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Latest Mind and Matter column is on why there is
nothing so old as the recently new:
Watching friends learn kite-surfing last week, equipped not only
with new designs of inflatable kites shaped like pterodactyls but
new kinds of harnesses shaped like medieval chastity belts and even
new helmets shaped like Elizabethan sleeping caps, it occurred to
me that nothing becomes obsolete so fast as something new. For it
is pretty clear that the rise of kite-surfing, invented in the late
1990s, is slowly killing wind-surfing.
Wind-surfing, invented in the 1970s, is not yet as moribund as
the fax, which was invented at about the same time, but it may be
heading that way. As recently as 2005, wind-surfers were scoffing
at the upstart kite-surfers, arguing that their pastime was slower,
more cumbersome and more dangerous. (I remember scoffing at email's
inferiority to fax in the days when you had to call to alert
somebody to check for an incoming email.)
Now kite-surfing equipment packs smaller and costs less than
wind surfing's, the skills are easier to learn, the speed is as
great-greater in light winds-and it can be done on land in the form
of kite-karting. People have already crossed hundreds of miles of
ocean by kite-surfing, from the Canaries to Morocco, for example,
and from Tasmania to Australia.
My point is that new technologies threaten young technologies
more than they threaten ancient ones. Kite-surfing may kill
wind-surfing, but it will not affect sailing. Email eclipsed fax
more than it did letter-writing. Social networking is overtaking
telephoning, but not partying. In the era of Kinect, Space Invaders
is dead, but poker is thriving. In competition with jets, airships
have largely died out, but ships have not. Refrigeration killed the
newfangled ice trade, but old-fashioned pickling, smoking and
It seems there is nothing so dated as the recently new. Visiting
a university recently I was shown a lecture theater that was state
of the art when built just a few years before. Its proudest
boast-an ethernet port at every seat-now sounds as obsolete in the
wi-fi age as blotting paper and quill sharpeners.
In 1986, to celebrate the 900th anniversary of William the
Conqueror's Domesday Book, which documented every community in the
Normans' newly conquered England, the BBC began a project to
redocument England on digital video. But it stored the data on
videodiscs on Acorn microcomputers, both of which have long since
become obsolete. As a result, the 1986 Digital Domesday Book
quickly became far less accessible than the 1086 analog one, until
rescued by a special academic research project to emulate the
outdated software on a new platform in 2002.
This obsolescence of the new catches out politicians and
educators. Government policy rarely ages as fast as when it
contains pronouncements about new technology. Whereas debates about
debt or defense from hundreds of years ago sound fairly familiar,
the earnest promises of the early 1980s to establish strategic
strengths in memory-chip manufacture sound quaint today. Europe's
policy fetishes of the 1990s with "teleworking," "virtual reality"
and interactive television have not aged well. When I was at
school, there was a frantic push to teach us all Fortran
programming language so we could cope with the computer age. Latin
lessons have survived; Fortran ones have not.
It follows that obsolescence more probably beckons for the
things that have changed our life most recently, rather than for
the things that are already old. My generation finds it hard to
believe that email will die, but the young barely touch it,
preferring Facebook, Twitter and text. I suspect rather than go
extinct, email will evolve into something more compatible with text
and social networking. And perhaps we may be permitted a wry smile
at the certain prospect that the young will in turn be marooned
with obsolete habits and terms like Facebook, Twitter and text.