The Rolls Royce of Shonky Metaphors

A discussion sometimes goes like this:

Well, that would be the Rolls Royce version, but it’s not clear we can afford that, so we may have to go for something more modest.

It doesn’t matter so much what the thing is. It could be a washing machine, a content management system, a bicycle, or even, for the love of Kurt, a motor car.

At the opposite end of the spectrum to the Rolls Royce version we have let’s say, the bargain basement model. Our resources are limited. If they weren’t we’d go straight to Rolls Royce.

So that’s the Rolls Royce metaphor at work. I’m here to complain about it.

I’m complaining because it turns out that I don’t want my decision making to be informed by the Rolls Royce – bargain basement spectrum. Why not? Well, mostly because I don’t want to wind up with a Rolls Royce.

The Rolls Royce will be too big. It will use too much fuel. It will maximise values that I don’t care about, such as production methods that contribute to a narrative about status and not about the things that really matter to me.

Sometimes hand crafting and hand polishing parts makes them better, makes them easier or more attractive to use. But sometimes, and this is at the heart of my doubts about the Rolls Royce metaphor, they are simply a demonstration of power. Buy this product and, like an Egyptian Pharaoh, you too can show how much labour you can bend to your will.

I’m no apologist for the bargain basement either, even though sometimes it is all that can be afforded. The bargain basement is a dark territory where, by maximising the value of minimum expense, we place in jeopardy the values of joy of use, utility, and reliability.

The scratchy biro and the commodity keyboard that comes as standard with most PCs are classic examples in the bargain basement category.

The defenders of cheap biros and commodity keyboards insist that they get the job done and that fusspots such as me have had their heads turned by mere aesthetic frills.

My response to those who think I’m a fusspot is that while they may be right over a short time frame, when you factor in repeated use of an artefact, their vision often turns out to be short sighted. Let me work through two cases.

A pen is a tool I use a lot and I don’t want to have to put up with low level and quite easily avoidable annoyance. With something you use a lot, you’re not just disappointed once, you’re disappointed again and again. It may be a small and quiet disappointment, but the effect is cumulative.

The keyboard is another tool with which I spend many hours. For typing in one sentence, the gain to be had from a more refined artefact is negligible. But if the keyboard I use is even just marginally more pleasant to use, then this small and (ideally) quiet benefit is one that will add up over time.

But for all my eschewal of the bargain basement, I still don’t want a Rolls Royce pen. That would be some truly dreadful and terribly expensive artefact, probably a fountain pen, that I’d be paranoid about losing. I certainly don’t want some shocking product like that in the mix when I’m trying to work out where I want to land on the continuum between ‘best for me if cost were not an issue’ and ‘cheapest option that could be considered to meet the need at hand’.

Most of the time using ‘Rolls Royce’ as proxy for ‘the best we can get’ is unlikely to have too toxic an effect on good decision making. But all the same, I’m having a go at seeking out the ‘VW Golf’ versions to sit opposite bargain basement on my cost-quality continuum. No doubt, the ‘VW Golf’ will also bring some unwanted baggage. But it’s more closely synonymous with the things I actually care about. Of course, if you care about different things, then you’ll care to choose a different metaphor.


It has been brought to my attention that not everyone is familiar with the term ‘shonky’. If  you’re not, then thinking shoddy and wonky, will get you close enough. I commend the term to you. Shonky is the VW Golf of wryly critical metaphors.