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WHY NOT MAKE PRODUCTS SIMPLE, RELIABLE?

The designs and products created by people and organizations say a lot about their creator and the message I am getting more and more often is that we are a block or two shy of a full load. In simpler terms, we may be crazy.

Take, for example, the almost new, faulty furnace timer I recently encountered in a woman's basement.The old model of this product is reliable, simple, lasts for decades and has virtually no plastic parts.

The newer model is built around a plastic light timer, utilizing plastic gears to drive the timer wheel (also plastic), which in turn trips a plastic switch arm.

The new model failed, probably due to the plastic trippers galling, causing added stress on the little plastic spur gear and breaking off one of its teeth.

This is another example of what I am convinced is a trend of faulty thinking in our culture. The belief seems to be that if it is old, it must be outdated, outmoded, crude and inefficient and should be replaced with something modern, high-tech and easy to produce.

Our throwaway technology has given birth to a paradox: We can now make far more complicated doo-dads at a far lower cost than their predecessors. Not necessarily better doo-dads, mind you, but certainly more complicated, more intricate, and in most cases, practically impossible or impractical to repair.

In all too many cases the only goal realized is that of low production cost. And at what future cost is this temporary goal realized?

Certainly one cost is the loss of choice to either fix it or replace it. Fixing it will, in most cases, be entirely out of the question.

It almost seems there is a phobia against simplicity.

Take for example, the microwave oven. The first ones were extremely simple to operate. One had only to place the food inside, close the door and twist the timer knob to the desired cooking time, and voila! the magic was done.

One drawback to this was that the cooking power was either on or off, with no way of proportioning the power delivered to the food according to its size, weight or content.

Then some clever person came up with an additional timer of that would turn the power off and on during the cooking cycle, with the percentage of time on vs. off being controllable, hence a sort of power control (for defrosting, as opposed to cooking something, for example).

This was fine and was easily understandable by even little old ladies who had been used to turning their stove oven on and then setting a temperature knob. Simple, effective, easy to understand. The microwave oven should in my opinion have been left alone at that point.

Enter the phobia against simplicity. Now the microwave oven has a whole cluster of keys to push, more like a computer, an adding machine or a typewriter than an oven.

Thus, to heat my cup of water for a minute and a half, I have to punch 1, then 3, then 0, for 1 minute and 30 seconds. Count the number of decisions, motions and keystrokes necessary just to heat a cup of water and compare that with the relative ease of the old way, and you start to get my point.

Why should I have to sacrifice convenience and simplicity in order to satisfy some need for owning or controlling technology?

And what about the quality of life? Is it better or worse, now that we have to program our microwave instead of just using it? Isn't quality of life measured by how much more a person can do or accomplish or enjoy with the least amount of added hassle?

Don't get me wrong. I love technology in the right places. My quality of life has been improved because of my computer and word processor.

What we are lacking is not technology nor intelligence nor knowledge. It's common sense. It's the ability to use all this technical knowledge and power in such a way as to produce a good outcome.

It's knowing when to put in a microprocessor and when to put in a simple toggle switch. It's knowing when to make a knob do its simple job (the volume control on a radio, for example) and when to put in a keypad with 13 buttons.

It's knowing when to make things simple, to be operated by simple folk who don't care about DOS or Windows or a 486DX33 whizbang computer, folks who just want to turn on their light or their fan or heat a wiener in the microwave.