Gilding the Lily


I recently read “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson. In this fiction, a society of cloistered mathematicians live in isolated communities with only occasional contact with the surrounding world. Upon contact with the outside world, the mathematicians often express surprise that humanity at large is still iterating designs on objects and methods that have existed for milennia. One example in the book is a gas stove. The hero of the book is flummoxed that although the outer society has been heating food through all of recorded human history, the basic gas stove is still failure prone, dangerous, and generally poor. The few objects that the mathematicians rely on are of frozen designs so highly perfected that they seem almost magical to outsiders.

Every time I have to replace a toothbrush, the toothbrush I just finished with is no longer available at any of my local stores. There are hundreds of shapes and configurations of toothbrush available to me, but none are the one that just satisfactorily cleaned my teeth for 3 months. This has always confounded me. Surely, by now, there ought to be One Toothbrush. Maybe 3 or 4 are needed to account for the variations in the human mouth.

Likewise the sedan type automobile should have converged on one exterior shape almost a hundred years ago. This shape has been known since very early in the existince of the car.

So often, what I hear referred to as “design” is really just figuring out a new shape for an object. It is a zero sum game in which a new appearance is considered a success. A new appearance for a mass produced object is wildly expensive to implement. It is indefensible from the perspective of the function of the object. Take for example, the recent debacle with the malfunctioning antenna of the iphone 4. Macintosh computers, considered a champion of “design”, sold an expensive product that had a significant failure in the backbone of it’s core function. But it was pretty.

In the worst cases, the visual design iteration will actually hamper the function or integrity of an object. This problem is currently rampant in the world of bicycles. “Concept” bicycles, amost without exception these days, feature some kind of hubless wheel. Even if this were readily achievable for a reasonable cost, which it isn’t, it would actually make a bicycle worse in a number of ways.

What is it about us that fails to recognize when something is as good as it is going to get? Why can’t we stick with what works?

I much enjoyed the book and highly recommend it.


2 Responses to “Gilding the Lily”

  1. Kimberly Says:

    I like you Toby. This is the kind of conversation I have with my students in which the response is: blank stare.

  2. maureen Says:

    Ugh! All those toothbrushes make me crazy. How is a girl supposed to just go to the store and get a normal toothbrush without having to sift through a bazillion options?

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