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Useless Stuff

Old technology always tends to become more useless as time passes. I listened to two podcasts recently which got me thinking about which technologies were rapidly heading to a state of uselessness. The first was about a sound archive being created to store the sound of old machines at work. By “old machines” I mean stuff that some people might still be using but probably won’t be using for much longer. The second was about how mobile phones are replacing landlines.

Here’s some examples of the sounds of “old technology” they wanted for the archive: a floppy disk drive, a rotary dial phone, a fax, a video tape player. I’m not that old (although I’m not that young either) and I can remember when some of those technologies were introduced! Already they are virtually obsolete and finding the sound of them operating is difficult!

My first computer stored data on a cassette tape (that’s another sound they are after) and floppy drives seemed like a great step forward when I first got one (they cost around NZ$1000 at the time). But flash drives are so much better in every way that I never want to see another floppy disk again. Flash drives store 10,000 (or more) times the data, they operate 100 times faster, they are far more reliable and they are much smaller. That’s clearly a technology where a huge step forward has been achieved.

If I didn’t use it for broadband I would be happy enough to eliminate my landline. There’s a new paradigm now and that is that you call a cell phone to contact the owner of that phone no matter where they are. Before that you called a landline phone at a particular time to talk to one of the people who lived at that address. I know some people don’t like cell phones but the next generation will wonder why you would ever use anything else.

I never used fax much and now I never will. Some people still have them but surely they are on the way out. But paper is one technology which has been remarkably resilient. Even people using electronic document technologies often only work with printed versions of their material. This will change though because more people today are so familiar with accessing content on the internet. Maybe the paperless office really will finally happen soon.

What about video cassettes? The first VCRs seemed like pretty awesome machines at the time (and were hideously expensive) but DVD and hard disk based recorders are so much better that who would ever want to go back to tape? There’s no media wear, higher capacity, random access, and much better picture quality. VHS seemed OK at the time but compare it with modern video quality and it looks horrendous!

I remember when colour TV was introduced to New Zealand. My family had one of the first colour sets around: a Philips K9 with a “hack” allowing it to pick up signals it wasn’t supposed to be able to receive! I’m used to watching high def TV on a 42″ plasma and while I was always aware of how nice it was I didn’t really appreciate that until it had to go away for repairs and I went back to a 25″ analog CRT. There’s just no comparison. TV technology is definitely moving ahead and the demise of analog will be no great loss.

I have often commented in this blog on the revolution in speed, reliability and flexibility in computing, and the improvements in music players so I won’t belabour the point by repeating it here. Some people look back to the “good old technology” which was bigger and more robust and easier to use. I disagree. I think the nostalgia of a Sony Walkman many times the size of an iPod, with that lovely tape hiss, no random access to content, tangled tapes, and poor battery life isn’t much to do with reality.

So the technology trends are clear. From big to small (except with TVs which are getting much bigger), from slow to fast, from expensive to cheap, and from analog to digital. Yes digital is taking over everywhere: digital music, digital phones and digital TV. That’s what its all about and it seems like a great trend to me.

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