AnalogSenses

By ÁLVARO SERRANO

On craftsmanship, consumerism and zombie iPads

October 28, 2014

There’s an aspect of modern society that bothers me to no end. It used to be that things were made to last, and there was a certain pride in owning something that once belonged to your grandfather, or even your great grandfather. Today, the list of things we own and purchase that could possibly make such a claim in 50 years is exceedingly short, and getting shorter by the day.

It seems obvious that today’s industrial and engineering prowess is vastly superior to that of a hundred years ago: we have better materials, better construction techniques and, more importantly, a much better understanding of what makes everything work together. It baffles me that the main consequence of all this refinement and increased knowledge is that we’re now making products with remarkably short lifespans. It’s a cruel joke on craftsmen of the past.

There’s a great quote by Robert X. Cringely that always makes me laugh, even though it really shouldn’t:

If the automobile had followed the same development cycle as the computer, a Rolls-Royce would today cost $100, get a million miles per gallon, and explode once a year, killing everyone inside.

Something has clearly changed in the past century. As artisans were overtaken by engineers in the race for innovation, many industries were completely disrupted, sometimes unfortunately losing their essence in the process. Back then, these industries shifted from making products designed and manufactured to stand the test of time to making good-enough products that cost way less to produce, and that people would be happy to replace every few years. Just like that, consumerism was born.

The consumer electronics industry — which was defined and controlled by engineers since its inception — is the poster child for this philosophy, with people replacing several-hundred-dollar gadgets every other year with no complaints about it whatsoever.

Look at the original iPad mini, for example. It’s powered by Apple’s A5 chip, a dual-core SoC that debuted in March 2011 with the iPad 2. This chip that represented the bleeding edge of technology just three and a half years ago is today considered a relic, with people even calling the mini “the zombie iPad”, because of its refusal to die.

What troubles me is that for the most part, I agree with those people. As an engineer, the fact that Apple is still selling a device with 3-year-old technology strikes me as ludicrous, but should it? Are we really that far gone down the consumerism rabbit hole that we see a 3-year-old product as a joke? Shouldn’t that be considered just a barely-acceptable timeframe for replacing a product that debuted at $329 and went as high as $659?

Let me make one thing clear: I’m not arguing that Apple should slow down on the release cycle for new devices, and I believe the fact that there’s a new iPad every year is a good thing. It means people will get a better device and therefore a better value for their money. However, there should be considerably less pressure on consumers to upgrade “old” iOS devices.1

I also understand that this is partly due to perfectly valid technical reasons: the hardware in iOS devices is so constrained that it typically only takes a couple years for performance to become a limiting factor. We likely won’t see significantly longer upgrade cycles for iOS devices until their performance catches up with what the software can do. The sooner that happens, the better for everyone.

This trend towards frequent upgrades may make sense in the case of the tech industry, where performance grows so quickly that a 3 or 4-year gap can really make a difference. However, it has also become the norm in many other industries traditionally dominated by artisans, in which the consumer-facing benefits of an engineering revolution are much harder to identify, if they even exist.

Take the shaving industry, for example. Back in the early 20th-century, King C. Gillette found a way to disrupt the established technology by introducing disposable razors and blades that promised the convenience of not needing to be cared for and maintained. Much like phone subsidies today, this turned out to resonate well with consumers and the entire shaving industry shifted towards this newer model, which for the most part remains dominant today. Gone are the straight razors of old, which were made of quality steel that could last for generations if properly cared for. Instead, we now have the latest Fusion Pro Glide, and every couple shaves you have to throw away 5 blades. In this case, the price of convenience is far too high — quite literally too, because disposable razors are way more expensive in the long run.

Straight razor: if it’s good enough for Bond, it’s good enough for you.

It also happened with clothing. Companies like H&M and Zara have made billions of dollars selling affordable clothes that self-destruct after a few washes. And god forbid you should wear the same clothes for more than one season. This breakneck pace of continuous replacement was only made possible thanks to the engineering advancements — in logistics and transportation, for example — that enabled these companies to operate efficiently at a global scale. Meanwhile, I own a hand-made leather jacket that looks better today than when I bought it 10 years ago, and they’ll bury me in it if I can help it.

