Don’t worry. They’ll make more. Or not. Change is accelerating. Tomorrow’s thing will be better than yesterday’s thing, and yesterday’s thing will be cheaper as a result. If something breaks, replace it or upgrade. The economy loves it, even if the upgrade isn’t an improvement. You know I’m probably about to flip that logic, and you’re right, but this isn’t a Luddite revival. The change in perspective is, however, to point out that some things we take as progress are as much rationalization as real. And that, looking back at what they’re not making more of is an inspiration to appreciate what we have here and now.
Earlier today I was talking to my dad. He served on Liberty ships in World War II. Liberty ships were built to only last a few trips across the Atlantic in convoys. The strategy reflected the times and may never be repeated. The Allies knew the German U-boats were too efficient, so in addition to trying to sink the U-boats, the US decided to build ships faster than they could be sunk. It was a war of attrition and it wasn’t a secret to those involved. My dad served on them, switched to work on land after the war, and then helped run the Merchant Marine Veterans association. Last week they had one of their conventions. Fewer men arrive every year. There are even fewer of the ships. Only two are operable. They won’t make more, unless it is for a museum.
I miss my TR7. I never should’ve had a TR7. It was a two seat sports car with some innovative design that pushed a little too far; but it was fun. It was called the Wedge and the only reason I bought one was because I wanted to learn how to use a manual transmission, and it was one of the cheapest cars on the lot. Besides, something in my 22 year old’s brain suspected being young and single was the best, and possibly only, time to own such a car. I’m over six feet tall. My head almost hit the ceiling. The only way my foot could stay on the gas was to tilt my thigh to the left and bend my shin back to the right to get around the transmission housing. I drove cross-country twice that way; one time with the interior heater on full blast to keep the car from overheating as I drove across the Great Plains in summer. They don’t make those anymore.
My main part-time job is as project manager for the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum, eventually an online museum for the history of how computers changed what, how, when, why, and where we learn. The computers that enabled the computing are of about the same age as the TR7. We’re building the museum from a collection of things that can be digitized and put online: documents, videos, and software. We’re also collecting stories from the people who lived through the early years of the revolution that saw the teacher’s role change from lecturer to facilitator. The people with those memories can’t be replicated. Even the software that has the illusion of permanence because it is digital, is perishable because magnetic media deteriorate and the hardware that reads it becomes rarer every year. In some cases, there are no spare parts and no one knows how to build duplicates to sufficient precision. (As I recall, the Living Computer Museum in Seattle would be greatly relieved if someone found a supply of RP06 or RM05 read heads.)
As an aerospace engineer I look around and see what we can no longer see. There are no successors to the Concorde or the Space Shuttle. While many will cheer the departure of both, they also represent a collective retreat from capabilities that aren’t easily replicated. It is easy to say we don’t need them and never should have had them, but it is also easy to imagine the benefits of quicker responses to trans-oceanic crises, and the utilization of space rather than our home for resources – and even defense of the planet. The Concorde’s first flight was 1969. The Space Shuttle design effort was started the same year. If we found we needed either of them, it would take years, if not a decade to redevelop the technologies, design the vehicles, build them and fly them. I know. I worked on next generation versions of each, and watched airplanes stall at slight modifications to the 737 and spacecraft revert to Apollo-era concepts. (Come on Space-X et al.)
Step outside technology and see similar achievements in architecture, infrastructure, and even politics. The ornamentation in cathedrals is rarely attempted. The US Interstate system is collapsing, not even being upgraded. The US Constitution was designed to be revised, improved, and upgraded for contemporary society; yet, we have yet to get around to rewriting the Second Amendment to eliminate confusion, or reflect technological influences like our digital lives.
As I said above, I’m not advocating for a Luddite revival, even though there are a wealth of low-tech answers to modern problems. My intent, which may be personal as much as public, is to appreciate what we have now.
This is an era when:
- I can write a post like this and publish it to the world for the cost of a bit of my time and a bit of electricity. (Though some would say I should pay for the privilege.)
- I can eat food from almost any continent, and be so casual about it that I may not know how far that ginger traveled. (Though I am glad for the local butcher who makes excellent sausage, steaks, and bacon from local herds.)
- I can heat my house by flipping a switch or programming the thermostat. (Though I do notice that propane bill.)
- I can store food for months, thaw it, and cook it within a few square feet for very little money. (And glad I can watch videos about how to improve my cooking.)
- I can get into my truck, load it up with hundreds of pounds of whatever I need and drive hundreds of miles if necessary. (And be glad for cruise control and a cd player.)
- I can open my home’s doors and windows to let in the good weather, or close them and be warm and dry inside. (Though there are a few panes that need fixing.)
- I can go on, and won’t; because I’d rather you created your own list rather than reading more of mine.
We can’t save everything. Some things we should save at least a few of for historical purposes. The most perishable things are us; because at least for now, we humans are fragile and impermanent. Other things we should maintain, if for no other reason than we don’t lose the momentum. Frugality is not being cheap, but being appreciative of the resources available. The biggest gift is to not take what we have for granted; whether that is a house, friends, a community, a society, or a planet. There are plenty of things we can make more of, but the most precious are those that are in such short supply that they are unique. Thanks for you all.