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Letter from the Editor

The Geological Strata of Things

Old technologies seldom die; they get upgraded.

  • This letter appeared in the January/February 2009 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • December 22, 2008

Mark Shuttleworth, a South African Internet tycoon who paid tens of millions of dollars to go to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz craft, recounts his arrival in space–blinking, wondering, and weightless after the fire, shaking, and acceleration of liftoff–in Adam Fisher’s oral history of space ­tourism (“‘Very Stunning, Very Space, and Very Cool’”):

Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief and Publisher.

The thing I remember as being quite striking was this collection of very domestic sounds that kicks in after the main-engine cutoff. Mechanical sounds, like the air circulation and the conditioning, and then bits and pieces are kind of kicking in. You’ve got alarm clocks and fans, and you’ve got a big device called the “globus.” It’s a ball–your map, basically–that turns, and it starts going tick, tick, tick, like a cuckoo clock. You’ve just gone through this extraordinary experience of getting into space, and then suddenly it’s like waking up inside the workshop of an old Swiss clockmaker or something. So it’s this amazing contrast between what you might expect–which should involve special effects and background music–and the very mechanical physical reality of it.

This story is part of our January/February 2009 Issue
See the rest of the issue

Thus, even the most transcendental of real, human experiences (which Saul Bellow, in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, evoked, wonderfully: “To blow this great blue, white, green planet or to be blown from it”) occurs amid the most mundane technology.

That technology can be very old. The space tourist Charles Simonyi, a former Microsoft executive responsible for Word and Excel, whom we profiled two years ago (“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Meta,” January/February 2007), describes the optical sight on the Soyuz: “It’s like a very old-fashioned–I don’t know what it is. There is nothing, no items like that anymore. … That instrument could have been constructed in the 19th century.”

Famously, the Russian space program employs a brutalist approach: its engineers use the crudest, oldest technology that works. (Since the first Soyuz flew in 1966, only those parts that have failed or are obviously obsolete have been redesigned.) But the technology aboard the space station, much of which was constructed by the U.S. and European space agencies as well as the Russian, is only a little shinier. ­Simonyi says, “The space station is so messy. Words don’t do justice. It’s like going into the messiest hardware store you have ever seen.”

Because they are professional futurists, technologists like to contemplate new, bright, and disruptive technologies. Often, by a process of substitution, they talk about the newest iterations of things as if they were the only things people actually use. But our spaceships disclose a universal truth: old technologies are seldom abandoned, and only when they are intolerably inconvenient. (The former financial analyst Pip Coburn calls the moment when a “perceived crisis” is worse than the “perceived pain of adoption” of a new technology the “Change Function”; see “Who’s Sorry Now?”, May/June 2006.) Mainly, however, old technologies accumulate like geological strata, changing under the pressure of new circumstances.

The writer Robert X. Cringely has succinctly expressed this idea in one of his “laws of computing”: “Old software never dies; it just gets upgraded.” In “Parallel Universe”, Cringely explains how multicore computing–the use of many micro­processors on a microchip–can multiply processing power without increasing the heat associated with ever-greater minia­turization. Cringely writes that in order to solve some of the problems of parallelism (or how software is torn apart so that a process can be run in parallel on hundreds of processors), Intel has recalled to service “some graybeards of 1980s super­computing.” For these graybeards, parallelism never disappeared. Now, in order to preserve Moore’s Law, we will use technologies first developed to build nuclear bombs during the Cold War.

Or consider the U.S. electrical grid. In our cover story, “Lifeline for Renewable Power”, our chief correspondent, David Talbot, writes, “A patchwork system has developed. … But while its size and complexity have grown immensely, the grid’s basic structure has changed little since Thomas Edison switched on a distribution system serving 59 customers in lower Manhattan in 1882.” Talbot shows that the old grid, constructed to transmit the predictable flow of electricity from the burning of fossil fuels, must be upgraded if it is to accommodate more-variable, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

As much as they are a deepening coastal shelf beneath our technological civilization, old technologies also live in each of us. Biologically, we are their creatures. Exploring how archaeo­genetics, the application of genetic analysis to the study of prehistory, might explain the puzzle of how we came to be highly civilized creatures (see “Our Past Within Us”), Mark Williams argues that we evolved through our technology. “Humankind invented agriculture, started eating different foods, and began dwelling in cities; populations expanded, allowing large numbers of mutations. Natural selection promoted the spread of beneficial variations.” Among those traits selected, Williams suggests, were those that allowed us, eventually, to build spacecraft and space stations. But write to me and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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