When I returned to Harvard’s Houghton Library five years ago in order to consult certain manuscripts of the American philosopher and scientist Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), I discovered that the photocopy machines that I had used in my earlier visits had been eliminated. Now, researchers who wanted to obtain copies of the documents they were consulting had to take photos with their cameras, provided they did not use flash, turned off the click when the photo was taken, and without any kind of support for the camera.
My next step was to go to Hunt’s Photo Video, the closest store, and for $220 I purchased a little Nikon Cool Pix, a camera that I’ve since used to take thousands of photos, all of them of much higher quality than a novice like me could have taken with his cell phone camera. Last week, when it snowed in Pamplona and I wanted to take some photos of the campus under a blanket of snow, I noted that the images that the camera was taking were blurry, and two days later it stopped working, displaying a mysterious message about problems with the lens. I took the camera to a certified photography shop in Pamplona, and they recommended that I buy a new, identical camera for only 80 euros, economical because the technicians that could repair the camera charged 70 euros the hour. So that’s what I did, and with my new camera they threw in a new protective case and a rod for making “selfies”.
The whole process left me thinking. I don’t know whether the obsolescence of the camera was programmed into it by the manufacturer. It got me thinking: perhaps human beings suffer from a similar phenomenon. We get old, something not just brought to our attention by the presence of gray hair, lesser agility and the loss of memory, but also by our obvious incompetence with the new machines which–or so it seems to me–multiply in an exponential fashion. As we say nowadays, those of us who were born before 1980 are not “digital natives”: rather–in an expression of Marc Prensky–we are “digital immigrants”, and the new technologies always seem to be a little strange. In my case this is obvious, above all when young people tell me that I’m not taking advantage of all the functions of my current phone, since I am barely able to type numbers with my clumsy fingers, or do any number of other things which require computer savvy and dextrous fingers.
While I love machines that last twenty years or more–from my fountain pen to my shaver–I get annoyed by the machines, programs and systems that I have to learn again every three or four years, because of new features that I almost never learn to appreciate. There are so many things that I wrote on my computer twenty years ago that I can no longer read because the program to open them no longer exists! All this brings to mind the old principle from the U. S. Navy’s seaman’s manual: “the law of KISS”, KISS being an acronym for the wise expression “Keep I Simple, Stupid!” The simpler a mechanism is, the safer and more efficient it will remain over time. In contrast, our accelerated technological progress often consists in the accumulation of new benefits and applications that always demand better performance from our computers, despite the fact that the average user will most often not benefit at all.
Many science fiction movies, like Matrix, revolve around the rebellion of the machines that have taken over our planet, while the humans that remain hide themselves in remote places to avoid being annihilated. None of this happens in real life, nor does it look likely that this scenario will ever occur, but in contrast the manufacturers of machines, of programs and new technological resources have taken over the lives of many human beings–especially those of the youngest among us–whom they convert into docile consumers who are always wanting the latest new thing.
It’s worth the effort to say no: we can assert our personal independence, our liberation from the machines, our inner freedom in the face of the pressure of technological consumerism, in order to be able to care for others and enjoy nature, instead to having to permanently be paying attention to screens, tablets and smartphones, which admittedly are really useful for maintaining our communication with those we love. Here, as with many other situations, it is worth the effort to say–with Mies van der Rohe and the encyclical “Laudato Si“–that “less is more”. I love walking down to campus every morning: it is much better than coming to the University in a new model car, even if it were an electronic Tesla. As Prof. Susan Haack once told me, being able to walk to work is an undeniable signal of quality of life.
In sum, the programmed obsolescence that so strongly favors consumerism, can also be an invitation to think through our relationship with all these gadgets, and thereby seek to free ourselves from them a little, affirming the true human quality of life, which is, in the end, the only thing that never becomes obsolete.
Pamplona, April 7, 2016.
P. S. I am grateful for the illustrations by Jacin Luna and the corrections by Félix Álvarez, Gloria Balderas, Enrique García-Máiquez, Jacin Luna, Ainhoa Marin, Julián Montaño, Moris Polanco and Jordi Puig.