Thinking about my reluctance to recommend an e-reader to anyone, I realized over the weekend that it’s not simply a belief I have that e-reader technology isn’t ready. That’s part of it, but there’s another issue for me — a more global concern that I tend to mute because I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it.
Twenty or thirty years ago, products were rated in two basic ways. How well they did the job they were designed to do, and how reliable or long-lasting they were. Between then and now, however, the question of reliability has changed. It no longer refers to a product’s ability to perform over time, but rather to a product’s ability to perform at all.
I have no proof of this, but I believe the change took place as the products in our lives became predominantly electronic, as opposed to mechanical. Where physical mechanisms used to power most of our devices, those devices are now controlled by circuitry that is inherently more complex, if not unfathomable.
Even devices that were electric back in the day have been replaced with electronic offspring. My grandmother’s coffee pot plugged into an outlet and percolated until the house smelled like a tar pit. Today’s coffeemaker checks water temperature against bean density, then factors in relative humidity and the Coriolis effect (using GPS data) to give you the best cup of java ever brewed.
When I first started working on cars you could fix anything with a set of wrenches, and you could actually see all the accessories and manifolds when looking under the hood. Today the number of vacuum hoses and electronic units attached to an engine obscures the block completely. In order to diagnose even the simplest of problems you invariably need another computer to tell you what’s wrong. Since most people don’t have a hand-held diagnostic device, they have to take it to a local mechanic who plugs in his own computer, which tells him what’s wrong, and nets the customer a hefty charge. (True to form, until the mid ’90’s the auto industry tried to keep citizens from accessing the repair codes on their cars. Score one — belatedly — for the lawmakers.)
Today you can’t buy a doorstop that isn’t electronic, and we’ve become so accustomed to electronic devices making up for our lack of interest in using our bodies that we’re often startled when we actually have to do something ourselves. I say that as someone who owns an F-150 with manual door locks, who has to tell everyone under the age of 45 that they need to actually push the button down to lock the door when they get out. Everyone under the age of 30 starts laughing at this, and invariably test the lock a few times just to see how the mechanism works.
Along with convenience, however, we’ve also learned that electronics are short-lived. Originally, this was a result of functional obsolescence. New devices contained electronic features absent on old models, so everyone migrated to the new models even if the old models were still functional. VCR’s were a big milestone in this cultural shift, presenting themselves each year with more and more capabilities, even as everyone acknowledged that 90% of users couldn’t set the time of day on their machines, let alone program one to record a specific program — or any program.
Still, if you didn’t have the latest VCR you essentially owned a piece of junk. Not surprisingly, manufacturers started treating their products as disposable. The cost of fixing a motherboard problem in a VCR was greater than the cost of five new machines, so nobody bothered making anything that could be fixed. You bought it, you used it, it failed, you threw it away and bought a new one.
At which point the transition was complete. The definition of reliability had morphed from one of longevity to whether or not the machine would boot correctly when you took it out of the box. If you were lucky the device came with a one-year warranty, but ninety days (ninety days!) was common. Because these devices did magical things in mysterious ways, everybody was happy, even as the electronic toaster disposal rate reached 1.4 toasters per household per year.
In a recent post I talked about digital cameras and the fact that I didn’t buy my first point-and-shoot until two years ago. Incredibly, even as I wrote about how cool digital cameras are as tech, it never occurred to me to mention the fact that the Canon Powershot I bought for $150+ died after less than two years of use. Because the camera was out of warranty I was deftly given a number of options by Canon, including upgrading to a refurbished model for another $70 or so — although the refurbished machine would only come with a 90-day warranty (ninety days!).
Now, what’s interesting about this is that nobody at Canon was shocked that their two-year-old product crapped out. In fact, to the contrary, Canon has in place an entire apparatus for fixing failed, out-of-warranty cameras and selling or upselling those cameras back to the original purchaser. Throughout the entire process of getting my new replacement (complete with 90-day-warranty) I felt as if I was leasing a new version of a piece of physical software, for more money, on worse warranty terms.
Which is why — along with hesitation about the maturity of the technology — I have never tossed $1,500 at a DSLR. No matter how I try, I cannot get over the idea that all of that money is going to go into a hole in the ground when the warranty runs out and the electronics begin to fail. Even lenses aren’t a safe bet anymore if they come with image stabilization in the lens itself. Unlike the old days, when glass was glass and shutters were truly mechanical — and you were the focusing motor — today’s cameras are so completely dominated by electrical wizardry that they rival early computers.
Which makes it all the more amazing that almost no one talks about how long these products are going to last. Feature lists keep growing, the technology keeps advancing, the capabilities keep improving, but finding out the expected life of anything from a DSLR to a toaster to a TV remote to an cell phone is literally impossible. Because nobody has owned these things long enough to know.
Which (yes, I know that’s my third-in-a-row ‘which’ at the beginning of a paragraph) brings me to the decidedly low-tech question of print-on-demand books, and the equally unanswerable question of how long such things will last. I really don’t care how long e-readers last right now, because I think they’re all works in progress. What I don’t want, however, is for someone to purchase something I wrote in POD form, only to have the book fall apart six months later.
It occurs to me that the people who make POD books know the best way to put such books together, but that the best way may not be the most profitable way. (Is it ever?) I also don’t know if a POD book is warranted to last for a certain amount of time under normal use, like, say, opening it and flipping through the pages in order to read the contents. What are the best and worst means of construction? Who makes the best POD books?
In a world where work ethic has been replaced by buzz, sincerity by marketing, and reliability by features, is anybody asking such questions? Is anyone answering?
— Mark Barrett