it is not Seth Godin’s job.

  16. Half of his sign examples are photoshops. But that’s to be expected when you collect submissions from the internet.

  17. If I had had the chance, I would have bought the BloodStop product for my father. He was on several medications, the net result of which (among others) was to thin his blood so that even a tiny scratch would leave him bleeding all over. That product would have been very helpful.

  18. To Tufte, a graph is a way to present an huge amount of data in a small space with context and precision. To Godin, a graph is something you show to people who don’t really care what you’re saying anyway. Says something about the type of audience each man is used to, I think.

  19. Reminds me of when we used to make the Intertubes hard to use, so only smart people could be on it.

    “You must be this clueful…”

  20. Rats, that was a waste of time. I was expecting something with a little more analysis, or argument, or even thoughtfulness.

    The debit cards from his phone company could be a good example if the phone company got to keep any money that wasn’t spent due to the difficulty of spending it… and it might make for an interesting class-action lawsuit if that’s the case…

    There’s certainly a lot to say about his last category of intentionally broken things — planned obsolescence, corporate bloatware, etc, etc…

    Or perhaps the less we understand about how the things we buy actually work, the more likely we are to pay for shoddy things, “broken” things, or outright scams…

    There’s lots of directions he could have taken this idea. I guess I was expecting more than out-of-context one-liner internet memes and a guy with the intellectual rigor of Andy Rooney basically saying “Bah! I don’t like certain things!”

  21. Thought he had something to say, just a narrated tour of amusing images. I can use StumbleUpon for those, thanks.

  22. Unfortunately, escheatment laws mean that the phone company doesn’t see a dime if you don’t use those debit cards–and the same thing goes for unused gift cards, as well. Who gets it? Your state government, via a hidden “tax” whereby they lay claim to unused gift card amounts on your behalf to stop the issuing company from “cheating” you.

    As for why the phone company issued them instead of another method? Probably has something to do with the phone company already having those ready and available for use in promotions, thus saving them lots of money on making an all-new one that probably makes the difference between a profit and a loss on that particular free giveaway.

    Basically, some of his examples were funny, but for the most part, he’s a complete idiot and expects everything to cater to complete idiots.

  23. is it just me or is the guy with the presentation on broken shit of modern times drinking bottled water during his presentation?

  24. This is my first exposure to Godin but he is far from an idiot. What he does is ask very basic questions about situations and communications and tries to see them from the perspective of the user not the maker. Most of the examples he uses are based on makers acting on assumptions that they don’t question. Well, users do question them because they have to…or they have to put up with the brokeness or incongruity. Be honest with yourselves, we put up with a lot of this incongruity in our daily lives. It’s worth pointing it out so that we can do things better or at least be aware of what’s going on around us.

  25. Sorry, but the battery example is bogus. Battery compartment design is a *lot* simpler (less/no wires) if the batteries alternate; this way, you can create a complete circuit of batteries in series with a few connecting bars that link the -/+ ends of the different batteries together. Open up a battery-powered device sometime and take a look!

  26. #30 – But sometimes the user isn’t who Godin thinks he is. Sometimes the message is meant for the select – the Tufte graph is far more useful to military historians as it is than it would be as 4 separate “graphs for dummies”. Sometimes the message is for different audiences – what if Fido’s owner decided to self medicate? Sometimes the message is designed to be obscure on purpose – maybe a road sign saying “If you are not on the CalTrans construction crew for the project of widening the 101 freeway please ignore the following message. Otherwise, place road building materials here.” would sate his curiosity, but it would suck for its intended purpose.

  27. I made the stupid analogy about the difference about European and American (US) tube packages. I just saw a guy without arms open one of those (European) with the help of his mouth and a table top.

