Heirloom Technology

By David Owen

We buy and abandon costly, tantalizing, resource-intensive gadgets with remarkable speed. One way to break free is to rethink not only an object’s design but also how we use it. Example? Hand-crank your cell phone.

In 2004, Saul Griffith, a young Australian who was working on his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won a thirty-thousand-dollar award that is given each year to a student who has shown unusual promise as an inventor. Griffith was an obvious candidate. Neil Gershenfeld, one of his professors, described him to me as “an invention engine” and said, “With Saul, you push ‘Go’ and he spews projects in every imaginable direction.” The judging committee was especially impressed by a device that Griffith had created to custom-manufacture low-cost eyeglass lenses, intended for people in impoverished countries. He had conceived of the process after discussing Third World health issues with the education minister of Kenya, and his system had been recognized already by the Harvard Business School and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Traditional lens making is a process that involves thousands of costly molds. Oversized lens blanks are cast in plastic, and then technicians grind and polish the blanks to match prescriptions. Griffith told me, “I wanted to make a machine that would negate the need for that entire factory—to let you print the lenses on demand.” So he built a desktop device with which a minimally trained operator could turn a fast-hardening liquid into a lens in a few minutes. The machine consisted of a single, universal mold, with an adjustable metal ring—like a tiny springform cake pan—between a pair of flexible membranes, whose degree of convexity or concavity could be controlled with a simple hydraulic system (in the prototype, a pair of horse syringes filled with baby oil). “Literally with only those two inputs—the shape of your boundary condition and the pressure—you can define an infinite number of lenses,” Griffith explained. In 2007, he won a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship—a “genius grant”—and the MacArthur judges cited the eyeglass invention as having “the potential to change the economics of corrective lenses in rural and underserved communities around the world.”

But winning prizes ended up being easier than changing the world, and Griffith’s lens printer has never found a market. “It turned out that we were solving the wrong problem,” he told me. “A lens factory is expensive to build and equip, but once you’ve got one you can make lenses cheaply, and then you can deliver them anywhere in the world for a dollar or two in postage.” In effect, Griffith’s invention addressed a problem that had been solved years before, at lower cost, by Chinese labor and global shipping. The real issue with eyeglasses in the developing world isn’t making lenses, he said; it’s testing eyes and writing prescriptions for people who have little or no access to medical care—a matter of politics and economics rather than technology.

That experience has deeply influenced Griffith’s thinking on the environmental subjects that consume him now. He is still an invention engine; his many recent projects include an electricity-assisted cargo-carrying tricycle, an inexpensive form of insulation inspired by origami, and an unconventional method of generating power with wind. But unlike many engineers and scientists who share his concerns, he told me, he is “not really a techno-optimist”—someone who believes that the world’s energy and climate problems will ultimately yield to a redoubled application of human technological ingenuity: an ecological Manhattan Project, a green Apollo program. He has come to believe that the world’s most urgent environmental need is not for some miraculous-seeming scientific breakthrough but for a vast, unprecedented transformation of human behavior, a revolution in our relationship with energy and consumption. In a presentation he made in 2009, he said that he intended to give his son (who, at that point, was still a few months from being born) a Mont Blanc pen and a Rolex watch—his metaphors for what he referred to as “heirloom technology,” or high-quality, low-energy possessions that are meant to be used over an entire lifetime rather than quickly discarded and replaced.

In 2009, Griffith founded Otherlab with two partners: James McBride, who studied physics and quantum computing at MIT and later created financial trading systems in New York, and Jonathan Bachrach, who is a scientist, a software designer, and an electronic artist.

