Last month a package arrived at my door. It was a gift from my dad — inside were several dozen DVDs, each carefully packaged with handwritten notes —
- Nick’s 6th birthday party
- New Years Eve (1994?)
- Trip to the River Walk
I knew my dad had been working on it for years — sorting through the VHS tapes in his basement, Googling ways to get them out of their long-dead, analog format. Here was the fruit of his labor — at least one hundred hours of footage that he had neurotically collected over the past thirty years — from my first steps, to the angsty teenage days when I couldn’t be convinced to look into the camera.
When he asked me a week later if I had watched them, I felt bad telling him the truth.
“I actually, well — we don’t have a DVD player.”
The thought was inconceivable to him. But in fact, my fiancé Katy and I had been living without a TV for a couple of years now. Between the two of us we have two MacBooks, an iPad, and a mismatched pair of smartphones. Somewhere along the line, the thin slits that accepted DVDs had disappeared from the sides of our devices, and we hadn’t really noticed. We’d moved onto Netflix, digital downloads, flash drives when necessary.
“Don’t worry,” I assured him, “We’re gonna find a way to watch these.”
I meant it, I just wasn’t sure how yet. Any sort of device purchases had been put on hold when the first images of the new Macbook Pro started popping up on the internet; that miraculous, gold-flecked, steel butterfly. It had more memory than the Air, and was so thin that if you turned it sideways it literally disappeared. It was everything I was looking for, except for one minor issue — the widely-discussed single port.
The computer I’m typing on now has a wide array of ports to plug things into — a USB for my keyboard, Thunderbolt for my external monitor, even an SD card slot for my camera. The new Macbook has only one — a USB-C port. While this is an industry-standard port (not a proprietary invention of Apple), its so new that almost no hardware has been developed that can use it without a daisy-chain of adaptors.
There’s been a number of detailedarticles on what the USB-C port is, addressing the concern over whether you’ll be able to hook up older devices to it. The short answer is, yes — given enough time for manufactures to catch up to the USB-C, or enough money for a splitter cable, you’ll get it there. Apple’s bet, however, is that you won’t want to. And therein lies the problem.
Every article I’ve read about Apple’s single-port decision has been future-based — and understandably so. People are interested in how tomorrow’s devices will look and work, how their lives will change in response. But in staring at my box of inaccessible childhood memories, I wonder if anyone has bothered to think about the past.
In his book Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy, Jonathan Chapman explains that “we are consumers of meaning not matter.” As a professor of sustainable design at the University of Brighton, his research has focused on designing objects and hardware that people hold on to and continue to use, rather than throw away. There’s more to it than just standing up to frequent use — Chapman believes that things only remain “valuable” over time if they are able to grow with us. For example, take the current trend of “raw” denim jeans. They operate on the premise that if you wear in a pair of jeans yourself (rather than letting the manufacturer pre-wash them with chemicals), not only will they last longer, they’ll break in and fade in a way that is unique to your body. Any physical product with staying power works this way — its the reason people have trouble letting go of a car that’s been driven to pieces, why Katy’s grandmother has used the same tea kettle for over forty years. When we’re able to interact with a piece of design on an emotional level, we’re able to get more than a utilitarian reward from it — it becomes a part of us.
On the other hand, imagine using the same laptop for forty years just because you liked it. You couldn’t. Users who try to form that kind of emotional connection with a computer or piece of software are ridiculed. They get used to the way Facebook looks, or the way their desktop folders work, and then one day an update just happens and everything is different. Whatever connection they had with the previous design is reset — a cycle that repeats itself so frequently that it’s hard to find empathetic value inside any of our digital devices.
Let me make an important distinction — I don’t wish my Macbook had a VHS slot. Or even one for a DVD, for that matter. Apple hasn’t prevented me from watching my childhood videos — I could buy an external disc drive and hook it up to my laptop, or I could finally get a TV. But the thing is, I’m not going to. This is the bet Apple is making with its single port — that if they burn the bridge, you won’t take the long way around — you’ll simply stop visiting whatever was on the other side.
There’s two parts to our computers — the hardware and software they run on, and the bytes of ourselves we put inside of them. For me, emotional durability for the tech industry isn’t a matter of longer-lasting computers — its a matter of design that brings those “bytes of us” forward with it. While sites like Archive.org work to preserve the internet’s past, each year it gets harder to do at a personal level.
When Katy’s iPhone 4 stopped working last year, I helped her set up her shiny new 6. She marveled as her contacts and photos repopulated the new device like magic.
“Now do the voicemails!” she said.
“Did you back them up in iCloud?”
“What is iCloud?” she asked.
I used the new phone to check her voicemail — no dice.
Immediately, she seemed overcome with emotion. She tugged at the screen with her thumb, as if they could be pulled back out with enough effort.
“I saved every voicemail from when we first started dating,” she explained. “The one when you called me cause you didn’t know how to get into the front gate of my apartment. The first one where you said, ‘I love you,’ really awkwardly cause we had just started saying it.”
“I … I think they’re gone,” I told her.
Somewhere out there are about twenty recordings that, when arranged in order, form a short story about our relationship. It’s the kind of story I’d like to listen to again someday, when we’ve been married so long that we’ve forgotten how it started — but like many before us, we failed to take the steps necessary to hold on to them. It’s our responsibility — no one’s questioning that — but I hope that one day, our devices start meeting us halfway.