The old ways are not simpler

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?

7 thoughts on “The old ways are not simpler

  1. I will say one thing that you may not have considered. Many times what your friend said can be true, when you look at it in the time frame of the technology. For instance, when a new technology is created an you have the early adapters come on board usually in the form of a Beta test, they can experience many issues that can just be frustrating. For example, Linux. I have been using Linux Ubuntu on my netbook for about two years now. With each new distro there are many issues that need to be resolved. I am using the latest distro right now, 11.4. If I where to recommend Ubuntu to a non-tech friend I would not recommend that install 11.4, I would recommend a much latter version.

    I am also experiencing this with my Android phone. I chose to be one of the early adapter to Ice Cream Sandwich Android 4.0.2. I would not recommend that any of my friends get this at this time. Yes, the technology is the best right now, and I can do things on my phone that they can’t do on the earlier versions, but there are many many issues that are still being worked out by the developers before this technology will be ready for the masses.

    There will be a time when the new technology will be ready for everyone and the old will be completely obsolete. This is happening with Microsoft right now. Windows 7 is ready for the masses. Vista never was. XP is quickly becoming obsolete.

    I know that I took this in a different direction than you did, software vs. hardware, but I think it can apply with hardware also. What I am saying is there is a time frame for the adaption of the masses. Somewhere between 1-2 years, but is quickly becoming shorter and shorter with the increase of technology.

    • Agreed. Not quite the same, but applicable. Any new technology has to go through a “de-bugging” phase. My friend simply thinks it takes well over 30 years for something to prove itself, I guess… LOL.

  2. I like some older technology because the way that the inventor solved the problem is really clever. When you look at the 1911 versus a Luger, then you see that the 1911 was more efficient than it’s competitors. I suspect it’s the same reason why some people still use an abacus. I think the old technology is appealing because you can see the thinking that went into it.

  3. While it is true that new technology is more efficient, sometimes the technology falls into affordability status as well. Let me explain:

    The Ferrari 458 is a technologically advanced car, but each tire costs $338 online. I’m sure they cost more at the dealership. Over the top?

    Let’s look at the Lincoln Navigator An upscale Ford Expedition. The cost of replacing all the windows is so high that insurance companies will total out the vehicle instead of replacing the glass.

    But these are superficial items. Lets get to the good stuff.

    Let’s say you always wanted a Porsche, but couldn’t afford one. Suddenly you look around and see a bunch of nice Speedsters in your price range. Tires are cheap too. Cool. Then one day the valve cover gasket springs a leak. No biggie. It happens to all cars eventually. But unlike other cars, you can’t just pop the hood and dig through all the junk to get at it. You have to drop the entire engine.

    How about a Ford Probe. There are three compputers in there that can go out with age. One engineer was quoted in Car and Driver as saying, “Man I would not want to buy one of these things used.”

    Now an early Eighties Dodge 2.2 is no where near as efficient as the modern engines. Maybe 92 to 110 hp tops in the non turbo iteration. But it can be worked on by using basic hand tools for the most part. If you are in an economic situation that has drasticly limited funds, the old tech is a better choice because you can afford to maintain it.

  4. I also remembers a couple other times when older was better.

    Marathon Bars and original Whatchamacalits!

    You can’t get the first any more and the latter was way better without the annoying caramel.

    I also miss Gator gum and Skittles gum. Nothing efficient about their absence.

  5. Pingback: Ramblings of: What’s old is new | Thoughts, Ramblings, and Daydreams

  6. Pingback: Diminishing Returns | eric.r.shelton

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