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
marc nash says
I’m reminded of Orwell’s “1984” where the authorities cut the chocolate ration by 30g and then up it by 10g so that the populace of short memories credit that their ration has increased.
i own no camera, no video, no music players other than my laptop’s I-Tunes and wouldn’t even have a mobile if my work didn’t insist – it has no web functions…
“where the authorities cut the chocolate ration by 30g and then up it by 10g so that the populace of short memories credit that their ration has increased.”
I had a tangentially-related moment yesterday, listening to some of the soundtrack music from Slumdog Millionaire. It finally hit me (a year too late) that Slumdog was equally a story about America, where the rich get richer by promising to let one or two people into the club every once in a while. The American success story has been reduced to winning a lottery ticket, but as long as there’s still a chance everyone thinks things are looking up.
Joel Friedlander says
Nice rant, and the timing for the holiday shopping season couldn’t be better!
I don’t know if POD books are warranted but I’m not sure offset books come with a guarantee either. You may be re-fighting the “adhesives wars” from years ago, when many perfect bound books (talk about a misnomer) were glued up with really really bad glue that would dry out, or crack, and which, since it had such a tentative hold on the pages anyway, would start to let go of the pages awfully soon after purchase, or if you had the temerity to actually bend the cover. Not much of that around these days.
Always enjoy your posts, keep on ranting.
“You may be re-fighting the “adhesives wars” from years ago, when many perfect bound books (talk about a misnomer) were glued up with really really bad glue that would dry out, or crack, and which, since it had such a tentative hold on the pages anyway, would start to let go of the pages awfully soon after purchase, or if you had the temerity to actually bend the cover.”
You nailed it.
I can remember buying a book in college that quite literally began to fall apart during that same semester. Unbelievable, and yet the book industry acted as if nothing was wrong.
I’m glad those days are gone. I’m not at all convinced someone won’t bring them back if there’s a profit in doing so.
Richard Bell says
Looking backwards at the shift to all-electronic everything, I think that learning to put up with the purgatory of Windows crashes played an important role in a vast cultural mindshift.
I can remember talking with friends about what we would do to the car dealer who sold us a car that failed or seized up as much as Windows used to do. Looking at the “blue window of death” was a nearly universal experience, except for those lucky enough to be on Macs. Every time Windows crashed, and you numbly sat there while your computer rebooted once again, you were getting softened up for the world of today, where more and more of what makes the world go round is hidden in ways that make it almost impossible for anyone to diagnose or repair.
I’m looking, for example, at my Epson Stylus CX5800X, a printer/scanner/faxer that has become an inert piece of junk just after the expiration of the warranty. You can’t get the scanner or faxing functions to work without the printing function, and the printing function refuses to start up. The Epson “help desk” oh so helpfully suggests that I bundle it up and ship it somewhere, where it could be repaired, perhaps, for far more than I paid for it in the first place. Ugh.
I like bashing Windows as much as anyone not named Steve Jobs, but I’ll cut meta-software a break during the growth period. You’re right, however, that the apprenticeship we all served trying to get our machines to boot, load memory with HIMEM.SYS, then run our cutting-edge 256-color apps has become part of the problem.
Still, at least we could be our own tech support. When the toaster or the DVD or the toothbrush craps out, that’s it — unless you’ve got a soldering iron and a schematic.
Speaking of failures, I just had a blood-boiling experience with my ISP (Verizon), which included being blocked from my own web site by my own internet service provider, whose tech support specialist insisted that the problem was on my machine until I proved it wasn’t. Three hours of my life gone, and they’re the only ones profiting from the experience.
As to your all-in-one, I have refused to purchase that kind of machinery for exactly the reason you state: one component failure could take all of the devices with it. If I can only reach that kind of clarity with the rest of my tech I’ll be in good shape. 🙂
I’m not so sure about the car metaphor. Sure, you could fix it yourself–and you did. Remember hitting spark plugs with a hammer to make the car run properly? Screwing with the choke to get the car started on a cold morning? Jumper cables and a complete toolkit being standard accessories that WOULD be used by an owner? Vapor lock? Sure, you could do your own tech support–and you DID. And all of this for a car with a V8 that only made 200 horsepower, no radio, no air-conditioning, no power steering, drum brakes, and a manual transmission.
Oh, and as for reliability: Understanding the principles behind metal fatigue and erosion and buckling doesn’t make your bent tie rod magically reconstitute itself. In a way, I think that’s why people are so twitchy about electronic stuff; you can’t _see_ the problem. Maybe I can’t do anything about a blown-out head gasket, but at least I can poke it with a stick and say “yep, sucker’s busted”.
You can have your simple old times if you want them. I’m happy with my Kindle and Electronic Fuel Injection.
January 10, 2010 at 12:17 pm
“And all of this for a car with a V8 that only made 200 horsepower, no radio, no air-conditioning, no power steering, drum brakes, and a manual transmission.”
There’s no question that cars are better machines now. And I’ve no quibble with the ends that we’ve gone to in decreasing emissions.
“Understanding the principles behind metal fatigue and erosion and buckling doesn’t make your bent tie rod magically reconstitute itself.”
No, but I’ve got all the tools I need to replace that tie rod, and I wouldn’t have to do anything complicated in order to diagnose the problem. Try that the next time your Kindle frips on you.
“You can have your simple old times if you want them. I’m happy with my Kindle and Electronic Fuel Injection.”
Actually, I have those simple old times now. 🙂