This essay is cross-posted with TechnoScience as if People Mattered

A Swiss-made 1983 Mr. T Watch. Timeless. (Source)
A Swiss-made 1983 Mr. T Watch. Timeless. (Source)

Micah Singleton (@micahsingleton) over at the Daily Dot has a really great essay about one of the biggest problems with the Apple Watch. You should read the whole thing but the big takeaway is that really great watches and mainstream tech have a fundamental incompatibility: nice watches usually become heirlooms that get handed down from generation to generation, but consumer technology is meant to be bought in product cycles of a only a couple of years. A really nice watch should be “timeless” in a way our devices never have been. Compared to the usual 2-year contract phone purchase, the technological evolution of high-quality watches moves about as fast as actual biological evolution. Is it possible to deliberately build timelessness into electronics?

Of course planned obsolescence is bad for the environment and it helps promote a less-thoughtful form of consumerism, but those seem almost like symptoms of a larger design problem. More than an issue of durability or material quality, the demands of interoperability and networking require that individual devices be part of a larger whole as well. It doesn’t matter how much you love your Palm Pre or hate 802.11ac wi-fi specification, there are large (usually capitalist) forces that are bigger than dictate the ecosystem that your individual device will have to live in. And let’s not forget that laws and regulations are also at play here: cars that require leaded gas for example, either need to be altered or rely on a lead additive. An older car is “incompatible” with the existing fuel supply.

Unlike classic cars, which can be modified to run on unleaded gas, you generally cannot modify your original iPhone to run on a 3G (let alone 4G) network. Some of those aforementioned large capitalist forces rely on a product being too cheap to fix because it 1) means the device is really cheap and 2) you have an opportunity to get the customer to pay a little more to upgrade rather than fix the old device. This is also important because labor used to build a device is far easier to exploit than the technical expertise necessary to diagnose and fix a broken device. With manufacturing you can split up the work and deskill the labor, but your average Genius Bar employee needs training, expertise, and cannot be easily centralized in one factory.

Even if we really slowed down the frequency with which we roll out new wi-fi specification and mobile phone architecture (this is actually kind of happening- the “LTE” that shows up on your phone stands for “Long-Term Evolution”) there is still a complexity and interoperability issue to contend with: it only takes one actor in the system to encourage a move towards obsolescence. Even gradual and small upgrades by a handset maker, carrier, prominent social media company, or software developer can lead to an eventual shift in technical requirements and prompting the purchasing of new devices in far shorter time spans than your grandpa’s watch or your aunt’s turntable. It is the interconnectedness of the network that makes obsolescence almost impossible to fight.

A cultural shift (or culture fix [PDF]) in all of these very different but interconnected industries could bring about longer timescales for devices. By encouraging a different ethic or motivating set of goals ––timelessness and adaptability, rather than speed and seamlessness––  we might start to see new kinds of devices. Some might say free / open source communities are doing this to some degree: demanding devices that are user-serviceable and thus being more upgradeable than disposable. That might get us part of the way but the romantic notion that we’re returning to a time where everyone knew how to repair everything in their house is -like all romantic notions of the past- illusory.

So how do we begin to foster this new culture? One way might be to to display what a similar value system has accomplished in similar arenas. One example close to my own research is the success of a particular water pump design implemented in rural Zimbabwe. What makes a durable water pump and a cherished watch are surprisingly similar: You have to design for a wide range of eventualities like buildings going up next to a well that might shift the water table, or a midlife crisis that causes a watch owner to take up base jumping. The thing that you are designing needs to simultaneously seem just for you while also being universal enough that it works in a predictable (even intuitive) manner and can be fixed by a wide range of people in different settings. You have to design something that could outlive the environment that produced it.

Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol studied the very successful roll-out of this state-sponsored well-pump project and concluded that projects like this work when technologies have a “fluid” character. They identified four major characteristics that contributed to a technology’s fluidity: 1) it should be “tailored to local circumstances, to local patterns of use and abuse.” 2) It should “seduce people into taking care of it.” 3) Each part should be forgiving in what kind of replacement parts it needs and how precisely moving parts must be calibrated or positioned. 4) Finally, the artifact should be in the public domain or somehow be understood as a communally owned technology.

Returning then to the Apple Watch and networked devices more generally: How could such a remarkably different technology exhibit similar “fluid” characteristics? Put another way, how can American technologists start to work more like Zimbabwe’s engineers?

The easy answer is to support and create more projects like “Phonebloks” (now Google’s Project Ara) which separate the phone into interchangeable chunks. I’m not as convinced however, that this is the answer. In fact, I suspect such a project would increase consumption by letting you buy it a piece at a time. You haven’t made a longer-lasting product, you’ve just made it easier to keep some parts. It also discourages the kind of “seduction” that leads to care. If I know its relatively simple to swap out a broken part, I’m actually less likely to take care of the thing than buy a $30 case to protect it.

The trick to getting this right will involve the perfect mix of relying on other people while also maintaining a sense of individuality. Apple products go a little too far in the direction of relying on others, while open source communities seem to over-correct. No one should have to be expert in all aspects of their phone, but they should feel relatively comfortable negotiating a repair bill with someone who is. The device should seduce you into taking care of it by embedding those caring practices into a desirable or familiar social relationship. That means retooling not just the device but the business models themselves. The turnover rate of retail stores are too high to develop the kinds of social bonds that make caring for a device more than a simple monetary transaction.

An heirloom smartwatch or smartphone needs to be user serviceable, but not too user-serviceable such that it encourages disposable thinking. It should be open and configurable enough such that independent businesses that develop local followings and loyalty can set up shop and reliably repair or resell the devices. Most of all, it is crucial that we don’t set ourselves up for failure by romanticizing inter-generational artifacts. For as long as there is a profit motive, there will probably be a manufactured desire for the “new and improved” version of one thing or another. What’s important is that we are striving to derive the most pleasure while extracting the fewest resources and harming the least number of people.

David is on Twitter & Tumblr.

For more on the Zimbabwe Bush pump and fluid technologies see: Laet, Marianne de, and Annemarie Mol. 2000. “The Zimbabwe Bush Pump Mechanics of a Fluid Technology.” Social Studies of Science 30 (2): 225–63. doi:10.1177/030631200030002002