Rise of the Machines – Why do old things matter?

I went to a Christmas craft show today and a large part of the space was devoted to antiques and collectibles. The vendors had very large spaces with lots of old stuff ranging from typewriters to old door locks, to china and Polariod cameras. These guys weren’t just cleaning out their attics, they were definitely “in the business”.

Picking through old mechanical stuff is a great joy of mine. It doesn’t have to necessarily work as long as it retains enough of its parts that I can see how it used to work. I don’t have much use for old magazines and china, but I love old machines; or, at least, the things that preceded our machines of today. I must not be alone because the vendors there obviously know there is business in collecting and selling this stuff. That got me thinking about the reasons why we love old stuff.

I am a knowledge worker (Linux syadmin) and the size of the plant footprints I have been working with has steadily increased over the years. I now work in a globally distributed plant with innumerable servers. As my career progressed I came to realize that in very short order things become too complex for one person to handle or, in some cases, to even comprehend. Very quickly it becomes obvious that the only way very complex things happen is when we are able to build upon work from other people in the past.

The Open Source Software community is a great example. The days when one person could make a significantly useful and polished piece of software are all but gone. Even in the case when a single developer may own a project today, she most certainly relies heavily on frameworks and tools built by others. In the same way, 100 year-old door locks hold a fascination for me because they tell me a story about how today’s locks came to be. 19th century locks have pitifully tiny springs in them that cause the action to work and they don’t last very long in every day use. Today’s locks are much more robust, but in order to get that way, we had to figure out what didn’t work very well and, in some cases, we had to wait for the technology to be invented to make its successor.

It would not be possible to simply produce a reliable, working lock out of the blue. It’s necessary to go through iterations to develop something good. If we did not have door locks today and built one from scratch, it would surely resemble the antiquated locks of the past instead of the highly advanced, bluetooth controlled keypads we have today.

There is value in iteration. In the book The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond includes the reason for this value in one of his rules for creating good software:

Plan to throw one [version] away; you will, anyhow.
This rule is an acknowledgement that we don’t know what we don’t know until we try to solve the problem. Going into a problem with the hubris to think you fully understand all its complexity has proven time and again to only lead to folly.

I think that is why old things speak to me. My work has provided me with a very keen awareness that making things is not easy. Antiques that are left behind for me to look at show me the path to how we arrived at what we have today. An old typewriter that was built without a number 1 key makes me realize that the lower-case letter L was good enough until, for some reason, it wasn’t. Later typewriters that have correction ribbons show me how our world-view was still paper-centric and the solution to typos was, basically, to paint over them in some fashion. Finally, looking at computers today we have a “standard” keyboard set at somewhere between 103-105 keys and it includes several modifier keys that allow a wide variety of characters to be typed. And, of course, the paper-paradigm is long gone because we’ve decoupled typing and printing, so we are able to correct at will. All of these things happened because people wanted them and until the current typewriter did not meet their needs, there was no way to know what modifications were needed. This is the value of iteration and building upon work from the past.