Stuff that lasts a lifetime: What today’s tech world could learn from its ancestors

Last weekend an advert by mobile operator, O2, caught my attention. It proclaimed that “2 years is too long” to wait for a new phone. Customers should be “more dog” and sign up for an unlimited supply of phone upgrades.

I guess one day an archeologist will dig up this advert and understand what caused our civilisation to end. A new breed of dog will have wasted rare earth elements like a flash in the pan, all in the name of a futile and doomed quest for endless gadgets.

Technology will always progress, of course. But why do even minor, incremental improvements have to make things obsolete that aren’t broken?

The design life of so-called ‘smart’ phones and other personal gadgets is typically 18 months. This is less than a good pair of socks. The tech world is literally expecting us to replace expensive electronics more often than our sets of underwear. Are they losing the plot?

In my mind, smart technology is stuff that doesn’t need replacing until it’s literally bitten the dust. It should be built to last, and able to cope with future upgrades and foreseeable use cases until it naturally reaches the end of its physical life. At which point its components should be entirely reused or recycled.

I recently took a look around the house to see what items have survived years or even decades of (ab)use, and lived to tell the tale. What might we learn from these?

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A small collection of stuff made to last.

Take my old Nikon camera. It’s the kind that takes a roll of film, lets you adjust speed and aperture with tactile knobs and dials, and delivers a satisfying “click-clonk” when you press the shutter. It’s the sound of built quality. After 10 years of taking digital snaps with conveniently lightweight but flimsy devices, I had forgotten how good the Nikon feels. But why should it now be obsolete? Digital or not, the physical principle behind photography is still the same. So why not develop a kind of digital film that fits exactly where the analog one used to go? The camera body and lens are so well-made, they’ll last forever.

Then there’s a few Swiss-made items: my self-winding wristwatch which never runs out of battery (because it hasn’t got one), a compass which will always point north (thankfully), and a pocket knife that’s been with me on every trip for the last 15 years. These devices all keep going and going because they’ve been single-mindedly designed for a specific use case, and never run out of power.

Interestingly, however, my longest-serving gadget is digital. The Hewlett-Packard 42S, a programmable calculator, has served me for over 21 years. It still does the job as well as when it first computed a least squares resection on a land survey field course in the Australian bush, all the way back in 1993. With its reassuringly solid keys and timeless design it proves that digital does not have to mean disposable.

I’m hoping my iMac, bought in 2008 and made of a bomb-proof aluminium construction, might go the same way. But I doubt it. Apple will want me to buy a new one soon and so, despite its solid build, this computer will one day choke on a reckless, one-size-fits-all OS upgrade. But what will I do with a perfectly working £1,000 machine whose only crime is not to have enough RAM? This could be fixed with a tiny piece of silicon if the design had catered for unlimited memory upgrades.

Instead we’re being offered unlimited greed, laziness and stupidity, solving problems we never knew we had, and leaving behind growing mountains of e-waste that are spiralling out of control.

Why do we inflict this upon ourselves, when quality stuff is much more fun to use, and a better investment long-term? And there is real joy in using well-crafted items: they have soul.

To achieve this with computing gadgets, hardware will have to be designed such that it is a more permanent container for disposable software, not the other way round. That kind of technology would truly deserve the ‘smart’ label. The alternative is, we won’t become more dog — we’ll simply go to the dogs.

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Postscript 15/04/14: Atanas’ calculator is still going strong after 35 years!

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6 thoughts on “Stuff that lasts a lifetime: What today’s tech world could learn from its ancestors

  1. indeed, look at analog records and players making a comeback… I no longer have my Rolleiflex, but I still have my Olympus C-740 that’s almost a decade old, has 10x zoom and 3.2mpel I never found lacking (I’m no Cristo, you see LOL). Did you know that I had roll-film developed @ Seattle Filmworks starting 15+ yrs ago? It’s now Shutterfly and I have all my pics from that old reflex, as well as my Niknon Finepix 100 (512×512, who knows what a PC-card slot is today? and 4 AA batteries took as much space as the rest!)

  2. I too still have my 42s but I can’t be bothered getting batteries for it. Instead I use the 42s app on my phone. However, if I had never used the real 42s I would never have known how to use the app or how useful it is so I put this down as the old helping the new. I still have the real 42s on a shelf though.

  3. How true. I still have my Aristo vernier scale planimeter for prospect area depth curve work, 26 years old and a thing of great beauty. German precision engineering! And the same goes for software: how I miss ArcView 3.2!

  4. Thanks all, glad to hear I’m not the only one who appreciates well-made things! On Linkedin Berik also suggested to check out the Nikon Df camera, bringing together the best of analog & digital. Although buying new stuff isn’t really the answer I was looking for, this could well be a camera to last a lifetime…

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