O-Tech – The Endurance of Technological Overkill

The concept overkill technologies (o-tech) may be a tool to further examine why it is so hard to agree upon ideas of sustainability. O-tech can be used to scrutinize the dynamics of dimensioning and scaling, and how normality is constructed. The idea is that what is categorized as an overdimensioned technology (o-tech) depends on a range of social and cultural factors. O-tech is a tool to examine questions of size, but also to highlight aesthetic aspects. When is something experienced as “too much” or extreme in functional or aesthetic terms?

Totally different technologies and products, like SUV’s (Sports Utility Vehicles), software applications (e.g. Microsoft Word), hi-fi equipment, but also domestic gear like stone mangles can be examined to unveil the cultural dynamics of o-tech. By comparing disparate technologies we can learn about various driving forces and cultural characteristics behind processes of dimensioning and scaling.

MUSCLE MACHINES

One aspect is when the symbolic or aesthetic dimensions of an object become more important than its functional qualities in a certain context. This is obvious in case of SUV’s (the most obvious example of which is the Hummer). Vehicles optimized for off-road use that are incorporated in crowded urban contexts are good examples of o-tech. We would probably find lots of similar technologies if we’d start to look around. The bombastic, baroque and monumental are wide-spread features. But the point is to not only concentrate on obvious “show-off-designs” or macho-tech where military or “call of the wild”-aesthetics and functionalities are ported into different domains. Let’s instead widen the scope to include a variety of processes and occurrences that lead to over-dimensioned stuff.

DOMESTIC O-TECH

O-tech also occurs in domestic settings, traditionally associated with women´s work. One example is the stone mangle, a piece of heavy household equipment used to smoothen and straighten textiles. An excursion to a basement of a Swedish apartment house built around the 1950’s may lead you to rooms where these gigantic mangles prevail.

The use of these massive mangles is not very widespread today. Stone Mangling is more or less a subculture these days. But for decades Swedish women were supposed to spend serious time with this heavy machinery to straighten the family’s sheets and table cloths. It’s interesting to juxtapose stone mangles with SUV’s, and then ask the question about dimensioning and when a technology can be considered as o-tech.

FEATURITIS

There are many sides to the o-tech phenomenon. The dimensioning of technologies can be dependent on the dynamics within a certain industry, e.g. the ways that software applications are growing in size and complexity as new functions are added with every upgrade of the product, a phenomenon that design researcher Donald Norman (1999) has called creeping featurism, featuritis or feature creep. Norman´s concept may be related to ideas about overengineering, that is when products are made more complex or robust than many of the users in a certain market perceive as necessary.

BETTER TOO MUCH THAN TOO LITTLE

O-tech is related to questions of social status and the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome, or its derivative, “being ahead of the Joneses”. It can be associated with consumption, with supersizing, with marketing strategies of “buy three for the price of two”, and “get the executive premium prestige platinum plus package for the normal price if you buy now”.

The attitude “better too much than too little” may be another reason for o-tech or perhaps also what could be characterized as cultural elephantiasis. O-tech also occurs when consumers are searching for appliances and goods that are future-proof (“You don’t need these features today, but future developments will require them”). A recurrent adversary in this quest for future proof technology is the planned obsolescence of products.

The word o-tech is not primarily meant to define a category, but to be used as a potential  analytical tool or an entrance for discussion about the roles of different technologies. It’s an invitation to think about the functions, aesthetics, values, status, history and engendering of different technologies. What does it mean that technologies are over-dimensioned in certain contexts? Why does o-tech prevail, and why are new kinds of o-tech constantly being developed? How are ideas about overdimensioning, the extreme or excessive constructed, and how is o-tech related to strivings for sustainability?

By | 2017-05-19T15:03:03+00:00 February 20th, 2010|stories|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Don Norman February 20, 2010 at 19:51

    A very nice essay. Many people who write about the topic (see all the recent writing on “simplexity”) put the blame on designers and marketing. Your article does a much better job of placing the issue as a clear cultural bias. After all, designers and marketing people simply try to provide what people want. Because it comes from culture, it is very difficult to change.

    Mangling is fascinating. Of course, it has been replaced today with ironing, and ironing has been replaced (for some) with crease-resistant fabrics.

    But why? After all, clothes function just as well if wrinkled from wash as when neatly pressed, sometimes with very visible pressing seams. Obviously, fashion demands that we wear crisply pressed clothes, not wrinkled ones. Hence the need to use a Mangler, or an iron, or to have the clothes commercially pressed, or to purchase special fabrics.

    So it is all based on culture. In other words, to reduce o-tech, we should not make our claims to manufacturers of goods but rather to ways of changing cultural norms.

    THanks for the article. Thanks for writing.

  2. robertwillim February 21, 2010 at 12:17

    Thanks for the comment Don,

    I agree that it is fruitful to concentrate on the cultural aspects of these issues. A lot of the sustainability discussion is either focused on design and marketing or when it comes to users on atomized decisions like bying a hybrid car, recycling garbage or switching off lamps when you leave a room. But if we don’t learn more about the often complex intertwinings of cultural processes, habits, routinized behaviour, de facto standards, innovation, design and marketing etc etc we will end up repeating the same kind of arguments.

    Mangling is interesting and is intimately coupled to ideas and experiences of comfort and ”everyday luxury”. One argument of people still mangling today is that ”you haven’t experienced real luxury if you haven’t slept in a bed made with mangled sheets.” I find it thrilling that people are ready to take quite extreme measures to get rid of wrinkles in their textiles. So there’s many sides to o-tech. Hopefully the concept can be useful to somewhat twist the sustainability debate.

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