NEW YORK – From the pocket calculator to the Prius, I’ve always been what they call an “early adopter.” I was a technology enthusiast, a lover of progress, eager to move into the future. No more. With the wisdom of age, I now concede the maxim of the occasional software engineer: Motion is not progress.
Any engineering process involves a series of compromises between opposing, even warring, forces: performance versus efficiency, quality versus convenience, functionality versus simplicity, cost versus everything. What decides the outcome? The marketing department. An interesting, if pointless, diversion is to imagine how our world would be different if creators had not surrendered to advertisers.
Marketers tell us that endless iterations of word-processing software or smartphone apps are taking us forward, by “adding new features” and “improving the user experience.” More often than not, each new update and upgrade represents little improvement over the last.
Instead, new versions merely devour more memory — a tendency that has spawned the term “bloatware” — as they attempt to fix problems introduced by their predecessors, all while creating new problems, to be addressed the next time around. The axiom “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has been abandoned in favor of “Release today, debug forever.”
The auto-upgrade mentality has also subverted what is certainly the foundational principle of engineering: “Form follows function,” tested over millennia, is now all but irrelevant.
Consider the modern public washroom, outfitted with automatic hand dryers, soap dispensers, toilets and faucets. The marketers claim that these apparatuses are more environmentally friendly than their predecessors. While preserving the environment is a fine goal, squirming on a self-flushing toilet as it is triggered once, twice or three times in a row fuels doubts about those efficiency claims. Likewise, sensor-operated faucets make it impossible to fill a water bottle — a more eco-friendly alternative to purchasing a new one. And the exclusive reliance on hand dryers complicates efforts to wash anything else, in particular, faces.
And it’s not just washrooms. It has been about two decades since whiteboards became de rigueur at universities. They were, we were told, supposed to address the danger that chalk dust posed to computers. That threat was hardly grave, and whiteboard markers are inferior to chalk in myriad ways. They are 10 times more expensive, run dry quickly, and cannot be refilled. When the room temperature drops below about 12 degrees C — not as rare an occurrence as one might think — whiteboards can be erased only with a special board-cleaning agent. Replacing lecture time with erasure time, whiteboards cannot even claim a victory in convenience, the traditional bottom-line criterion of American design.
Convenience should be a choice, not a commandment. Ballpoint pens are more convenient than fountain pens, and infinitely cheaper, but they do not write as well; word processors are faster than both but leave little space for precious contemplation. A Gillette cartridge may seem like the most convenient shaving option, but its double-edged predecessor shaves closer, lasts longer and ultimately costs less, given the huge mark-up on cartridges that last but a week.
No wiser than sacrificing all to convenience (real or marketed) is equating convenience with functionality. Devices designed for a single job virtually always do that job better than a multipurpose contraption. But the once-exalted principle of simplicity has been superseded by a new credo: the package deal.
Word processors are no longer just word processors; they are one-stop shops for creating all manner of content, from graphs to webpages. They are not the best at anything, except perhaps dysfunction.
The process of setting up a home theater system is enough to drive a person to madness. Receivers come with hundreds of pages of documentation, multiple remote controls and too many options. There are a dozen functions for each knob — functions that most users will ever need. A 9-year-old might master the labyrinthine process; a physicist might not. The counterargument is that the cost to the manufacturer is the same for a complicated device as for a simple one — the chip does not change — which only goes to show that customer care has ended.
The triumph of functionality over simplicity is most apparent in the mobile phone, a product that has transformed how we do just about everything — except talk on the phone. My mother’s century-old house contains several generations of telephones; the best audio quality is found in a 1960-vintage wall phone with a dial. By comparison, modern mobile phones offer abysmal audio quality. Add to that a tendency to heat up over the course of conversation, and it seems that the mobile phone’s main impact on voice communication has been to discourage it.
Turning, finally, to death, the AK-47 has been the world’s most popular weapon for some 50 years. New generations of rifles simply can’t beat its reliability, resilience and, yes, simplicity. This is not to say that it would be impossible to improve upon the weapon’s design, just as it isn’t to say that a wall phone built in 1960 is the best phone that could be built. But we will never do so if we allow ourselves to believe that newer, shinier and more complex necessarily means better. The truth is that it often means just the opposite.
Tony Rothman’s latest book is “The Course of Fortune, A Novel of the Great Siege of Malta.” He teaches physics at NYU. © Project Syndicate, 2017 www.project-syndicate.org