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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 curing continued.

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.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  wall-street-journal