"Technology" has become a loaded word over the last hundred years or so. It's acquired trappings of being impenetrable, somewhat magical... and, above all, constantly changeable, especially under the guise of "advancement". Technology, the message goes, will constantly need replacing, because it is constantly improving.
Last weekend I cleared out a shopping bag's worth of old electronics I had around the apartment. Old mobile phones, some of which had dead-end designs (front and back screens with different controls on each side). Charging cords for items I no longer owned, and which didn't fit anything else. PC speakers that have had a broken wire for ages. And so on.
Some things I decided to keep, like my Bluetooth portable keyboard which, one day, I will figure out how to synch with newer devices, dammit. There's nothing wrong with it otherwise, and it annoys me.
But one thing, one of the oldest things in the drawer, was not only worth keeping, but had no clearly improved successor. My scientific calculator.
That calculator was probably the first piece of electronics I bought myself, for Grade 11 Physics, in 1987.
It cost me $27* at Consumers Distributing. It must have been a major (or at least majorly nervous) purchase for me, because I can remember standing in line for it with my order form all filled out, and checking that nothing was broken at the purchase inspection counter immediately afterwards. Probably I'd left it until right before a test to replace my old calculator.
The calculator I'd been using until then was one my dad had bought around 1979. It only had the basic functions, so I had to enter the 1/x calculations by hand when figuring out parallel resistance in an electrical circuit. Also, its rechargeable battery wasn't holding a charge anymore, so I had to plug it in during class, which annoyed the teacher.
The new calculator, as you can see, is solar — no more embarrassment over low batteries! Texas Instruments came out with a model which let you tilt the display and the solar panel while the keypad stayed level, but the one I bought worked fine, so I was happy with it.
And that's the thing. It's now 2016, almost thirty years later, and all the keys still work, the solar cell still works, it just works. Yes, I've got a calculator on my phone and my laptop just like everyone else, and okay, usually I use those, but sometimes it's easier just to pull the 1987 one out of the drawer. It has better memory features than my phone's basic calculator, and I never have to worry about recharging it.
It got me thinking, because here's an item that's old by most consumables standards, certainly ancient in its category (personal electronics), but there's nothing really to beat it except that it's only single-purpose. Even the paint on the keypad buttons is still intact.
I mean, this thing is contemporary with Teddy Ruxpin.
The killer feature, and the one which elevates it over teddy bears with cassette tape players in their backs, is the solar power. Anything with a non-replaceable rechargeable battery would have been rendered well useless by now. This calculator was freed from the grid when it was manufactured. So long as the solar cell doesn't bust, so long as the keys hold out, so long as I don't drop it onto a hard surface (erm, again), it'll keep lasting.
That thirty-year-old solar calculator has also outlasted its descendants because it was built a little better — because it was presented as something expensive, serious gear. The newer ones are often sold in blister packs. Sometimes they're even free, a little prezzie with a promotional logo stamped below the display. Yet with all the advancements in material engineering and circuit boards, those ones don't last.
The calculator is good proof that maybe all technology doesn't have to keep advancing. That some things can be, if not perfected (because what's that?), at least accepted as being as good as it gets. After a certain point, the only "advancements" are in finding cheaper ways to make a thing and in making it well enough to be purchaseable, but poorly enough it will need replacing soon.
And all at a cheap enough price so the consumer doesn't get annoyed, of course. But there's nothing apex about that.
*Hm. The 1986/87 catalogue has a similar calculator for $49. Maybe I was worried I was going to miss the sale price.