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Re-Invent the Wheel

Any day that starts with a nearly mandatory trip to the Apple store is not a good day. That’s my gripe for the morning as I find I have to buy another battery charger to replace the one that oh-so-easily snapped off. It’s not really a big deal except that this plug slips out so easily it probably has a lot to do with why Apple batteries don’t last very long. And here I have to buy another badly designed little thing.

“It’s Apple,” you might say, “They do stuff like that.” Well, it’s not just Apple – it’s nearly everything that wants to the latest kewl thing. The level of complexity in our world means that a lot of bits and pieces need to be put together to make things work, but they aren’t always using the best things around them. The wheel is constantly being re-invented. That’s a shame.

Our species of standing-up chimp has not evolved in the last few thousand years. There is no difference biologically between those of us walking around now and the earliest humans. We have roughly the same intellectual capacity as the Ancients. What makes us different is everything that has been written down since – and nothing more.

Understanding how the accumulated knowledge of the ages fits together is at the heart of Connections Theory – and how technology itself has advanced. James Burke first laid out this theory over 30 years ago with the dire warning that since the presence of new things causes a number of other new things to be invented the pace of technology will constantly increase. That’s the “Trigger Effect”.

This does get me back to the little plug that provides the power that makes an Apple Powerbook possible at all. The desire to deliberately not use a plug that stays in for reasons of fashion or design or whatever moved Apple to use what should have obviously seemed like a bad design limits the usefulness of the machine itself. A complex device has thousands of potential places to fail – if all of them are just a bit sub-par the device may not be reliable enough to be considered useful.

We see this in many applications today. A rush to market has doomed many Microsoft products. Facebook constantly changes settings without proper testing or even bothering to ask customers what they want – all in the name of being on the cutting edge. Newness, as a value, has the seeds of its own doom built into it when taken to a ridiculous extreme.

There may actually be a point where the “Trigger Effect” reaches its limits and technological advances slow down. It takes a lot of time to re-invent the wheel, after all.

The wisdom of the ancients may not seem to have much to say about this problem, but it does when we look at the other kinds of systems we depend on every day. Simple things like running a government or organizing people to collectively solve problems are necessarily based on a lot of tradition that forms a deep gut-level understanding. Re-invent the wheel here and a lot of people will find themselves on the outside not able to be a part of their own world. That’s happened to many planning processes and other public exercises that should never have had these kinds of problems.

New ways of looking at the world are going to spring up daily. New technologies and gadgets will be a part of our lives. But when newness itself tells us that we have to chuck all the classical learning and spend time re-inventing the wheel we are throwing away the only possible claim we have to being any better than the very people we are declaring obsolete. That’s the irony at the heart of a world which is completely in love with newness itself.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to the Apple Store.

12 thoughts on “Re-Invent the Wheel

  1. That explains why I am NOT a techno-geek. The trigger’s been pulled too many times already…now let get back to my Mac Performa and the interwebs.

  2. I get the feeling that nothing works the way it is supposed to anymore. It may be a rush to get to the market but so many things feel cheap and disposable. Software never works the way it is supposed to all the time. I agree that newness is way over-rated.

  3. Its interesting that you use the word pace to mean acceleration. At one time pace often meant a speed below acceleration. Its like we are more like Steve Prefontaines knowing nothing but push. On the other hand we probably have a bit more freedom. Could you imagine the work it took to raise a large family esp. before the advent of reliable appliances. I remember seeing some farm aunts and uncles pushed to the brink of exhaustion.

  4. Dan, that is just brilliant! I think you got to the core problem right away. It’s as if we channel the same energy we used to put into just getting by into more and more push.

    There’s a great Twilight Zone episode, “Willoughby” that I thought of as I read your comment. Know it?

  5. Wel l you probably know some of my ideas are stolen/ borrowed but some are original. This one was. “Another thing” says the redneck from the far end of the bar “I kinda hate this idea of e democracy. Whether it is expressed in new and cheaper gadgets (due to Moore’s [?] law) or the web. I’ve seen it cause a lot of my musician friends have to accept a lower standard of living. Gawd my preppy son read both the book and the movie about facebook and now he’s reading “U R not a gadget, a manifesto”

  6. Wow, I’ll have to bookmark this article and refer to it when I get my studio classes going that deal specifically with what you are talking about. By the way, never buy a straight angle connector that goes into a flimsy digital device, demand a 90 degree angle connector instead. Demand it, or find an 90 degree adapter, that is the key to taking the stress off components that have not been properly reinforced.

  7. I have an ethical issue with contacting you via linked in. If I am remembering correctly, Linked in won’t allow me to contact you unless I have upgraded to a paid account.

    To contact you with just a basic membership, I would be required to LIE and say I already know you, which I won’t do.

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