Newer Isn't Always Better

But sometimes attachment to the old gets in the way.

BOAC 747 taking off in 1970
BOAC 747 taking off in 1970.

 Getty Images

British Airways has just announced the retirement of its fleet of Boeing 747s. Economist Tim Harford writes in the Financial Times that "for all the rightful concern about the environmental cost of long-haul travel, the plane will be missed by passengers and pilots alike." We did our own paean to the plane on its 50th birthday, noting how it changed aviation forever. Harford uses the occasion to muse about how some technologies last a very long time like this airplane did, often aside newer technologies. He points to "The Shock of the Old," where author David Egerton notes that "we persistently conflate the technological frontier with the workhorse technologies we actually use."

Ride a bicycle!
Ride a bicycle!.  Roanoke Cycle Co.

Harford notes that he rides a bike to work, not because he can't afford a car, but because "in a city the bike is fun to ride, effortless to park and a much faster way to get around." It's also having a huge boom right now, just like it did a hundred years ago in another pandemic. Some old technologies just work better.

Treehugger has long promoted the idea of keeping your old stuff going, repairing and repurposing. My colleague Katherine Martinko has described how we should resist the Diderot Effect, the temptation to buy new stuff, and suggests that we make do: "Our focus should be on making things last and serve their purpose, not throwing them away."

The cat and I both loved that machine.
The cat and I both loved that machine.  Lloyd Alter

I am thinking about this as I write on my 2019 MacBook Air, which I finally can actually do after having the keyboard replaced. It reminds me how much I and the cat miss the warmth of my 2012 Macbook Pro, replaced simply because I thought it was time for something new (and lighter). I was so wrong; had I waited until it actually had to be replaced (it's still going strong) I could have got a decent keyboard.

We Have to Avoid Technological Lock-in

There is a dark side to hanging on too long to old technologies. That wonderful 747 with four engines is way less efficient in fuel burned per passenger mile than the fancy new carbon fiber twin jets like the 787 for a long-haul flight. It is even more evident in our cars and our homes:

One reason all this matters is that old technology adds inertia to our economic system. If we want to take action on climate change — and I sometimes despairingly wonder if that is true — then we must recognise how long it takes to change the old way of doing things. The problem is sometimes described as “carbon lock-in,” as the typical house, or car, or power generator, falls far short of the cleanest, most efficient option. 

There is absolutely no reason in the world that anyone should want to or even be allowed to buy a new home with a gas furnace when some insulation and an air-source heat pump can do the job. And of course, we are locking in the exhaust from gasoline-powered cars by letting the car companies sell them when there is an all-electric alternative.

Technological inertia is not only the fault of evil corporations living off the avails of fossil fuels; there is also active resistance to innovation. By all rights, I should be writing this on a Xerox computer and taking kitty pix with a Kodak digital camera; they invented this stuff. Instead, they were both done on Apple products.

There is also our own resistance to change; my wife will throw me out of the house rather than throw out her gas stove. It is locked-in.

But it's like that Boeing 747, the plane that made mass air travel affordable, and that is still beloved by many; it's time to let go.