In my last post I had a realization that I don’t chase down the latest technology, but the most efficient means of doing things. My buddy who “accuses” me of simply chasing down the latest high-tech gizmology commented that he prefers old fashioned stuff “because they are simple and work” and went on to say that “efficiency is not always a boon”. This statement really bothered me, but I was unsure why. It must’ve lodged in my subconscious overnight, because this morning the realization hit me: my friend couldn’t be more wrong if he tried.
Now, he’ll likely ready this so I need to clarify and get my premise clearly stated right away. First, there is nothing wrong with an interest in antiquated technology. For some bizarre reason I still want to build a steam engine, and I have no idea what I would do with it once complete. I used to collect old computers and mode theater devices like Commodore 64 pieces and RCA SelectaVision. But the notion that older stuff was simpler is a red-herring, and completely untrue. Many older technological devices were far more complicated, and if they were simpler they required far more work from the end user.
Let’s start with the assertion that “efficiency is not always a boon”. This, I think, is what really was gnawing at my subconscious because efficiency is always a benefit by its very definition! Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense is always a good thing! However, it doesn’t always achieve the best possible results. For example…
Completely unrelated to anything man-made, look at the way a large bird flies. The flapping of the wings provides his thrust, but they alternate from flapping and soaring. Aerodynamic drag will eventually cause him to slow and descend if all they did was soar, but if all he did was flap his wings he would tire and fall out of the sky just as surely. Flapping his wings provides the “best” outcome for flight, but efficiency of action keeps him in the air. Applying this to one of my examples from yesterday, only getting your vehicle detailed will keep it the cleanest but it will drain your pocketbook quickly and simply isn’t feasible.
But what about technology? What about “simpler” mechanical designs that came before modern contraptions? While a few (particularly automotive) examples may actually be simpler, I think it’s very hard to argue they do anything better as a result.
First, let’s look at a classic argument from the firearms world: the Glock pistol vs. a Colt 1911. Both are excellent guns, but it is inarguable that the Glock is a simpler, more robust, and better functioning design. This is not a condemnation of the 1911 and has nothing to do with caliber effectiveness debates. This is simply a realistic look at the design and mechanics of the pistol itself. The Glock has a total of 27 pieces that make up it’s functioning pieces and is far less complicated than a 1911. It continues to function better with neglect in cleaning and high round counts. Caliber preferences aside, the Glock is a simpler (more efficient) firearm. In this case, it is both simpler and works better.
The other example (and this one will be much longer in examination) is anything related to automotive technology. Because this one has so many facets, for the sake of clarity I’ll need to address them all as separate points.
Carburation vs. Fuel Injection. Old-school die hards have actually claimed to me that the problem with fuel injection is that “you can’t re-jet it on the side of the road” when proclaiming the superiority of carburators. What they completely overlook is that you don’t need to! The notion that carburators are simpler than fuel injection is absolutely crazy, perpetuated by shamans that believe anything involving a computer needs a witch doctor and bag of chicken bones thrown on the ground in order to deduce it’s will. It’s just not the case. Once the fear of an ECU is conquered you learn that the components involved in fuel injection are so much simpler than the mechanical complexity of a carburator it’s almost laughable. Carburators are more complex, less efficient, generate less power, and are less reliable in elevation changes.
Air-cooled vs. liquid cooling. This is obviously a debate only a Harley lover would engage in, since to my knowledge there are no more air-cooled engines being put into cars (maybe Tata does in India). The insanity of this argument is that even a Harley guy will admit that it doesn’t work well when you’re stuck at a traffic light in Arizona or Nevada (because the silly design doesn’t have the cylinders out in the air flow to be cooled). At least BMW and Moto Guzzi cool both cylinders (and thus, they don’t care about this debate). In Harley’s case they’ve made it work, but it doesn’t work well. The air-cooling simplicity is hampered by the design. The thing is, water cooling isn’t that much more complicated. A radiator, some hoses, a pump and paths for the coolant to move through the block is all it takes to make more power, provide longer engine life, and improve the effectiveness of the engine. It doesn’t affect the suspension, or ignition system, or anything unless the engineers implement it poorly; but since Harley’s air-cooling is already implemented poorly the question becomes “what do you have to lose?” The old way might be (barely) simpler in this case, but it’s also detrimental. (edited to add: liquid cooling is simple and robust enough to meet the needs of the USMC in the field. Air-cooling doesn’t cut it.)
Overhead cams aren’t really more complicated than pushrods, they’re simply driven differently and cause less internal work for the motor. An old rotary phone retains a certain charm, but Steve Jobs was a well known minimalist and the iPhone exudes simplicity despite all it is capable of. Even my own example of shaving makes it clear that the modern, more efficient shaving method is simpler.
So where, then, does that leave us and point of this post? Despite my proclamations that the old ways of doing things were not simpler, I harbor no ill-will to them. Devices may be more complex, but the user has less to do. Conversely, a way of doing things that is simpler in the individual components will require more effort of the user to own, use, and maintain. Efficiency is always a boon, and simplicity is a red herring; the question is simply where does one to make the trade-off of effort, in the device or their own time/effort/expense? I don’t believe there’s any right answer here, anymore than there’s a correct answer in the great debate of chocolate vs vanilla ice cream; it’s down to one’s own preferences. But bad arguments for the basis of one’s perpective I can’t abide.
So, dear reader, what say you? If asked to succinctly state why somebody would prefer the older method of accomplishing a given task, what do you think is a truer or more accurate core statement? I believe it’s intangible and illogical, but valid nonetheless. I believe it’s one of emotion. Arguments ranging from “even in the Garden of Eden, God placed man there to work” to the much simpler human touch and connection reading a hand-written letter vs. the cold electrons of an email all eventually fall on our emotional response. Clutch less paddle shifters have been used in Formula 1 racing for ages now, and are inarguably a better, faster means for changing gears and more efficient power delivery; car nuts cling to manual transmissions not for the better performance over automatics as they claim, but for love. Something intangible that transcends performance numbers and makes them feel “at one” with the car. I contend that’s why we shave with more laborious methods, hand write a letter that takes longer to reach our recipients, drive what we do (if we can afford preferences over necessities), or even cook and eat what we do. The extra effort, and overcoming the limitations of our chosen methodology sometimes produces better results, but more important than that I believe it is more fulfilling and makes us feel more alive. More human, in this digital age.
But then, I’m just waxing philosophic now. What say you?