The Importance of “Dead” Technologies

March 25, 2007

There is as much good to be done (and profit to be made) from refining and making older technologies accessible as there is in relentlessly trying to eliminate those technologies. In our drive to build the new thing, we ignore those who still have need of older systems (or just prefer them). Too often, the future we build for is one in which the world is populated solely by silicon valley startups and their VC overlords (Eloi and Morlock (I’ll let you pick which is which)). All users are not equal. Their needs vary. When new technology is used to beat people “out of the past” rather than creating tools to improve their lives, we all lose.

In the tech world, we’re always thinking forward. The next trend, the new format, the “coming thing”. Sometimes we need to stop and think backwards. Making “dead technologies” elegant is sometimes just as important as developing new ones.

E-mail, blogs, sms (and maybe twitter) have replaced the letter for many applications, but not everything. The common response when looking at the 200 billion letters sent every year (in the US alone) is to try improve the new technologies to handle those cases rather than improve the process for those sending the letters.

The assumption here is that the older technology (written mail) is dead and it’s just a matter of figuring out how to push it all the way into the grave. While this is true in some cases (no consumer revival of telegraph services is likely and maybe newspapers are gone too), I argue that it’s incorrect in just as many (and, as Postful demonstrates, I think mail is one of those cases).

The key is finding technologies that have fallen out of favor but still have features that are unmatched by their replacements. Letters, for example, are still unmatched in ease of use (the interface is pretty well understood at this point), permanence, and sense of value. These features define markets and uses for mail that remain viable even in a world saturated with communication channels.

Consider communications with those who prefer not to use computers, situations where permanence matters, and situations where the key is demonstrating the value of the message to the recipient. I can’t use e-mail (or twitter) to write to my grandparents. I still have letters sent decades ago. An SMS message doesn’t carry the same weight as a letter. Written mail still has its place.

The challenge is to overcome the innate drawbacks of the old technology and find a way to make its use elegant. I would argue that in our relentless focus on the next thing, we often forget about refinement of existing systems. Both sides are necessary. Nothing would bore me more than a world solely composed of incremental improvements of established ways of doing things. But to ignore elegance and refinement is to ignore the needs of those for whom we’re building systems in the first place.

When we acknowledge that, we expand the scope and importance of what we build. We help more people to reap the benefits of technological improvement. And we make our personal visions of the coming thing much more likely to come true.


2 Responses to “The Importance of “Dead” Technologies”

  1. […] touched in passing yesterday on the recent discussion about the death of the newspaper. Much of the discussion on this […]

  2. I quite prefer some dead technologies to the current ones, for the right purposes and uses.

    The postcard is one example of this. Commonly used, it is a cheap way to send mass produced advertising. But if you create one-off cards with a bit of creativity for each addressee, you get a nice little preprinted bit of cheer that’s suitable for tacking to a fridge or a cubicle wall.

    Same nostalgia for VHS tapes (the perfect way to watch the video of the late 80s and early 90s, and suitable for use by a 3 year old), and cassette tapes (mix tapes, and good for car use).

    There’s lots of “dead” technologies which are really analog technologies, and a characteristic of them is that when they start to fail they fail gradually. A folded photograph is still a photograph, but a folded CD-ROM disk is a piece of scrap.

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