    My description could have been better. If you buy a toothpaste tube, the first time you use it you have to remove a seal. American tubes usually have a bit of paper or plastic that you have to pull. In Europan tubes you punch a hole. The top of the tube is usually designed to guide you and you pretty much don’t need any motor skills at all. There is usually a punch in the cap of the tube. If it is a screw cap it’s on the outside of the cap, if it’s a flip cap it’s usually on the inside of the cap and the cap is somewhat flexible so that if you press it, it will punch a hole. The American tubes are more instinctive to use (peeling is something we have done since before we became human, punching is something we started to do as we become human) and even an idiot without experience can figure out how to open them, but they are really hard to use for most people (even healthy normal elderly need both reading glasses and a plier). European tubes isn’t as intuitive to understand the first time, even though kids don’t seem to have any problem, but they are incredibly easy to use. Unfortunately, US is a big market and the ratio of easy to use tubes are decreasing even in markets where they used to dominate.

  28. Broken on purpose is certainly the fad in advertising and news lately. The only goal is to get you to want to watch again, and if your saying “WTF?!” is the reason why, so be it.

  29. First, I’d like to note that Godin’s site is broken the same way most blogs are: the titles are unidentified links. [Yada yada, you “don’t know how to use the Interwebs, old man”] when I click on plain text to set the focus to that pane so I can scroll with the spacebar, I’ll often find a “secret link” that has no identifying characteristic. Broken.

    But more important, I got to thinking about his categorizations of the various kinds of ways things are broken:
    – Not my job
    – Selfish jerks
    – The world changed
    – I didn’t know
    – I’m not a fish [i.e. “what I made fails to work for those I didn’t make it for”]
    – Contradictions
    – Broken on purpose

    In theory, the way something would be “not broken” would be if none of those categories were true (i.e. “not (or+or+or…)” = “and not and not and not…”)

    The trouble is the inverse list is a mishmash of idealism and absurdism: Consider, “nothing would be broken if (1) makers take responsibility for their actions, (2) makers are selfless to the cause of users, (3) the world never changes, (4) makers are knowledgeable about everything, (5) makers consider all possible users, (6) makers ensure their product is self-consistent and consistent with any environment, and (7) makers work exclusive for the benefit of the users.”

    Pick and choose as you like, but I think the lecture would have made a lot more sense if Godin categorized “things that should never have been broken”, “things that might be fixable”, and “crap we’ll just have to live with”.

    But then again, reading some of his blog, that’s not what Seth Godin’s all about. He seems to be a “shoot first” kind of guy; a prolific producer of brief statements and observations — sort of a fortune cookie blogger. And there are people out there who go back and find that what they are working on was mentioned by Godin some years ago, leading them to believe he has an uncanny prophetic ability.

  30. Weak! Just imagine the amounts of raw material needed for the extra wire in every battery compartment produced. I agree with every other criticism mentioned above.

    Though I have to say I have been using that internet terminal at Montreal airport last year and it really sucks ass.

  31. I got about half way through and I started thinking, “whine, whine, whine some more please”.

    I dunno, I guess because I am an IT support person I get about 20, “Why is this computer so stupid? A monkey could invent something better!” comments from people. Any attempt to play devils advocate usually will illicit a blank stare or eye roll. So, all one can do it usually suck it and do the customer service dance, “I am SOOOO sorry your computer is not working to your satisfaction, blah blah blah; have a nice day.” Then, I go home and drink my pain away.

  32. Several of the ‘Not My Job’ are things that may or may not be a good decision, but the people making them had a very good reason for the decision.

    Gate: Not a big problem, and safer would sacrifice functionality, reliability, or mucho money. The real reason for the sign is liabilty, not danger.

    Dog’s Drugs: Liability.

    Batteries: Good engineers try to Keep It Simple. Alternate cross wiring would be a bit more expensive, a bit less reliable, a bit more fragile, and generate a bit more heat.

