Obsolescence: Cars and computers

Even by my standards, this is going to be a random walk of an article.  Actually it was going to be a pilgrimage-length random walk so I have chopped it up into a few instalments:

  1. Cars and computers
  2. Building to last

The overall walk is based on the concept of obsolescence, mostly to do with computer hardware and software, but also other things like cars and people.  It also touches on things like cost, value, and sustainability.  There’s no great point I’m trying to make – this is largely stream of consciousness edited into a hopefully more readable form, with some references and footnotes.  This bit is mostly about comparing cars and computers.

Really old computers

My friend Matt Applegate, before building computer knowledge in the brains of young people across Suffolk, made interesting music with unusual instruments.  One of his pieces was called Obsolete?, made using the computers in The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park.  These computers are old enough to go clunk and whirr a lot, and he recorded their noises and turned it into music.

Some of these were one-off or very limited run computers, often running nothing but special-purpose and one-off software.  My favourite was the one with a button marked Obey:

Photo by Emma Mordue, used with permission

As well as making interesting music, Matt’s aim was to make you wonder if and why these were obsolete, and so on.

Uncanny valley

I think that there’s kind of an uncanny valley with age of computers.  Really old computers, as in The National Museum of Computing, are things to wonder at with all their quirkiness and the valves, paper tape etc. that makes them much less inscrutable than more modern computers.  You wouldn’t use them to do any useful work – even though they did impressive things in the past, their useful days are gone.

Modern computers and phones are also OK, because we use them to get important stuff done.  In between these two is a set of computers that we neither value because they’re useful, nor value because they’re interesting and quirky.

That made we wonder, because I don’t think we feel the same about cars.  Modern cars are fine, because they’re shiny, they get us to and from wherever with not much stress and so on.  Old cars are also fine because, like old computers, they’re usually quirky or interesting and understandable.  But the cars in the middle, while not as good as the cars at the edges, are at least OK.

Where the boundaries are between the three regions will probably vary depending on how old you are and how interested you are in cars.  For the sake of argument, I’ll define 20 years old as in the middle group.  If it’s still in good health, a 20-year-old car would be OK much of the time – it might not have been a car I aspired to own, but I happily drove a car this old.

Comparing cars and computers in our perception

I think it’s worth unpacking this difference a bit, because I think the role of individual perception matters here.  In the previous section I mentioned things like “feel the same” – this isn’t a purely objective thing.

My first proper car was a Classic Mini (I struggle to remember to call it that, because for me it’s just a Mini, and the more recent kind is a BMW Mini).  It had faults common to many Minis of its time – for instance, the drain holes in the doors would block up, so water would collect inside the doors and they would rust at the bottom.

Also, it had a manual choke that was a knob that you pulled out and twisted to lock it in position, and then a spring would gradually pull it back in over time, hopefully matching the engine warming up.  Unfortunately, the lock had broken (which often happened) and so you had to pull it out and then clip a clothes peg around its rod to keep it out.  Then you needed to remember to unclip it later – making the choke a binary on / off thing rather than gradually reducing.

But I really liked the car, despite its problems, and despite the fact that more modern cars are better.  I think that part of the reason is because it was fun – not much more than a go-kart with its excellent cornering and sense of speed from being so close to the ground.  The engine made a lovely noise, and the car was a tangible step in becoming a proper adult.  It enabled me to do things that mattered to me like go on holiday, to buy things and get them home again.

When I compare that to computers, I think that I often overlook the importance of personal history.  A Mini means more to me than other cars of that age, because of how one affected me.  I realise that I feel the same way about some computers.  A Sinclair ZX 81 was the first computer I had at home, and I learned to program on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.  They both mean more to me than similar computers of the time, such as the VIC 20, or even since.

Similarly, the SGI Indy was the computer I used in the Phonetics Lab to do my M.Phil. project.  As well as having the hardware necessary for speech processing, it had amazing graphics and lovely screen savers, and we used to play the fantastic multi-player game Pods on it.  Again, it means more to me than similar computers of the time or since.

I guess that one thing that makes this emotional attachment easier with cars than with computers (these days, including phones) is that cars are more firmly anchored in the physical world than computers are.  For one thing they’re bigger, also they have a smell, they make noise all around us, and they look more different from each other than e.g. phones do.

