Everyday Relics

With the singularity ever-present around the next corner (or two) it’s easy to fixate on the futuristic present — and near-future — and forget about how we got to where we are. For most of History, if you wanted to send a message to someone, that message needed a person to deliver it. Later, human couriers were replaced by carrier pigeons (though packet loss was very annoying), then later by pneumatic tubes, telephones, and finally the Internet.

The move from people to pigeons as carriers was important in that all the sudden there was a task performed over a distance that could now be automated. Nowadays, instantly sending a message to someone on the other side of the world is trivial — but that doesn’t mean that modern technology has yet been exhaustively used to solve older problems.

There’s plenty of old technology that still works — works well enough in fact that no one has bothered to replace it with a better, more efficient alternative. Here are a small list of examples:

  • The Steam Engine. A.K.A. nuclear power. It’s pretty much the same principle, just instead of burning coal or wood to boil water and use the steam to move turbines, it’s nuclear fission. We’ve supplemented an old technology with new components, but the base principle hasn’t changed in 300 years.
  • Physics. More accurately, Newtonian Physics. It’s easy to forget that just as things like steam engines and the internet are tools, so are ideas like laws of Physics. The set of tools for modeling the Physical world that Newton and his contemporaries invented were, and are, extremely useful and accurate. They’re also inaccurate and have been superceded by ones that take into account a larger picture of the universe.
  • Government. The oldest governments of today were built for a different world, structured to address different issues, for people with different priorities. The election of representatives worked well for people whose lives were spent largely on farms and in factories, unable to travel the distances required to participate in the democratic process. The stability that has made governments reliable in the long run also makes them resistant to change, after all, you go with what you know. Governments are, to their credit, now adapting to involve citizens in the process of running their country, but it’s necessarily a slow-going process as this new technology is tested and accepted.

In the business space, the drive of competition should drive the constant reevaluation of all technological assumptions in favor of more efficient alternatives. But the same might not be true in other areas of society.

In the three examples above, all work well in their native context, especially Newtonian Physics. If you’re calculating how long it takes to fly between Toronto and New York, you don’t need to take into account relativity, so there’s an argument that, in that context, the older tool is just fine. This leads us to the question: should we be aggressively looking for ways to apply new technology to everything in our world, constantly re-evaluating old problems with modern eyes and modern problem solving skills? Or were some problems solved well-enough the first time, and we should focus our attention on other areas?

Similarly, when you look at your day to day life, how many of the tools and technologies that you use everyday seem like little more than sleeker versions of Historic designs — what items are missing from my list?