    About the American/European tubes, I think it’s an issue of sealing the entire inside of the tube (including inside the cap) from contamination (including intentional) on anything store bought that is for human internal use. The Euro version is still used on prescription drugs and things like glue/paint… One additional advantage of the American version is that it puts the hands away from the spout more on opening. Glue can sometimes build up pressure (if, for say) the tube is a bit compressed or dented.

  33. Batteries:
    Labeling on the batteries is good: easy to tell their direction.
    Ditto for the battery compartment: fewer solder connections, more reliable. He’d probably complain that you can insert them upside down… (Probably a Mac user..?)

    Sign with sharp edges:
    Photoshop contest.
    (In case you can’t read it: the fine print at the bottom says: “Also, bridge is out ahead”.)

    Odd signage:
    Some are most likely for military or police forces, and not for public consumption.

    Blood Stop:
    In an emergency, you DON’T want something with a label like “Plasmagene” or (forgive me) “Clotilda”. (Is the former a TV Screen cleaner? The latter, a brand name for Devonshire Cream?)
    You want something clear and utilitarian.

    The man has no imagination.

  34. Anyone interested in these concepts might enjoy this book, The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman.

  35. Modern life is broken because it fails to conform to Seth Godin’s standards. The title suggests that life was less broken in the Dark Ages, but I am not so sure that Mr. Godin would have been happier then. He would have had to appeal to God rather than to human ingenuity (or its absence) back then, but I imagine he could have had the same routine, minus the projector, etc. “So, what’s up with fleas? I hear they carry the plague (or rather I don’t because noone has any idea what causes plague- hey that’s broken!)… What was God thinking? Medieval life is broken!”

    A friend of mine once came over to my house when I was listening to a Charlie Parker record. After hearing a few songs he asked me “How can you listen to that shit? Every song sounds exactly the same.” So, Charlie Parker is broken. A few days later he came over when I had a Joe Henderson album on. “Listening to that shit again, are you? How can you do that, it all sounds the same,” he said.

    Apparently jazz is broken, along with rare steak, hoppy beer, and a few sexual practices I won’t go into detail about, here. OTOH- Nouveau Beaujolais is truly broken and you would have to be an idiot or a Frenchman to disagree (the French know it’s undrinkable, actually, but they drink it anyway, because they are French, and also because they like to make fun of tourists.)

    What Godin fails to point out is that borkedness is inevitable whenever everyone has to use the same stuff- one man’s borked is another man’s perfect. Of course some facilities are really better held in common, and used in common, and that imposes some hard limits on how much they can be deborked.

    But as a general rule there will be less perceived borkedness in the world if my buddy is allowed to drive around in his CRX listening to Dire Straits first album eating overcooked meat and running over vegans, and I am left to sit in my La-Z-Boy recliner eating beautifully sauced offal and listening to Clifford Brown with fava beans and a nice chianti.

    Vive la difference. Vive la market. Vive la sheep’s brains.

  36. How utterly boring and superficial – a truly broken presentation. And quite arrogant. “If I think it’s broken, its broken.” No, it isn’t. This is a horrible kind of thinking. It’s exactly the kind of thinking that leads to intelligent design – and I don’t mean the kind he’s trying to talk about.

    It appears as if he skimmed through Norman, Tufte and some others and then started his spiel. Not getting the point of the map Tufte quoted just illustrates his failing – he repeatedly doesn’t get the point of some of the examples he criticizes. Like the battery. Not only that he apparently didn’t get that there are good reason to keep it as it is, he misses that his solution wouldn’t be a solution – because it’s still possible to put them in in the wrong way. That’s the real problem, not having to alternate them when they are side-by-side.

    The Swedish sign: Lame. I wonder when he’ll start complaining that foreigners have the name of speaking something other than English.

    What really irks me, though, is that he’s just whining – and doesn’t seem to offer any solution. *Fixing* something is obviously not his job.

    On a side note: Where’s the part about the tubes. I can’t find them.

    And may I add that anglo-style light switches are inherently broken? Much too small. :)

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