The Myth About Reliability

Monday, 2009-04-27; 02:48:55

Khoi Vinh, over at Subtraction, wrote an article two years ago entitled “Designed Deterioration”, in which he writes about his cast iron skillet:

[I]t’s also a beautiful piece of design. After cooking in it and cleaning it up, I’ve spent a lot of time just looking it over, marveling at how its very deterioration has been incorporated into the design of the object, at how it’s gotten more attractive — less ignorant — the more I use it. I’m not particularly sentimental about much in my kitchen, but I would be heartbroken if you took away this iron skillet

He contrasts this with the wear and tear that his PowerBook had received:

Looking at the digital technology I own, what moderate deterioration to be found — dents in my laptop, a gash in the side of a laser printer I own, the accumulated grime on my computer keyboard — doesn’t make these items more desirable at all. In fact, when I see the way the corner on my aluminum PowerBook has been warped due to a nasty fall from a chair, I cringe. Through this obvious, glaring example of use, of accumulated knowledge, the object itself hasn’t attained an additional whit of beauty.

I first read this article over a year ago, and it’s always been in the back of my mind. Every few months a new editorial or a new video rant about how digital technology (especially products from Apple) is too much about form over function, about how it deteriorates way too quickly, and how computer manufacturers should concentrate more on making their products last longer. (Remember that whole hooplah about the iPod’s battery lasting only 18 months?) I also frequently see complaints from people when they have to bring their computer in for repair, and then have to wade through the inevitable complaints about how digital technology is trash.

My gut instinct is always to roll my eyes at these kinds of articles. And while Vinh’s article is probably one of the more eloquent ones to make this point, his article still elicits the same reaction from me.

Flawed Comparisons

My first thought about Vinh’s article is this: is he seriously comparing a suitcase or a skillet to a computer? Did he really just do that and expect us to take his article seriously?

For the most part, Vinh is comparing the outsides of computers, suitcases, and skillets. But consider the contents of each: a suitcase is designed to keep one’s belongings protected and all in one place. The typical contents of a suitcase are clothes. Clothes can be bumped and tossed around and won’t be the worse for wear. Clothes don’t have electrical components. Clothes don’t have connections. Occasionally you may be transporting fragile objects (like glass or maybe ceramics), but aside from their fragility (which can be mitigated with your clothes), they don’t have nearly as many potential problems with their innards as do computers.

In contrast, a computer’s contents are highly sensitive. If you get a single scratch or a single speck of dust on the platters of a hard drive, you lose data. If you spill liquid on the electronic components of a laptop, they typically short out and require replacement. If a connection inside your computer comes loose — one that isn’t user-serviceable like RAM or your hard drive — it’ll require opening up and removing so many parts inside the laptop which requires skill that most users don’t have.

And therein lies the answer to Vinh’s question about why we take pride in pristine looks of our computers but not in the pristine looks of our suitcases. It’s because of the contents of each. A computer’s contents are fragile, so we try to minimize nicks and cracks on the outside, the result of which could have caused problems on the inside. The higher the sustained damage of a computer on the outside, the more likely it is that damage has occurred on the inside. A suitcase doesn’t inherently have any fragile contents, so we’re not as concerned about the outside sustaining damage.

The suggestion that computer manufacturers have not designed for deterioration is actually pretty ludicrous, especially because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people like the looks of scratched iPods.

Putting psychology aside, though, I question even the premise that suitcase or skillet manufacturers have designed for deterioration. My dad is one of the best cooks that I know, and he prides himself on having absolutely pristine pots and pans. Metal utensils are strictly forbidden when using his skillets; only wooden spoons and spatulas are allowed. (He breaks this rule occasionally, but he’s still very careful when using metal utensils.) It’s practically a sin to burn something on his pans, because it takes painstaking work (and is sometimes impossible) to get the burned material off.

It’s funny, because even Vinh himself cringes at the thought of having “seasoning” in his pan, the result of hundreds if not thousands of uses of the skillet. But then he goes back to thinking that his skillet is indispensable.

The reason Vinh actually doesn’t want his skillet taken away is because he’s found a skillet that works well for him. There are numerous little aspects of a skillet that make it enjoyable to use: the shape of the handle, whether the handle gets hot when you cook with it, whether the skillet is light enough to easily flip things with, the weight balance, the material used to create the skillet, etc. If I brought him a skillet that worked better in every way to his old skillet, I bet he wouldn’t hesitate to start using the new one.

A Better Analogy

I can also think of a number of other products that are decidedly non-electronic that don’t get better with increasing wear and tear. Bikes, for example, look worse when they’re dirty and dinged. Many buildings look like eyesores when they get dirt and smog and cracks on them. Even suitcases and skillets, to a degree, look pretty bad when they’re banged up.

Overall, I think that suitcases and skillets are pretty poor objects to which to compare computers.

Here’s a better analogy: cars.

