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Erik Hare: Are we too obsessed with new things?

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.

This post was written byErik Hare and originally published onBarataria. Follow Erik on Twitter:@wabbitoid.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Larry Copes on 12/04/2010 - 09:08 am.

    Is this your first Apple laptop, Erik? Earlier versions did have plugs that stayed put. So you tripped on the cord, pulled the whole thing to the floor, and destroyed it. So it wasn’t merely a design consideration that got Apple to switch to the magnetic system.

    It wasn’t clear to me what part of yours broke, but it’s probably cheaper to replace than the whole computer. Or maybe the Apple folks will replace it for free. I’ve known them to do such things.

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