From slide rule to calculator app to…ChatGPT?

On a shelf in the Badger’s home office is a pristine British Thornton slide rule in its original case. It hasn’t been used in years. In fact, it’s hardly been used since the Badger bought it during his first week as a university student because it was a recommended tool for his subject. Various friends have poked fun at it over the years, jauntily calling it – and the Badger – a relic rendered obsolete by first electronic calculators, and latterly apps on smartphones. Nevertheless, a friend recently gifted the Badger a vintage slide rule instruction pamphlet to ‘complement this Museum piece’! The gift was accepted graciously. It heightened awareness not only that anyone born since the 1970s will never have used a slide rule, but also that the student Badger had actually hastened this tool’s demise by buying a pocket electronic calculator as soon as they became widely available and affordable.

The slide rule’s 300-year reign as a personal calculating tool ended abruptly in the mid-1970s. By the time the Badger had completed his degree, every student on his course had bought a Sinclair Cambridge, Sinclair Scientific, or Texas Instruments electronic calculator. When youngsters josh about the slide rule on his shelf, the Badger reminds them that Buzz Aldrin used one during the Apollo 11 moon mission, and scientists and engineers used them when designing, building, and manufacturing the first computers. They are often amazed, but always respond by highlighting the virtues of the calculator app on their smartphone.

Reading the vintage slide rule pamphlet reminded the Badger that his purchase of an electronic calculator as an undergraduate was an early part of the microelectronics revolution that’s changed every aspect of life since. Reflecting today, it seems amazing that personal calculating devices have morphed from a tactile, non-electronic slide rule into a calculator app on a smartphone reliant on microelectronics to function. Of course, what’s happened to personal calculation devices is merely a specific example of the massive impact that rapid technological advance has on our lives.

Today the Badger’s slide rule is a decorative bygone. His most recent electronic pocket calculator is also infrequently used and languishes in the desk draw because the calculator app on his smartphone has become his default pocket calculator. But even use of this app is waning! Why? Because just speaking to Google or Alexa does straightforward maths. The days of needing a calculator app thus seem numbered, especially if AI like ChatGPT ultimately has the impact that Microsoft anticipates. So, here’s a thought to end with. While the Badger’s slide rule will always be an antique talking point sitting on someone’s shelf, an obsolete calculator app will just disappear into the ether and have no decorative value whatsoever. Hmm, perhaps the Badger needs to stop reading the instruction pamphlet and drink less coffee…

Obsolescence; from ink cartridges to Smart Meters

Bah, humbug! Having to buy new ink cartridges for the Badger’s printer always rankles. New ones are expensive, cheaper repurposed ones often prove to be of variable quality and using ink refilling kits has rarely been successful. It rankles that a set of black and colour cartridges now cost 60% of the price for the printer in the first place! Ink cartridge pricing is, of course, part of how printer companies maximise their revenues from selling their printers, but that’s no comfort for the consumer who feels fleeced when the ink runs out.  

This grumpiness was caused by printing an article on obsolescence in the tech industry for a friend. The ink ran out halfway through with no replacement cartridges to hand. Given the advances in technology since ink cartridges became commonplace in the 1980s, surely, the Badger mused, ink cartridges should now be obsolete? Surely printers can be designed and built with ink reservoirs that users can fill cleanly from ink bottles? Surely that would be a cheaper, user-friendly, and environment-friendly approach? The printer companies, of course, prefer to preserve the current ‘obsolete’ status quo because it provides a predictable and profitable long term revenue stream.

Anyway, this little incident made the Badger read the part-printed document which highlighted that obsolescence, planned or otherwise, pervades our daily lives. The tech advances of the last forty years have shortened the lifespan of the gadgets, equipment,  and systems we use daily with many companies making huge amounts of money from this fact. Just look at the evolution of the smartphone over the last fifteen or so years. Whenever you bought one, a better one came along within months of your purchase, and the solution to accidental damage or dodgy battery life was a new, better, device rather than repair. Obsolescence was essentially built in.

Technology continues to advance rapidly and so there’s an inevitability that major programmes with tech at their heart will be obsolescent by the time they deliver. The UK’s slothful Smart Meter rollout programme neatly illustrates the point.  As the Data Communications Company (DCC),  the organisation responsible for ensuring the smart metering infrastructure remains fit-for-purpose, highlights in its plan, assimilating earlier and the latest meters into an infrastructure based on 2G/3G communication is an ongoing challenge when the comms network needs to be upgraded. The programme, initiated over a decade ago, has yet to deliver as originally conceived.

The Badger mentioned these points to his wife as he went out to buy some printer cartridges. She just grinned and said that everything in the world was obsolete; the car, the high street, cash, housing, the railways…and perhaps also her husband!  Apparently, the Badger is turning into a Victor Meldrew for 2023…