Comparing cars and computers more objectively

Old cars, in several ways, are not as good as newer ones.  Newer cars are, in general, more reliable, safer, easier to use (e.g. no manual choke), with better fuel economy and (depending on how far back you go) better top speed and acceleration.  My 20-year-old car wasn’t as good as the same kind of car that I could buy today, but it was good enough in most ways that matter to me.  I.e. things have probably improved since it was made less quickly than they improved before the car was made.

This trend will continue, for instance with electric cars – cars will produce less CO2 than before (when they had combustion engines) and, as I told my son: one day his children might ask him what a manual gearbox was like – when all cars are electric, they will also all be automatic (as far as I’m aware).  Electric cars are also even more reliable mechanically than modern combustion engine cars because they have fewer important moving parts.

As a simple comparison in the computer world, consider the Sony PS2 (from 2000) and the PS4 Pro (2017):

  • Memory increased from 8MB to 8GB (i.e. 1,000 times as much).
  • CPU power increased from 6.2 gigaflops to 4.2 teraflops (i.e. over 670 times as much).
  • Screen resolution increased from 2,073,600 pixels to 8,294,400 pixels (4 times as much, which doesn’t sound impressive but means you could e.g. have the same resolution but on a screen twice as wide and twice as tall as before).

I know it’s a bit of a cliché to do this kind of comparison, but it doesn’t stop it from being true.  My 20-year-old car was not a thousand times slower than a current one!

If you look beyond the metrics, it’s interesting to compare cars to computers in other ways, to do with their value.  Up until relatively recently – maybe 25 years ago – I think that normal cars were the result of repeated gradual improvement to even older ones.  Cars 25 years old and older were still understandable with only relatively little effort – you could open the bonnet and see much of the important stuff (maybe with the help of tools and Haynes manual).

Once you could understand them, you could also repair them (or take them to your choice of lots of different people who could repair them for you).  The parts were made from normal materials, and fairly common tools could do the job.  The car could be disassembled as much or as little as needed – there weren’t large indivisible lumps.  All this meant that it was easy for the car to be kept working, which meant it kept on being valuable to you.

Interfaces and dependencies

Cars also had a fairly similar user interface over that age range – they still ran on the same roads as they did in the past, had similar steering wheels, pedals and other controls (at least for the major functions).  The things on which they depended, such as fuel and oil, could be bought from the same kind of place, and entered your car via petrol pumps and oil cans that were quite similar over time.

Compare that to computers.  If I wanted to plug a modern printer into the ZX Spectrum I have in the loft, the plug simply won’t fit.  Even if I could make it fit somehow, the electrical connections wouldn’t be made correctly.  If I got a soldering iron and made the wires connect to the correct other wires, the computer and printer couldn’t use those wires to exchange information – they wouldn’t speak the same language.

There’s a common model to getting computers to talk to each other, with layers or levels, and the Spectrum + modern printer is wrong on so many levels.  This is why computer types get snarky about Jeff Goldblum plugging his laptop into an alien spaceship’s computer and then taking the spaceship out with a computer virus he wrote.

If the printer with my ZX Spectrum broke, I couldn’t replace it with a modern one.  I would have to try to find a replacement old one, but these aren’t made any more (because they’ve been superseded by more modern, better, ones).  The value of the computer is, in part, dependent on external things it depends on.  If those external things go away, so does some of the value of the overall system.  (It’s not just the printer – it’s things like modems and storage devices too.)  Cars seem to have done a better job of either not changing the things on which they depend over time, or the old dependencies are still available at reasonable cost.

This is somewhere that standards help to preserve value.  If my car needs a new wheel, I can buy any wheel that is the right size and has the correct way of fixing it to my car (the same number of nuts, of the same size, in the same places etc.)  If my car manufacturer decided to have one more nut per wheel than anyone else, not only would I be forced to buy wheels from the subset of suppliers who produce the new wheels, those suppliers could sell those wheels only to owners of cars like mine.  Compare this to e.g. peripherals for iPhones.  (Admittedly Apple has such a large market and is in such a dominant position that it can force this kind of thing through, but compare them to e.g. USB cables.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s