And what about writing instruments? You can buy a pack of Bic pens for a few cents each, as opposed to spending upwards of $100 on a nice fountain pen. However, you’ll be missing out on the pleasure of writing with a high-quality precision instrument that can become a lifetime companion.

My Waterman Perspective fountain pen.

Consumerism is a trick on the mind and as a society, we’ve swallowed it hook, line and sinker: we buy cheap stuff and replace it all the time instead of investing in quality items that will last forever. Luckily, there are still artisans out there, and some companies still worry about creating timeless products. These companies often cater to niche markets, albeit very lucrative ones, because the people who appreciate and value quality are willing to go to great lengths to get it.

I understand why most companies favor this strategy: it makes for a much bigger market and it creates a pattern that ensures people will keep buying their stuff without giving it a second thought. Convincing society to replace perfectly working technology and products may be the single greatest marketing stunt in history.

As for consumers, though, I believe we’re getting the short end of a very expensive stick, and — this is the real kicker — we’ve mostly done it to ourselves.

The artisan vs the engineer

I’m an engineer by trade, but my heart belongs to the artisan. I usually get attached to the things I own, and I enjoy using them for as long as I possibly can. I don’t do it for the sake of being responsible or environmentally conscious — although those are very important things — I just enjoy my things and the emotional bond I create with them. As such, I find it a bit sad that most companies have decided to use modern technology to the detriment of craftsmanship, instead of taking it to the next level.

My appreciation for quality and craftsmanship informs many of the decisions I make in my everyday life: I write with a fountain pen, I wear a nice watch — nice doesn’t have to mean ridiculously expensive, mind you — and I buy quality items whenever I can. I’ve only owned 3 pairs of winter boots in the past 15 years, all of which were the exact same model. I also ride hand-made bicycles that are almost as old as I am, and that my children will hopefully enjoy riding one day as well. I haven’t quite mastered the art of shaving with a straight razor yet, mostly because I haven’t been clean-shaven in over four years, but I like to think that if I started shaving again, I would probably purchase a quality straight razor and never look back. I dream of one day owning a Leica camera — possibly even a film one — and it will probably be the last camera I ever buy.

I’m making it sound like a personal crusade, but the truth is I’m nowhere near being an extremist. Replaceable technology certainly has its benefits and I consume it in some ways, just like everyone else. I’m just not comfortable letting that habit creep into every aspect of my life, and I refuse to be the kind of person that doesn’t appreciate the value of things. I refuse to let the engineer win. Whenever I’m consciously doing something the old fashioned way, it always fills me with joy. It makes me think of a time when people valued different things. A time when artisans led the pursuit of innovation without giving up their souls in the process.

The engineer in me wants to take over, but I will not let him. In my heart, the artisan wins, and his creations endure.


  1. Macs, on the other hand, are way less susceptible to this upgrade frenzy, with both my 6-year-old iMac and my 4-year-old MacBook Pro being prime examples of this. Apple does a pretty good job when it comes to the longevity of their desktop and laptop computers. I only wish this were true for iOS devices.

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A Successful Plan →

October 27, 2014 |

Great article by Patrick Rhone for those of us who aspire to do great things. I don’t want to spoil a single word of it, just go read it now.

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Apple and indie bands, what happened? →

October 27, 2014 |

Interesting piece by Nathan Mattise at Ars Technica:

Feist wasn’t the first musician to launch off the strength of an Apple commercial; the trend had gained enough attention that The New York Times asked “Is Apple the Oprah for indie bands?” But in the years after “1234,” Apple commercials became a less reliable way for bands to make it big. Lightning didn’t strike in the same way for The Submarines, Chairlift, or the Ting Tings, for instance—and that trio is likely the most notable bunch of the post-2007 Apple ad soundtracks.

Today, the multi-year streak when lesser-to-unknown acts caught their break via iDevice ads seems to have ended. When Apple used an unknown Willy Moon for its bouncy iPod reboot spot in 2012, the song (“Yeah Yeah”) only sold 155,000 copies in six months, according to Billboard. (Feist’s single sold 180,000 copies within a single month.) So sorry, Julie Doiron, you may be a few years too late.

What changed?

I still have an iTunes playlist called “Apple Music”, which includes only artists whose music I discovered thanks to Apple events and TV ads. Now that I think of it, it’s true that I haven’t added any new albums to that list in a pretty long time.

