A Brush With Resilience

The iPhone in my pocket is a miracle: an encyclopedia, a communicator, a calculator, a notebook, a library, a compass, a tape measure, a camera, a flashlight, a watch, etc. Yet for all of its capabilities, it’s also not very durable. In another year, my iPhone will start to feel sluggish, and its battery won’t last a full day. In another ten years, it’ll practically be useless. This is partly by design and partly because its technologies evolve so rapidly.

Not all things are designed to be ephemeral like the iPhone. Yesterday my family and I visited the SS Red Oak Victory, a World War II ship that is part of the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front national park in Richmond, CA. The Red Oak was built in 1944 and is a marvel of 1940s-era engineering. What amazed me most is how many of the ship’s communication technologies are still operational.

For example, the ship’s internal telephone system, which is powered by small hand-cranked electrical generators, still works, as does its late-1940s radio. When compared to my iPhone, these things are incredibly crude, of course. But the fact that they’re still in good working order after 70 years was illuminating.

This is by design. The conditions under which the Red Oak operated demanded resilience. Its operators could find themselves in remote ports of call, with little or no access to expertise. They would need to fend for themselves, and the ship was designed to make this possible, if not easy. It was built to be easily repaired and maintained by the people who operated it; people who wouldn’t necessarily have advanced engineering knowledge.

Also, the Red Oak wasn’t mean to be consumed. That is, it’s not an artifact designed to generate ongoing want, to be discarded and replaced. There are redundancies — inefficiencies — everywhere. The ship’s components are large and sturdy. They weren’t designed for portability, efficiency, or economy — they were built to last.

I don’t expect the same degree of resiliency in my iPhone. But touring the Red Oak made me think about how we can make the things we experience on the iPhone — our information environments — more like that ship; better able to stand the test of time.