Monday, November 28, 2011

Does size matter?

There is a story about Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple, and it goes something likes this: When the first prototype of the iPod was produced, it was shown to Jobs by one of his engineers. The initial reaction from Jobs was to ask why it was so big. The engineer protested, saying that, for its size, it was incredible and it could hold a 1 000 songs.

At this point, Jobs took the iPod, or so the story goes, walked over to a fish tank in his office and dropped the iPod into it. He then pointed to the bubbles that came out of the submerged device, noting that they were proof that there was still space inside and the iPod could be made smaller.

This story, whether true or not, highlights the link between technology and size, and the general trend towards increasingly smaller gadgets.

The first computer I used in the 1980s had a 10 Mb hard drive and was a giant hunk of metal. The hard drive alone weighed as much as a brick and was close to the size of a brick. At the time, 10 Mb was con- sidered to be an enormous amount of storage space; today, the average app is bigger than 10 Mb and a flash drive 1 000 times the size would be no bigger than your thumb nail.

The rapid shrinking of devices has prompted some technology analysts to note that we are no longer in the midst of a computer revolution but rather in a time of evolution.

Evolution implies a gradual practical adaptation to the environment. This is largely true when it comes to computers. For example, the more people travel, the more likely they would want a lightweight and small laptop, and manufacturers respond accordingly. However, modern society creates aberrations in a logical technological advance towards the minuscule.

In the 1980s, it was the size of your ghetto blaster that was critical to your street credi- bility. Destroying your spine by dragging around a 4 ft radio on your shoulder with speakers large enough to blow your head off was the epitome of cool. This was replaced by the tiny iPod with mini earbuds.

But, recently, I noticed that the use of discrete earbuds has been replaced by oversized headphones. Sound quality aside, one reason for this is that, as iPods have become smaller, it is harder to show off your shiny new gadget. So highly visible headphones, with the designer labels showing, have become the new fashion accessory.

The use of 4 × 4 vehicles in cities is a further example that bucks the trend toward miniaturisation. No one really needs a car the size of a tank to drive around a city, and a small micro car would make more sense. But that does not stop from us buying large vehicles completely unsuited to the urban environment. Some argue this is about comfort and safety, but we all know a 4 × 4 is also a status symbol.

So size is not only dependent on functionality but is deeply linked to social standing. The question, therefore, is whether we are, in fact, evolving or not? One thesis is that modern life is causing a slowdown in evolution, but other scientists argue we are adapting even more rapidly to different environments, foods and lifestyles.

But I simply do not trust humans to do what is in the best interests of the species. Driving environment-destroying cars is a case in point.

You would think we would have evolved to have a ‘sensible gene’. Such a gene would prevent us from using things that destroy the planet or eating food that slowly kills us, not to mention wearing overpriced impractical sound cups on our ears in busy public spaces. We would do well to remember the words of Wendelin Wiedeking, former CEO of Porsche: “If size did matter, the dinosaurs would still be alive.”


This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 28 October 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.