Otherlab occupies a storefront in a low, modern building in an industrial neighborhood of San Francisco near Potrero Point. When I visited, in late 2009, Bachrach let me in, then propped the door open with a gallon jug of wood glue. An old wooden kayak was hanging from the ceiling, and bicycles, bicycle parts, and bicycle tools were everywhere. Griffith seems to operate on the principle that excessive orderliness is inefficient and that neatly putting things away is more time-consuming, in the long run, than searching through piles. Among his few concessions to conventional housekeeping are a half-dozen salvaged library card-catalog cabinets, the drawers of which he has repurposed as (nonalphabetized) storage units for thousands of small parts: strap clips, eyelets, resistors, microcoils, standoffs, shackles, hose clamps, bearings, springs, washers, cleats, skate hardware. Parked near the door was the prototype for an electricity-assisted tricycle, an ongoing Otherlab project. It had a yellow barrel-like enclosure mounted in front for hauling cargo. That morning, the cargo had consisted of Huxley Griffith, Saul’s infant son. During Griffith’s ride to work, rain had caused a short circuit in the wiring near the trike’s battery, and a cloud of gray smoke had emerged from under Huxley’s seat. “There was this hissing sound, and I had to pull him out and try to stamp out the fire,” Griffith said. Huxley had reacted placidly to the crisis, as though, at eight months, he was already accustomed to life as the child of an inventor. The trike is typical of a number of Griffith’s recent inventions, in that he designed it to address a perceived environmental issue in his own life—dependence on automobiles—while also hoping eventually to find a market for it. “The hypothesis is that, by being completely selfish and solving all my own energy problems, I will find some general solutions that other people will like, too,” he said.

built to last Heirloom TechnologyThe trike also presents an energy problem of its own. Its battery—which can provide about a kilowatt-hour of power on one charge, or enough to give the trike a range of about 50 miles, assuming the rider pedals half the time—costs a thousand dollars, or as much as the rest of the components combined. “So, effectively, energy storage doubles the cost of the bike,” Griffith said. “It’s the entire problem of electric vehicles and hybrids.” No battery comes anywhere close to holding energy as efficiently as the gas tank of an ordinary car. (“Unfortunately,” Griffith told me, “the difference between the world’s best battery and gasoline, in terms of energy storage per kilogram, is not a factor of ten; it’s more like a factor of hundreds of thousands.”) This is a critical issue, because the most abundant renewable-energy resources are intermittent—the sun sets; the wind stops blowing—and so rely on some form of stockpiling. “The French, during the night, store energy from their nuclear power plants by pumping water uphill,” Griffith said, “and then that water is used to generate power hydroelectrically the next day, when demand is high again. So that’s like a huge battery. But there’s an issue of what’s known as round-trip efficiency. Most energy-storage systems have round-trip efficiency of about 80 percent, meaning that you lose 20 percent as you store the energy and then retrieve it. So in order for wind and solar to work we also need to do storage at enormous scale.”

He rummaged around on a large table in one of Otherlab’s two workrooms and showed me a heavy black iron device the size and approximate shape of a small loaf of bread. It had a hand crank, which he turned. “This is a power supply for an old telephone, circa 1920,” he said. “It’s almost a century old, but it still works. If you put your tongue on there, it will throw you across the room. And you could keep it working, conceivably, for another 200 years.” Cell phones can’t do that, because they depend on energy-storage components called electrolytic capacitors, which deteriorate over time, and because their batteries become useless after a finite number of charging cycles. “Technology optimists would say, okay, we’ll invent a better battery and better electrolytic,” Griffith said. “But the possibilities for big improvements probably aren’t that great, and, besides, there’s a better way to solve the problem, which is to fundamentally rethink the design of the object, along with the sociology and the behavior around it. Example? Hand-crank your cell phone.”

Otherlab’s coffeemaker is a hand-operated La Pavoni espresso machine, on which Griffith made coffee for both of us. The design is a hundred years old, and the machine itself, with occasional repairs, could easily last a century, he said, since it has no complex or nonmechanical parts. “But a modern espresso machine that you buy at Crate & Barrel has a liquid-crystal display and a little computer and microcontroller and a whole bunch of electrolytic capacitors, and it probably won’t last ten years.” And when a coffeemaker like that goes bad, it can’t easily be fixed—a weakness that affects almost all the fancy devices we now depend on and that has contributed to the near extinction, in the United States, of an entire species of commercial enterprise: the general-purpose repair shop. (Most Americans under a certain age don’t even realize that there might be something to do with a malfunctioning toaster oven or television set—or pair of shoes with worn soles—other than to throw it away and order a new one.) Even when modern appliances can be repaired, the cost is often daunting. When the motherboards on the side-by-side ovens in my wife’s and my kitchen self-destructed simultaneously—a victim of heat from the ovens themselves—replacing the fried electronics cost hundreds of dollars, even though the parts themselves were covered under warranty. And it’s now virtually impossible to buy large appliances that don’t contain similarly fragile high-tech components.