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A stunning 7000-image time-lapse video of Extremadura →

October 24, 2014 |

This is an amazing time-lapse video of the Extremadura region, in Spain:

Hope you enjoy the scenery as spectacular as Ibores-Villuercas Geopark in Cáceres (Extremadura unknown), dry plains and beautiful Sierra de Fuentes, extensive irrigated areas of Vegas del Guadiana with these natural mirrors are rice fields , the imposing castle of Medellin with its imposing yet (and recently unearthed) Teatro Romano, the beautiful and ever present oaks, the beautiful sunsets and moon and sun, the Milky Way and, of course, a symbol of Extremadura: Storks.

Extremadura is a beautiful region, and its landscapes are incredibly diverse. It also happens to be where I was born, so take it from me: it’s a sight to behold. Or better yet, watch the video and see for yourself.

Via Laughing Squid.

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Jason Snell reviews the iMac with Retina 5K Display →

October 24, 2014 |

It looks good, but feels subtle—until you turn back to a non-Retina Mac display and are confronted with the brutal reality of a low-DPI screen. “How did we live like this?,” you’ll cry out to no one. Is a Retina display absolutely necessary in life? There are very few people who need this many pixels—designers and photographers come to mind. But, then, you could argue that about high-resolution displays on any device: We got along fine without them, and they’re not necessary, but life is sure nicer now that we’ve got them.

Exactly. Once you’ve seen a Retina display, there’s no way you’re going back.

This is the promise of the 27-inch iMac with Retina 5K Display: It’s one of the fastest Macs ever attached to the best Mac display ever. Yes, it’s an iMac, meaning you can’t attach a newer, faster computer to this thing in two or three years. But I have a feeling that these iMacs will have the processor power, and the staying power, to make the aging process much less painful.

Excellent review.

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Google launches Inbox by Gmail →

October 23, 2014 |

Interesting new email-based product by Google. Privacy concerns aside, Google is probably the best company in the world when it comes to identifying and extracting relevant information from something as vast and opaque as an email inbox.

I’m interested in trying it, but for now Inbox by Gmail requires an invitation. I’ve asked for one but I’m yet to hear back from Google, so I can’t say much more about it at the moment. If you can spare an invite, please get in touch. Thanks.

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Austin Mann on what photographers need to know about Yosemite and iOS 8.1 →

October 23, 2014 |

Austin Mann:

Apple’s sharing all kinds of software updates with us these days, and a few of them are especially exciting for power user iPhone photographers. Here are my thoughts on how the new features affect how we create and share images with our iPhones.

Great article, chock-full of excellent tips.

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There Is Only Coffee, an amazing look at the lives of coffee growers in Ethiopia →

October 23, 2014 |

Fantastic video by The Perennial Plate:

Unlike most coffee growing regions of the world, in Ethiopia the folks who grow the coffee, also drink the product. Long considered the birthplace of the beverage, Ethiopia produces some of the best. This little film is a love song to coffee, the grueling work that goes into producing it and the importance of small farms and cooperation in that process.

Via Laughing Squid.

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Federico Viticci's 24 hours with Pixelmator for iPad →

October 23, 2014 |

Great overview by Federico of one of the apps that were demoed on-stage during Apple’s iPad event. It looks like an amazing app and I’m really excited to try it, but I fear these photo-editing apps won’t be particularly useful to me until they’re able to handle RAW files.

Which is to say, not anytime soon, sadly.

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Ben Brooks reviews Tom Bihn's Aeronaut 30, Travel Laundry Stuff Sack, and Daylight Backpack →

October 23, 2014 |

I really enjoyed this review by Ben:

The Aeronaut 30 is only 4 liters larger than the GR1, but those four liters make a world of difference. In fact, the Aeronaut 30 is the perfect travel bag for me, because it is the perfect size for the length of trips I normally take: 2-3 nights.

I absolutely love the Aeronaut 30 and in my testing I found that it was well made, and well considered.

The GORUCK backpacks are awesome, but they must fit your travel preferences in order to be right for you. They’re just extremely opinionated bags. Most of the time this is a good thing — great design is about making decisions — but sometimes it’s not.

It’s good to know there are other high-quality bags out there, for those occasions where you just need a different option. Ben does a terrific job of pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each bag in a variety of situations. Great stuff.

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