Are we innovating our way to non-function?

What started this chain of thought was the less-than-wonderful Dyson Airblade, which after colonising the loos at work seems to be spreading like some slow-moving cockroach to public facilities around London. It looks hi-tech, and makes grand claims, but has more than a few drawbacks.

First, it sounds like a 747 warming up, which rather destroys any peace and tranquility the facilities might previously have had, as well as making impossible those convenient little business chats that enable you to casually float some extra work for someone without marching up to their desk. It also removes the larger drops from your hands, spraying them around your feet and the floor, without actually drying your hands, and leaves a large puddle to gently ferment on the floor.

Then I got to thinking about my laptop computers – probably while I was wrestling with one. The best one I’ve ever had was a little 12 inch or so Toshiba that I bought back around 1997. Since then I’ve been through a Dell (never again – it died beyond hope about five days after a one-year warranty ended), an MSI Wind (which died hopelessly within warranty and after a month away for major repairs came back and is still struggling on, but with a hopelessly noisy fan that almost rivals the Airblade), and an Acer (“blessed” by some regular total-freeze-up problem that seems incomprehensible and irrepairable, and a keyboard that couldn’t be a better fluff collector if you’d designed it for that purpose).

Then I think of a set of nearly new lifts I know that are out of order more often than in, and have recently acquired the laughable mechanical voice addition saying “express service”, as they take you from one floor to the next very, very slowly.

Yet I regularly leaflet in Bloomsbury mansion blocks using some delightful, reliable lifts that are certainly Edwardian. And I’m old enough, just, to remember when you expected an electrical appliance to last decades – more or less the lifetime of the young setting-up-a-household buyer – and trust it to do what it was supposed to without adding minor miseries to your life.

It’s not just designed obsolescence, although that’s certainly part of the problem. More, it’s the mad desire for innovation and change, driven by the desire to sell new stuff, every year, which means that change for change sake is taking us away from functional, sensible designs into mad, barely functional excesses.

I’m reminded of the wonderfully prescient Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, and the Nutri-Matic, which “made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic examination of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”

Come to think of it, I know a high-tech machine that while it doesn’t quite make those claims, certainly delivers a hot brown liquid designed to appear like tea, while tasting like dishwater…

An heretical thought: Once a good sensible design for a practical need is devised, why change it?

Dare I suggest a towel? Adams certain thought it a practical and useful object.


  • April 3, 2010 - 3:40 pm | Permalink

    “More, it’s the mad desire for innovation and change… which means that change for change sake is taking us away from functional, sensible designs into mad, barely functional excesses.”

    Is it not possible that the same mental attitudes have been applied to our culture and political processes ?

  • April 5, 2010 - 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I always feel particularly happy when I find that I’ve stumbled across a device that is built to last. Sadly though, it doesn’t happen that often.

  • david ware
    April 9, 2010 - 5:14 am | Permalink

    Over here, the forced-air hand dryers have long been staples of public facilities, and I have to say that the Dyson works a little better than most.

    OTOH, for years, there has been a pattern evident of experienced hand-dryer users modifying the instructions to conclude with a direction to “now wipe hands dry on your pants/under your armpits” either in words or symbols. The Dyson, at last based on my acquaintance with a couple, fully deserves similar modification.

    The arguments for installing these damn’ things have always been less solid waste, greater sanitation…but the real selling point is that they give the toilets’ operators a good excuse for not restocking the paper towel dispensers, thus breaking the chain of “it all makes work for the working man to do.”

    Like Tom Redford, I am delighted to find devices or products that are built for the long haul. As often as not, however, these are often things of Victorian-era design. Sigh.

  • April 23, 2010 - 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, but I think the Dyson Airblade is brilliant. It dries hands more quickly, and uses a fraction of the energy of a hot air dryer to do so, precisely because it blows droplets off your hands rather than heating them until they evaporate.

  • May 15, 2010 - 7:40 am | Permalink

    You’re dead right about the Acer laptop. Mine did the same thing – it is obviously built into the hardware. After that little experience, I swore never again to buy anything with the Acer brand on it.

  • June 13, 2010 - 9:52 pm | Permalink

    In case anyone is here looking for solutions to the Acer problem, I’m afraid the only one I found was to clean install a new and entirely un-Acer Windows 7 on the machine (yes it is a legal one, kindly supplied by a friend).

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