Extradurable Goods / "Technological Perennialism"

A 1980s Sun Miami cruiser, that used to be mine,
is a wonderful example of “perennial” technology:
still going strong after 30 years.
1998 Volvo S70
1998 Volvo S70 (Photo credit: merfam)
Playstation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
IPad Mini
IPad Mini (Photo credits: Best Buy)
English: The “Boro Eye”, photo 1 of 4. Taken at dusk on an Apple iPhone 3GS. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here, I’m talking about a particular perspective I have on the nature of technology – that of “technological perennialism”. I’m also discussing the source of that idea of mine – my own experience with technology.
I have a fascination with a certain perspective about technology that would be difficult to make a reality in the current technological climate. Have you ever, or do you currently, owned a piece of technology whose workmanship was of such a caliber, and whose purpose was of such relevance across time, that it has “lasted all these years”? I can think of a few examples that people might own – a refrigerator, an air conditioner unit, a car, a house. These items are not just durable goods, they’re “extra-durable goods”, because they’ve been able to be used, in fairly unmodified and unrepaired form, for very many years.

Compare that to the current throw-away ethic dominating the cellular phone market, one that is familiar to the hundreds upon thousands of people that are always looking for the cheapest and most efficient way to get their hands on the next best smartphone. Is it the fault of the consumers, for being unappreciative assholes and not respecting the time and dedication that goes into designing and manufacturing each smartphone, or is it the fault of the manufactures for not creating sufficiently durable and reliable end-user machines?

Here’s another possibility: are the manufactures simply hell-bent on being assholes themselves and getting people to buy subsequent revisions of their hardware by doing the revisions on a very regular basis? Sooner than later, today’s hot and handy smartphone becomes the model that was hot and handy six months ago, and in an economic climate where people are both counting their change and are fascinated by having the latest thing, it’s an injurious practice to be constantly feeding the materialistic flame.

While all the heretofore described possibilities are, well, possible, I think the consumers are most likely at fault. I, for example, own an iPhone 4 alongside a 1983 Sun Miami touring-style bicycle. Both are perfectly serviceable, but both are “last year’s model” (more like “very many years ago’s model). The car that I drive – my dad’s 1999 Volvo S70 – hums along nearly perfectly at over 200,000 miles, whilst my friend’s year model car had to be brought in for repair.

Here’s my proposal to the technology world at large – let go of that throw-away ethic. In fact, throw it away. Then, create its antithesis: the dogma of technological perennialism. Much like the Sequoyah tree is described as a perennial, so should as much currently existing technology as possible (unless it’s designed to be disposable or single use, of course). Going back to the iPhone; imagine if you could buy the iPhone 5 today, and have it last you 10 years. Surely you’d have to maintain the thing by defragmenting its flash storage every now and then, backing up the contents of the storage every now and then… but the thing would last you ten years (unless you’re malicious towards it). You could take pride in taking out your iPhone in public, or feel incredible anger and frustration when it’s stolen. It could literally last you until it becomes obsolete, not way before (Apple’s iPhone 3GS, released in 2009, is still supported, four years later).

But other concerns likely govern a company’s decision to feed the throw-away ethic, one of the largest likely being a company’s desire to “stay fresh”. Perhaps, if Apple had manufactured the 3GS and not released a new model until now, people would’ve lost interest in the company as a symbol of innovation and would’ve regarded it solely as a place to get your immutable and unchanging and eventually boring 3GS, repaired or replaced.

