The Life and Death of Technologies

January 13, 2014, 4:54 pm

The dial tone is nearly a century old, leading the New York Times to do a magazine piece on it. The article is interesting, and you should read it, but it made me think of the life and death of technologies. Something like the dial tone has already largely disappeared from American life. My daughter will likely have no idea what it was. Phrases associated with disappearing technologies will shift out of everyday use:


And “video cassette recorder:”


Something much less familiar, pneumatic tubes, which were quite frequently used in the mid-20th century:


My sense is that technologies go from being leading-edge to being standard to being old fashioned to being antique. At first, a new technology is a marvel, then it is assumed, then it is past it, and then they are answers to Trivial Pursuit questions. Ten years ago, an author might have given their fictional character a smartphone to show how advanced they were; now that would establish nothing of the sort.

It extends beyond phrases and technologies to noises:

A noise that my generation remembers immediately is an oddity now. Only part of that forgetting is because the world has moved on; a larger part is because the forgotten things weren’t ever really that important. The sound of a dial-up modem will be preserved in a museum, but taught to future generations? Probably not; it’s not critical enough to occupy space on many if any curriculums. That’s one of the reasons why the past is an alien country. It’s filled with so much completely lost context, intimately familiar to its inhabitants, but utterly unremembered by their descendants.

One of the pleasures of researching these kind of posts is that, even when the path you’re following goes nowhere, there are still interesting sights along the way. I looked briefly into the evolution of elevators for this, thinking that might be a useful example. It turned out not to be, but along the way I discovered that in the 1920s, elevators were sometimes referred to as “heists.” That’s a great piece of slang.

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