built to trash Heirloom TechnologySuch vulnerabilities have implications for the so-called smart grid, a concept that plays a large role in almost all plans for a postcarbon world. The basic idea is that significant energy savings could be achieved if information flowed readily in both directions between energy users and energy suppliers. Smart appliances, for example, might switch themselves on only during off-peak power-consumption periods, enabling utilities to level out peaks and valleys in demand. Or they might cycle on when the sun was shining on solar arrays, and cycle off when wind turbines weren’t turning. The presumed benefits sound tantalizing, but they depend not only on nondisintegrating computer chips but also on an ability to make sense of digital information generated by millions of dissimilar machines. My wife and I recently bought a new high-definition television set and a Blu-ray disc player and received a new digital video recorder from our cable company. Successfully operating all three devices seldom requires fewer than two remote controls, and sometimes all three, even though one of the three is supposedly “universal.” Solving the remote-control problem—which has existed for decades—ought to be child’s play in comparison with the far greater challenge of making our entire power system function intelligently, since remote controls involve simpler technology and many fewer elements. But the problem is still with us.

All this is less of an issue than it might be since we tend to replace still-functioning devices with improved versions long before their electronic innards have gone kaput. Nobody who upgraded to an iPhone 5 did so because their iPhone 4 had stopped working. And the much-derided decision by Apple to make the iPhone’s battery nonreplaceable has been borne out by the eagerness of customers to unload superseded models while their batteries were still functioning at close to their original capacity.

Even gadget-loving consumers are often made uneasy by the speed with which we acquire and abandon complicated, expensive possessions. And when we feel uneasy in that way, we usually blame manufacturers, for introducing irresistible new models before we’ve even broken in the old ones. But, of course, the real problem is us. And we’re not a small problem, either, since in one way or another we all depend economically on the continued fickleness of everyone else. It’s one thing to say we feel overwhelmed by our junk; it would be quite another to demand societal changes whose direct results would include a steep decline in economic activity, leading to reductions in our own income, comfort, and convenience.

If we ever do find ourselves in the mood for such radical changes, there actually exists, close at hand, a worked-out model for how to manage consumer technology in a less environmentally devastating way: the old AT&T, a monopoly that endured more or less intact into the 1970s. The “Bell System,” as it was known, had no competitors, so there was no headlong rush to build and abandon costly, tantalizing, resource-intensive infrastructure or to implement services that would become obsolete in the next wave of innovation. And AT&T itself owned all the phones, which it rented to customers at a hefty markup—giving it an incentive to keep handsets simple, boring, and extremely durable, like Griffith’s old telephone magneto. Of course, because AT&T had no competition, telephones were far less interesting and useful in those days, and phone calls were often shockingly expensive. (The concept of the “long-distance call” has virtually disappeared from American life, as have dialing-related finger injuries.) But, for anyone who wrestles with the environmental consequences of accelerating replacement cycles, the Bell System is worth pondering. If you couldn’t buy electronic gadgets, but had to rent them from Apple, Apple would make sure that your (hand-cranked) iPhone lasted for decades, and it would be a very long time before you were offered an opportunity to abandon your iPad for an iPad 2. That’s a grim thought to anyone who has grown accustomed to rapid cascades of high-tech upgrades, but it’s a comparatively green one. The question is whether we could ever feel sufficiently threatened by our own appetites to voluntarily embrace anything so boring. How appealing would “green” seem if it meant less innovation and fewer cool gadgets—not more?

David Owen has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1991. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability and The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse.  He lives in Washington, Connecticut, with his wife, writer Ann Hodgman. 

Reprinted from: The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse by David Owen, with permission of Riverhead, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. © 2011 by David Owen.

Art ©Thomas B. Walker

 

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