Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Longer Than You Imagined

This is a burned-out light bulb. It is notable not for having burned out, but for how long it lasted — 24 years from its original purchase until yesterday when it would no longer turn on.

I bought it, along with one other, as a second-generation compact fluorescent “light capsule,” a 27-watt bulb that would deliver the light of a 100-watt bulb while staying cooler than the 60-watt bulb it replaced. The two ceiling light fixtures in my living room at the time would each accept only one bulb with a 60-watt heat limit, and this was the brightest thing I could buy that would work within that limitation. At the time, compact fluorescent light bulbs were expected to last seven years. This one lost half its brightness after 15 years, but continued to function for nine years after that. The other one of the pair, more lightly used in recent years, continues to provide almost three fourths of its original brightness. The original purchase price, about $30 each, would not have seemed so steep if I had known both bulbs would last at least 24 years.

I am not telling this story to encourage anyone to go out and buy compact fluorescent light bulbs. I stopped buying them myself a decade ago, concerned about the health effects of fluorescent lighting after traditional fluorescent lights were conclusively linked to weight gain. Today fluorescent lights are legacy technology — I have some trouble understanding why they are still being made or why anyone would buy them. But they do not burn out quickly, and I still have several of them just because they are as durable as they are.

And that is really the point of the story. When one generation of technology is replaced by another that is several times more durable than you would expect, the consequences of purchasing decisions carry forward farther than you could imagine. Current-technology light bulbs are tipped as lasting 50 years but may end up lasting more than a lifetime, fading and yellowing somewhat along the way but nevertheless serving their purpose for a very long time. Would we buy light bulbs as casually as we do if we stopped to think that they might outlive us?

We are seeing similar transitions on shorter time scales in other areas of technology — cellular phones, laser printers, clothing, and cars, to name a few. You think you are buying just another replacement, but it might last just about forever. And this will come to other categories of products where we don’t expect it. What if a breakthrough in materials allowed running shoes to go for 5,000 miles instead of 500? Or if a video game were so fascinating and malleable that you could keep playing it for five years instead of five months? If a new bath towel promised to be “the last towel you will ever buy,” would you buy it?