D: The 50 year Computer

This theme will investigate the possibilities inherent in designing a computer infrastructure capable of lasting fifty years. It will generalise from the lessons learnt in the development of the Fairphone, with its modular construction and its commitment to making the hardware (and eventually the software) amenable to repair by its user.

When Apple released the iPhone 7 analysts released pessimistic reports lamenting the fact the the new phone represented an incremental improvement rather than an innovative disruption. Clearly then, the business of making and selling mobile phones has come to depend on novelty to drive sales. The business no longer seeks to facilitate communication. Rather it attempts to create new needs as often as possible in order to render phones disposable and keep people from keeping their phones.

The Volkswagen Beetle represents the opposite approach to design and selling. Phones (and automobiles) usually consist of sealed units that discourage the user from attempted to customise or mend them. More often than not opening sealed units will render your warranty void. The VW Beetle had a design that encouraged tinkering with the result that many owners did indeed mend their own cars. The basic design of the car remained the same for seventy years and even in the 1990s owners could learn to fix their own car.

This model encourages autonomy, and encourages the idea of sufficiency. We have a car and we will keep it working ourselves as long as it holds together. We will not sell it in two years time to satisfy an itch for novelty. Current automobiles, like mobile phones, hide their workings from their owners in order to deskill them and turn them into helpless consumers.

This project will look at what it might mean to reconceive home computers in the spirit of the VW Beetle. Could we design a computer that would last fifty years without being rethought? People’s needs will not change radically, just as they have not changed in the last twenty or thirty years. They will write documents, listen to music, watch films, edit and store images, play games, make and view websites. Do they have to upgrade their operating system and buy new hardware every few years in order to continue doing the same task? Can we imagine an infrastructure that lets the home computer evolve as technical developments evolve, without needing reinvention for the sake of profit?