Cars are designed to look pristine on the outside. When people get new cars, they try to delay that moment when they get their first ding. (My dad, for example, recently got a new car. Now he insists on parking in far-away spots that are at the end of a row, which only have one adjacent spot instead of two. If that requires parking in the next lot over, he’ll do it.) When people see an old classic car, they fantasize about buying it and fixing it up, and that includes getting a new paint job and banging out the dents and dings.

Not only that, but automobiles have reasonably complicated innards. They contain engines and moving parts and potentially flammable liquids, in addition to some electronics similar to what computers contain. More importantly, they always contain humans.

Is it any surprise that people are afraid to ding and bang up the outsides of their cars, when they contain ourselves?

Planned Obsolesence

Vinh’s ulterior motive for penning this article, I suspect, is motivated by a more pernicious myth:

Of course, the blame for the absence of designed deterioration from these products can be laid squarely at the feet of a more widely accepted design concept: planned obsolescence. I will probably never buy another skillet to replace the one I own for as long as I live, even though a new one is extremely affordable.


Planned obsolescence is a myth, pure and simple.

The analogy of a skillet, here, is even more preposterous than the skillet’s use when talking about “designed deterioration”. A skillet doesn’t contain millions of electronic components, which, if broken, can cause issues when using the skillet. No, a skillet is composed of two things: the skillet and the handle. That a skillet is more durable and has a longer lifetime than a computer is, seriously, no fucking surprise at all.

Let’s go back to a more reasonable analogy: automobiles. Automobiles require constant maintenance and repairs, especially when they near the end of their life. Not only do you have to fill your car with gas, but you have to continually add oil. You have to add air to your tires. It’s recommended to have your engine serviced every 50,000 miles or so. Sometimes your transmission or radiator or carburetor breaks, and you have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to fix it.

Most people who use cars don’t have the expertise to repair their own cars, and when they take it to a mechanic, it often costs at least several percent of the original cost of the car.

Same for a computer. Usually, your computer works pretty well and without problems for the first year or two of its life. Then you start getting problems with the trackpad button not clicking correctly, or your optical drive failing to correctly burn DVDs, or your battery life starts deteriorating. Without constant maintenance or repairs to your computer, it can fall into disrepair and stop working.

Not only that, but computers can and do last a long time. The whole notion that a computer lasts a maximum of a few years is bullshit. Our family’s original Mac Plus, bought around 1986, still works. My original iMac, bought in 1998, still works to this day, without (if I remember correctly) a single repair. My G4 iMac, bought in 2002, still works. My dad’s aluminum PowerBook, originally purchased in 2005 or so, also still works. And it’s not really limited to Apple computers either. There are several computers still running Windows 95 at Stanford which operate expensive lab equipment.

More to the point, though, your bad experience with your computer does not indicate anything about computers as a whole. People make this mistake all the time. Repeat after me: the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.

I’m not suggesting that computers typically last decades like automobiles do. But they can. And with continual maintenance, you can extend the life of any computer for at least half a decade, if not more.

Do people really think that computer manufacturers sit in a room and decide the average lifetime of their products? Do executives really sit down and think up new features that use excess processing power simply to prevent older computers from running newer operating systems at acceptable speeds? Do people really think that computer manufacturers would not jump at the chance to improve the reliability of their products without significantly increasing the cost? Of course they fucking would. They’d trumpet and parade their newfound reliability in front of all consumers and other manufacturers (cf. Apple).

There’s no real reason to believe that intentionally shortening the lifetime of a computer would work to a manufacturer’s advantage, anyway! Moore’s Law takes care of obsolescence. Processor, memory, and graphics card technology are increasing so quickly, with programmers taking advantage of that increase in power so immediately, that even a perfectly functioning computer in pristine condition that lasts ten years would be hard-pressed to run cutting edge applications and operating systems. Sure, you can do it. But it’s ridiculous to expect that it will be able to run cutting-edge software at an acceptable speed. The pace of the computer industry is just too fast.

There are always new scientific applications and games that require more processing power, there is always new hardware and software innovations that take the place of older ones, and even if programmers optimized the crap out of operating systems and software, it wouldn’t take the place of the sheer processing power that newer computers provide. Time is simply better spent obsoleting older computers through faster hardware and newer software than trying to maximize the lifetime of an individual computer model.

The Human Computer

Reliability of hardware and even software is always a problem in the computer industry. Physical components break down, and software inevitably has bugs created by imperfect code that cause it to function incorrectly. It’s always worth it to try and find and fix bugs in software and to find ways to cost-effectively improve the reliability of hardware. But it’s also worth it to realize that the current situation is to be expected.

Think about the human body. It’s the result of billions of years of evolution of life on our planet. Modern humans have only been around for hundreds of thousands of years — a very brief period of time compared to the age of the earth — but humans have still benefitted from all the previous evolution of life.

And despite all that time, humans still have problems. Our organs still sometimes fail, requiring replacement. Bones still get broken in accidents. Humans still get sick from viruses as common as influenza.

And people expect computers — complicated tools created by humans — to not be subject to the same pitfalls that humans are?


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