I guess it’s just a personal frustration to see perfectly good technology be dismissed as useless crap, especially when it’s confronted by a prettier-looking or better-performing newbie. That frustration, in turn, likely stems from my own challenges growing up.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been into technology, of all sorts. It likely began with my first video game console (SEGA Genesis) and continued with the computer, then dial-up Internet, then DSL, then the smartphone. For as long as I can remember, it’s always been hard to obtain new things, especially expensive technological goods. Each time I did, then, was a momentous milestone in my growing collection of technology. Each time I would get a new item, I would evaluate, in my head, what I would be able to do with it that I hadn’t been able to do previously; I would then regurgitate this, in vocal form, to whomever was next to me and had ears, “Now that I have this, I can …”, or “Now that I have this, I’ll be able to …” To think such thoughts of opportunity always put a smile in my face, akin to the expression of boyhood wonder that one may witness on the face of a young child playing with his toys. Regardless of what else I would have to do – homework, chores, family bonding time – I would do my absolute best to get it done quickly, or not do it at all, in order to get some alone time with my new technology. I never humped the things or kissed them or gave them pet names, but I developed connections with each item, that I happily reminisce upon, in one way or another, to this day.

I’ll never forget, for example, the day my dad bought me a PlayStation One. It was a rainy day; one of those Hollywood thunderstorms replete with ferocious wind gusts and torrential downpour that didn’t seem to let up. We drove to the Best Buy store by the Dadeland North Metrorail station, ascending the spiral slopes to the third floor parking lot and parking as close as possible to the entrance of the shop. My dad, attempting to counter my excitement with nonchalance, walked in with me whilst pretending to be more interested in the musical instruments department, erected at the complete opposite side of the store, well away from the video games section. Being a child of about nine or eleven years of age, I saw no recourse but to grab him by the shoulder and steer him clear of any foreign influences. I wanted us to make this transaction quick, so we could dodge the raindrops outside and get back home. As I drew closer and closer to the video games section … there it was, in a compact black box with screenshots of the system’s then-most popular games on the back. It was beautiful. After we bought the machine for a whopping fifty bucks plus tax, we hurried home and I plugged it in to the television set. This set was also top of the last year’s line – a sixteen inch tube cathode ray tube television atop a wooden bookshelf enclosing Cosmopolitan and US Weekly magazines that my mom would often leaf through. I unboxed the thing with unprecedented excitement, only to find that the television set didn’t have audio/video inputs.

Had I been older, I would’ve said “Fuck!” But my then-innocent mind simply dawdled over to my dad, who was sitting at the dinner table, snacking on yesterday’s leftovers, happy that he’d made a purchase that made me happy, and told him my dilemma. Also the technology fanatic, he quickly acknowledged the problem and proposed the solution – an RCA to RF converter was necessary. We drove to the nearest Radioshack, bought the damn thing, and came back. Finally, I was able to connect my new plaything! One of the first games I played was Driver: You Are The Wheelman, a racing game which has the player filling the shoes of undercover cop Tanner, as he infiltrates criminal gangs by pretending to be a hot-shot getaway driver. The game featured the recreation of four American cities as its playing environment, one of which was my very own Miami, Florida. I recall being taken aback by one of the graphical effects in the game, the sun shining down on the lustrous hood of the Mustang look-alike that Tanner drives throughout the game. It was so unfathomable to me, back then, that a game could look and feel so real … nowadays, it’s the norm.

I have other tales of my appreciation of technology – my most outward being the time I cried when my parents set aside what little money they could and bought me an iPhone 3GS, complete with Apple earphones and an Otterbox case – but I think the point’s been driven home, away and home again. It irks me when people dismiss technology they own as being crap when it’s compared to something newer. I’ve spent a lot of time, for example, figuring out how to retrofit older technologies to fit modern standards. The very computer I’m writing this on is a ten-year old Dell PowerEdge server, which, as per the nature of technological progress and as per the very dogma of the company who manufactured, should be considered “obsolete” by now. But how could I consider it obsolete, when it’s accomplishing the very task I need it to accomplish – typing this journal entry?

Granted, some things do need to be thrown away or recycled for building materials (a computer any older than this Dell, for example, might cringe at the thought of having to run a word processor) but in my experience, people do so sooner than later, and it’s wrong. Always, always, always be willing to give your old technology, or someone else’s old technology, a second chance.

It might just work out.

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