HP Calculator Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The Upgrade Myth

We are encouraged to believe that the newest technology is also the best. But, at a time when functionality and marketability are valued more highly than simplicity and durability, adopting the newest technology can be a recipe for frustration and misery.

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.

The Year Ahead 2018

The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

Order now

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 ten times more expensive, run dry quickly, and cannot be refilled. When the room temperature drops below about 12°C (or 53°F) – 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 nine-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.


Handpicked to read next

  1. Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images

    The Summit of Climate Hopes

    Presidents, prime ministers, and policymakers gather in Paris today for the One Planet Summit. But with no senior US representative attending, is the 2015 Paris climate agreement still viable?

  2. Trump greets his supporters The Washington Post/Getty Images

    Populist Plutocracy and the Future of America

    • In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has consistently sold out the blue-collar, socially conservative whites who brought him to power, while pursuing policies to enrich his fellow plutocrats. 

    • Sooner or later, Trump's core supporters will wake up to this fact, so it is worth asking how far he might go to keep them on his side.
  3. Agents are bidding on at the auction of Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

    The Man Who Didn’t Save the World

    A Saudi prince has been revealed to be the buyer of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," for which he spent $450.3 million. Had he given the money to the poor, as the subject of the painting instructed another rich man, he could have restored eyesight to nine million people, or enabled 13 million families to grow 50% more food.

  4.  An inside view of the 'AknRobotics' Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

    Two Myths About Automation

    While many people believe that technological progress and job destruction are accelerating dramatically, there is no evidence of either trend. In reality, total factor productivity, the best summary measure of the pace of technical change, has been stagnating since 2005 in the US and across the advanced-country world.

  5. A student shows a combo pictures of three dictators, Austrian born Hitler, Castro and Stalin with Viktor Orban Attila Kisbenedek/Getty Images

    The Hungarian Government’s Failed Campaign of Lies

    The Hungarian government has released the results of its "national consultation" on what it calls the "Soros Plan" to flood the country with Muslim migrants and refugees. But no such plan exists, only a taxpayer-funded propaganda campaign to help a corrupt administration deflect attention from its failure to fulfill Hungarians’ aspirations.

  6. Project Syndicate

    DEBATE: Should the Eurozone Impose Fiscal Union?

    French President Emmanuel Macron wants European leaders to appoint a eurozone finance minister as a way to ensure the single currency's long-term viability. But would it work, and, more fundamentally, is it necessary?

  7. The Year Ahead 2018

    The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

    Order now