Continuing yesterday’s thoughts – the iPhone is another great example of the trend of technology towards being beautiful, convenient black boxes that work wonderfully until they don’t. It is quite literally a black box capable of wondrous things. However, it’s extremely difficult for most people to get it to do anything it wasn’t designed to do and when it breaks, it turns from a gadget to the aptly termed ‘brick.’
Contrast that to an old piece of machinery. Rather than having a discrete failure mode (going from working fine to a brick, with little in between) something like an old lawnmower slowly loses functionality both giving you some warning of upcoming failure and usually offering a way to patch it or hack together a solution so it is still usable, even if not at full capacity.
It really is an interesting tradeoff – I’m still working out where I fall on the issue. On the one hand, the complexity and heavy dependence on tiny electronics of black-box style modern technology makes it able to do many things faster, better and cheaper. However, this builds dependency on something that can capriciously just stop working with no warning and no way to run at partial capacity.
On the other hand, simpler technologies give you much more reliability in the face of failure – it’s easier to see coming and more feasible to fix. This comes at the price of limited features, weight, inefficiency and other pains that make it inferior under normal operating conditions.
In my mind, this has to do with a lot of bigger picture questions about specialization [As technology becomes able to do more things (less specialization) the human skills needed to get it to do those things increases (more specialization)] and modernity [we’re getting better and better at predicting and dealing with every-day situations, but at the price of increased vulnerability to outliers. Hat tip to Nassim Taleb.]