This post brought to you by my bathroom at work.

Ok, not literally. Nor did I write this in the bathroom, but two separate plumbing malfunctions both perfectly illustrate something that I’ve been thinking about a lot.

  1. One of the urinals (of the extremely convenient, sensing and electronically controlled variety) was continuously running water. If it was a conventional toilet, I know that it could probably be fixed by jiggling the handle or, in a more extreme case, opening up the top, looking at the innards, and unsticking the flap. However, the working parts of this urinal were literally a black box or hidden behind a wall. This meant that I couldn’t really do much about it because fixing it would require specialized tools and/or much more equipment.
  2. The left-most sink (again, of the extremely convenient, sensing and electronically controlled variety – see a theme?) has been out of order for about a month. Today I learned that the only problem is that the battery powering the electronics needs to be replaced. However, this again requires special tools to access from under the sink. I’m only guessing, but a convenient battery hatch would probably be more unsightly and easily tampered with by mischievous college students.

Both of these malfunctions are examples of a tradeoff that seems to happen a lot in modern technology. We get technology with more beneficial complexity, beauty and ease-of-use 99.9% of the time in exchange for it being much harder or impossible to fix the 0.1% of the time when it breaks.

Some inelegant but descriptive terms for this idea include:

  • ‘the discrete workingness of modern things.’
  • ‘the black-boxification of technology’

Some elegant but less descriptive terms include:

  • ‘Complexity tradeoffs’ and
  • ‘Working until it doesn’t.’