The Shock of the Old

Turntable and Record Photo, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic, © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki

A couple weeks back I discussed Matthew Lasar's article on Ars Technica about the invention of the PC. Lasar has done it again this week with an excellent piece on the surprising persistence of old technologies.  Tech pundits, Lasar notes, are very quick to declare technology dead or obsolescent, when the latest, hot thing comes along:

But perhaps when tech writers say "die," what they really mean is that the format in question will no longer enjoy its current dominant status. "Death," then, means falling off the top of the heap. Number One or Dead. That seems like an awfully stressful way to think about things.

A commenter by the name of Tridus put forth a more cynical explanation:

Whenever a tech blogger pronounces something as "dead", what they really mean is that it's no longer buzzword compliant. You don't pitch Windows to the corporate MBAs anymore, for example. You instead pitch something like "the cloud", even if what you're really selling is some forms app that runs on Windows. The tech bloggers who make these pronouncements are a lot like children with short attention spans. They're only interested in whatever the newest buzzword compliant fad is, and whatever the last one was is now dead.

I can't, of course, resist a reference to Dave Edgerton's The Shock of the Old here: as Edgerton argues, an excessive focus on innovation and the novel has often blinded observers of technology to the persistence and importance of the old.  A famous instance of this is the invasion of the Soviet Union.  The Wehrmacht, pioneer of blitzkrieg and mechanized warfare, was in reality a horse-drawn army.

A distinct, but related, phenomenon from technological persistence that has recently come to my attention is technological revival. Rather than simply an unnoticed persistence of the old, this is the conscious and critical opposite of the neo-philism common among technological enthusiasts.  See for, example, the recent New York magazine article on the use of film cameras, turntables, typewriters, and more by the analog underground. This embrace of the old is especially noticeable in the "hipster" neighborhoods in and around Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where your intrepid correspondent recently visited a bar with a playlist generated not by iTunes, but by an LP of Neil Young's Zuma.

Both the persistence and the conscious revival of the old are things that need to be taken into account in our stories about technology.