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.