Saturday, April 29, 2006

Techno-what? The curse of overengineering

This was presented as a speech to the Ellensburg Toastmasters Club on March 23, 2006


I searched an on-line dictionary for words beginning with TECHNO. Apart from that very word refering to a style of modern synthesized music I found:

Technobabble, technocrat and technocratic, technocracy, and finally Technological.

Recent use of the term Technological triggers my oxymoron detector, since much of what is being developed these days is rather 'techno-illogical.' Or, what I have referred to for years as OverEngineered.

You don't have to go far to confront this recent tendency today. From slicers and dicers in your kitchen to automatic toothbrushes in your bathroom, too long a list of things in your office and most noteably the vehicle you use to get to and from your office, unless, of course, you're one of those fortunate enough to work in an "e-cubicle." Today's horseless carriage has been littered with useless and often unsafe techno-illogical advancements, and it doesnt look like it's subsiding any time soon.

Ask Me what the etymology of invent is. Latin. invenio. It's a verb and means "come upon, discover, to find."

Most of you are aware I've gone back to school to get an Engineering degree. I'm not doing it for the money, though the field is leading in income brackets, I'm doing it because I love creating and inventing. But what company am I going to keep once I enter that field? Have we reached some kind of "super-saturation" point of innovation?

As I keep an eye on the current state of invention today, Try as I may I can't ignore the engineering mogul Microsoft. Bill Gates, who is absurdedly refered to as Chariman and "chief software architect" (I seriously doubt he has written a line of code for decades) spent most of his keynote addresses last year touting his new "Windows Mobile" technology along with an "ultra-mobile" TabletPC.

Now there's a bright idea. As if it's not bad enough that everyone is ignoring the distracted driving laws by talking on the phone, let's push surfing the internet, sending e-mail's and looking at maps while driving. There's a reason why maps have been difficult to open and close for years, get it? So why do we continue to try and "build a better mousetrap?"

Plain and simply; because we can.

The tendency for overengineering the automobile is not new. Consider; Electric windows.

Who drove here today in a vehicle with crank controlled windows?

It's a good thing you didn't have to drive over a bridge crossing a large body of water. Imagine trying to escape a sinking car when the water has shorted out the electric windows. Even those glass shattering hammers they sell at the auto store won't help you much until the pressure inside has matched the outside by filling with water, and then you're not going to be able to get much of a swing.

Crashing into another vehicle can also damage the power source to those handy controls. If you can't get out a crank would at least allow you to let some of the smoke out while you work around the airbag to find your jaws-of-life, perhaps even more impractical than the hammer. Despite the safety concerns this modern innovation of overengineering has become the norm in current automobile manufacturing.

Many innovation-driven manufacturers hold contests to encourage new ideas. Although I had to laugh when Microsoft held a "Youth" engineering contest last year in New York and the award was presented by P-diddy or puff-daddy Combs. (not my top canidate of a "role-model" for up and comming engineers.) I haven't been overly impressed with too many of such american-idol or star-search influenced efforts.

One such was the National Technical and Career Conference appropriately held at Disney-World. I have here the "Engineering News" newsletter for Berkeley students, faculty and staff. dated March 13th 2006.

Berkeley's team won second place with their "Hands-Off Toilet, a bathroom system that automates the raising and lowering of the toilet seat and flushing process."

It's been my contention since the advent of automatic flushers that we are fostering a generation of kids that don't know how to flush a toilet, what will this do? According to Eustaquio Alfonso Carrillo, leader of the team of, the article points out, all men: "We did it so that women would stop complaining." Well, I've got news for him.

I couldn't find out who won first place, the website of the hosting group was down. Imagine that. Was all this intened to make a mockery of Engineering? I'm not so sure, the headline of the article is: The most brilliant and practical design idea this side of modern plumbing. OK. It IS Berkeley. Or, as one poupular talk radio host likes to call it: Berzerkley. The same school who has been advocating "gender-neutral" restrooms.

I've only presented the tip of the iceberg of countless examples of useless "features" built in to modern-day consumer products.

What can we do to thwart this absurdity of innovation and tendency toward need-less driven over-engineering? ...besides fostering minimalist engineers like myself?

One idea came to me as I was reading a recent blog by a computer-programmer (in my mind the most blatant perpetrators of overengineering) he suggested that the antithesis of over-engineering is elegance. I started programming computers when 1 megabyte was a bunch. It was precious, we treated it with respect and made the best use of it. Elegance. This makes sense to me. Watch for elegance.

Also, be vigilant and aware of this tendency for overengineering and remember the success of technologies is still consumer driven.

And don't forget to put the toilet seat down.


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