Tech That Won’t Die, and Some That Shouldn’t

Ars Technica ran a story, and a follow-up, on “zombie tech” they wish would just go away. This is nothing new: every site eventually gets around to covering things which are (or appear to be) obsolete, illogical, cumbersome, and better done in other ways. Some are correct, some are not, and some are just flat out alarming (such as the reader who suggested that workers are now passe). Here are a couple they got right, a couple they got wrong, and a few they missed altogether.

1. BSODs and Other Useless Error Messages

The Blue Screen of Death still generates a visceral reaction from all those times it popped up, for no good reason, like Jason in a Friday the 13th movie just when you think that Last Girl is safe.

First off, let’s just be kind to old-timers and, if they must keep the BSOD, at least change its color. Perhaps a nice puce would do. That color blue still makes my skin crawl.

Second, I have to agree with AT on this one: the age of error codes is past. Why can’t Apple just say that “iTunes can’t reach gs.apple.com in a timely fashion” rather than “Error 3014.” We don’t need to save space like we had to in the bad old days, so either cryptic error codes are just a useless legacy, or they’re kept to maintain a Secret Language for the IT Priesthood.

2. Copper Landlines

“What do you mean, ‘Press pound’?”

I can’t agree with this one. Copper landlines carry their own power, which means if the local power goes out, you still have a phone. Since I’m on fiber, I no longer have this, and I’m not really thrilled to see a stable, relatively disaster-proof line of communication cut. I see the writing on the wall, however, and not only is the copper line connected to a wired phone doomed to die, but so is, in time, fiber. Over time, we will be pushed into 100$ wireless communication.

Except…. it’s not really wireless, is it? It’s wireless for our purposes, but it’s wired like all get out somewhere, be it transmission towers, data centers, WiFi routers, and so on. Energy and technology that was fairly well distributed in sturdy and simple analog matrices is being focused into fewer hubs with more potential to create choke points and greater danger from attack and disaster. It’s all part of the new digital age: we give up something (stability, dispersal) and gain something (speed, efficiency).

I see a day, however, when we may miss that humble little copper line an awful lot.

3. Fax Machines

I have published about 1,600 pieces and never been to the office of any magazine or newspaper for which I worked.

Back when I first started as a freelance writer (1988), I used to print a hard copy of a story on a dot matrix printer and mail it with a floppy disk. I could have faxed it, but they needed the disk so I just mailed everything together.

It must have been around 1990 when I started using CompuServe to send story files, but they still wanted a faxed copy of the article? Why? I don’t know.  It was just a thing they had to have.

Eventually, we just got down to pure email for all submissions, but it took until late last year to finally ween my main magazine from faxed invoices, which I replaced with digitally signed PDF files.  A scanner costs less than a fax, and with the advent of touch surfaces for digital signing, there is no reason at all for fax machines to exist. Maybe lawyers will continue to need them, but we’re leaving the age of paper behind, and fax machines are one annoying and useless bridge technology I’m glad to see go.

4. Cash

This is where I thought the Ars Technica piece was way, way off the mark. Perhaps they’re imagining a world in which you fight your drill thrall Shanah to the death while faceless powers wage 20 quatloos on the outcome.

Sci-fi is full of worlds without cash, using vague systems of digital credit that are good anywhere in the galaxy and ignore the necessities of local economics. It’s hard enough managing a stable global economy, and someone is going to create an intergalactic one? I don’t think so.

In the here and now, the idea of a cashless society is frankly terrifying, and could only be proposed by someone with no experience of the way most of America works, with workers paid under the table, people getting lower prices for cash since it’s fast and convenient, and general suspicion of the institutions that pull the financial levers. A lot of this comes down to a single word: privacy. Cash is the only way to guarantee no one knows what you’re buying, and in a surveillance society, that’s a tiny sliver of freedom we should not surrender.

Are we hiding something when we use cash? Sure. No central data system should be able to create a profile of every meal I eat, every item I buy, every thing I do. And let’s not be coy here: a cash transaction is one less thing taxed by a vast and wasteful government.

I don’t like passing my money through banks before I use it, but it’s a necessary evil. I don’t use credit at all, just debit. There are places in this country, and entire businesses, based on the exchange of cash and even barter. I think that’s a good thing.

When people start pushing for the elimination of cash, they will say it’s about convenience. In truth, it’s all about power.

5. Paper Receipts

I scan my receipts and throw them away, but I see the need for paper receipts. I still go places, such as the feed store, where the cashier will write out the receipt by hand. I like convenience, but let’s not get so hung up on it that we expect the slower corners of the world to be as obsessed with speed and efficiency as we are. Sometimes, it’s good to be a big Entish. And, for many people, paper receipts are still an essential part of expense reports.

What Ars Technica Missed

In 2012…

…almost 20,000 dot matrix printers were sold. Why? Because some businesses require carbon copies, and only a dot matrix with a hard imprint can create one.

…350,00 PDAs (tech akin to a PalmPilot) were sold. Again, this is for inventory and other businesses that won’t upgrade because it’s cheaper and easier to use the old stuff.

10,000 new cathode ray tube TVs. I have no idea.

…4.6 million vinyl records. I think Neil Young bought all of them.

…13 billion blank VHS tapes. For security systems.

…35 million rolls of film. Wait, what? Is that a typo?

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • waddlesplash

    The film doesn’t sound like a typo. Some big-budget film companies still use film, because they want the “film look” that evades digital cameras. (They then scan the film using laser scanners and edit it on a computer, though.)

  • Anna

    Hey, vinyl records are awesome! I wish I could get more things in that format.

  • Jakeithus

    I see paper receipts and cash being closely related, and can see reasons for both still existing.

    Personally, it would be nice if whenever I paid via debit or credit card, an electronic copy of the receipt would end up emailed or connected to my account somehow. I have bad habits of throwing away paper receipts almost immediately, without always thinking if I might need it later or not.

  • ME

    I like the cash… Churches insist that people use online giving, but we resist for the sole purpose of teaching our children that it is important to give to the church. We use actual cash and envelopes for the kids that they fill out each week. They see us write a check. Sure we can just tell them we give it online, but that won’t register the need for importance, if we discuss it once or twice. Sure, we can return an empty envelope, which the money counters at church would probably prefer, but I don’t think that does much for setting an example for the kids either.


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