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Friday, July 3, 2009

What idiot invented that wheel ?

The reason why the design of most objects around us makes sense, is not because it is the manifestation of genius work, but simply because...
The reason why the design of most objects around us makes sense, is not because it is the manifestation of genius work, but simply because we got accustomed to these designs, no matter how unintelligent they might be.

Think about it for a while: The first person/company to successfully design and market a product X to fulfill a need you might have (call it A) has pretty much scarred you with an idea that's going to stay with you for a while, and has created a model that other people/companies are going to have a tough time getting out of: The idea that your need A can only be fulfilled by a product that looks and behaves like X.
As time goes by, other companies will launch competitor products that build up on X's capabilities, refines and optimizes its design, and makes it look trendier. Meanwhile, the model is slowly becoming more rooted in your mind, and it is basically becoming impossible for you to imagine any other solution for the fulfillment of your need.
Problem is, X, as a solution, might be a bad one, but since it managed to create a trend, it got promoted to a "sticky bad solution", and now anyone coming up with a completely different design, that looks and behaves nothing like X, will have a tough barrier to break: How do you convince people to get rid of something they got used to ?

All this talk about X and A made me a bit dizzy to be honest, so let's get right down to something real, and example you can relate to: For instance, Cars.

Most cars today have internal combustion engines. A few years ago, all of them did, which has been the case pretty much ever since there was an automotive industry. One thing you might know about internal combustion engines, is that they produce carbon emissions, and basically pollute your air. What you might now know however, is that the basic design of the engine on the car you own today, or at least that you owned a few years ago, was laid out in the early 1900s. The changes that the internal combustion engine has seen over time were almost never drastic.

At some point people started noticing that with all the cars going around, the air was getting mighty dirty, so a lot of manufacturers focused their attention on reducing the emissions of their engines. But one thing seemed certain, you cannot make a 0% emission engine that runs on the combustion of fossil fuels.

Then someone noticed that the number of cars was increasing dramatically, while the earth's supply of fossil fuels was going in the opposite direction. Again, most manufacturers made the age-old mistake of looking for a modification on their designs to make their same 100 year old engine designs work using a different fuel, or less of it.
The idea of an electric car with an evidently completely different kind of engine would have seemed 'ridiculous'.

It's funny how bad choices come back to haunt you. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, General Motors was conditioned to look into alternative energy solutions, the company's survival depends on it. As we speak, GM engineers are probably looking into a possible electric car design. What strikes me as ironic, is that GM had released a fully electric car from 1996 to 1999, the EV1, as a "three year evaluation lease program", which basically meant you couldn't buy the car, you could just drive it around for three years and tell GM about its performance. Needless to say, the program was later discontinued, GM abandoned the idea altogether, and the only remaining EV1's are in museums for educational purposes.

So now everyone is talking about electric cars with 0% emissions, green energy, etc... How come we never thought of these things before ? Did we realize our survival was in peril, rounded up the best thinkers and engineers, and came up with these solutions ? No, these ideas have been there for a long while. Actually, the idea of electric cars has been there since the early 1900s, combustion engines beat them to the market that's all. And every step of the way, when we could've realized that the solution to some of our problems was in breaking away from the model we're accustomed to and build something new altogether, we chose procrastination ... that is until Nature forced our hand.

The market structure also has a lot to do with the rigidity of our models, since newcomers with new ideas might not be able to compete with manufacturing giants. But also, one of the reasons they can't compete is that we don't let them. We prefer to stick to what we're used to, and what we think works, instead of buying products that might make our lives much better, even if it takes us a little effort to get used to them.

So on a last note, don't sit on your ass doing nothing. Keep "Re-inventing the wheel", for all you know, the initial design might have been the successfully marketed work of a complete idiot.

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