The Trailing Edge of Technology

We live in age of fairly continuous advancement in technology. Admittedly a lot of that progress is incremental, processors get a little denser, hard drives get a little bigger, and internet speeds stay roughly the same. But in my roughly 30 years on this earth I’ve seen the transition away from big floppies, to small floppies, to tapes, to CD’s, to DVD’s, to flash drives, to portable hard drives to solid state drives to the cloud.

But the thing is, as advanced as we are, there are a lot of us who still use older technologies in our everyday lives.

I used floppy disks regularly (the 3.5″ variety) until about 2003. I didn’t have a CD burner on my computer until later that year and that was also roughly the same time I saw someone with a flash drive. The year before I even distributed a software project for a country simulation on floppy disk. I used to cary around a little white box that had about 60 disks containing all my programs, games, books, music and files. The disks were even color coded to indicate what was on them. I still had a floppy drive on a computer until last year when I finally sold my old desktop (though I’m still searching for a reliable USB powered one so I can get old games).

Adopting new technology is expensive. My first flash drive was twice the size of the white box in terms of storage capacity, and cost $40 (for 128MB). My first external hard drive was $300 for 320GB (I don’t buy computers now for much more than that price). My first computer was $1300 and my first laptop was $800. My first tablet was $200 (which may have been a little cheap compared to the iPad, but still). CD’s used to cost 15 dollars and DVD movies the same or maybe even five bucks more.

And we don’t throw out technology immediately after we buy it. We try to figure out what’s a good technology to invest in and stick with so we can build our collections. CD’s and DVD’s get a bad rap in this regard. Even though a lot of things have moved to digital or pure streaming services, computers are still very compatible with the optical disk format. It’ll probably be another 5-10 years before getting an optical drive on a standard size laptop will be an add-on not a default. And if we drive cars, those are usually at least five years behind in terms of media adoption. The CD was created in 1982 but my Dad’s 96′ Taurus still had a tape deck. In fact most of my generation’s first high-school cars had a tape deck and had to use that weird tape to CD converter thingy (God knows how it worked) to plug-in a portable CD player.

Even those of us making a decent middle class wage can’t afford to adopt everything, and definitely not in its first year. Sometimes this works to our benefit as it allows us to avoid dead technologies like HD DVD and before that Laser Disk (and probably soon the new Apple watch).

But one of the best illustrations of the trailing edge is the library.

I worked in my local library in 2002-2003, around the time DVD’s were first starting to take over for VHS in the collection. Now at the time DVD’s had been around for about five years (the first one I ever owned might have been in 2000 and it was a gift). A lot of people still had VHS players and extensive VHS collections and didn’t have the money to switch over. The library wants to serve the greatest swath of the public and so it will often keep technolgies long after they are “dead” in the public conciousness, because the reality is many people still use that tech. Today that trailing edge for VHS is thrift stores. The one in Delaware has a whole long wall of VHS tapes to be had for a quarter. For those of us who didn’t want to pay 20-30 bucks for the original versions of the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD, finding them for a quarter is pretty good.

The same can be said of the libraries’ books. Sure a lot of us have tablets, eReaders and smart phones that can all read eBooks. And libraries, including my local branch, are beginning to focus as much on digital lending as phyiscal. But not everyone has the ability to read eBooks. I gained mine maybe in late 2011. eBook sales while rising most years are still a small part of the book market. Books are literally a dead-(tree) technology, but I have a feeling they may have one of the longest trailing edges of anything we’ve ever created.

What old tech have you used recently? Remember having to rewind tapes with a pencil?

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