Outdated but not Obsolete

While in San Francisco last week, I had a great conversation with a friend. Actually, I had a lot of those, but this one in particular got me thinking.

We discussed the advantages of film photography over digital (this is me we’re talking about, come on). While digital presents many, many advantages over film, it’s not universally better. There are tradeoffs.

There are technical advantages of film. Things like the broad dynamic range of film. But there are also abstract advantages. Things like the way it slows your photography down. How you appreciate taking every photo because every photo costs money. The anticipation of getting your photos back from a lab.

I started thinking of other stuff out there we’ve “replaced”, and how society regards those who cling to the old ways.

Consider guitar amplifiers. We “used to” use tubes, but now most use solid state amps because they’re cheaper. But many musicians still use tube amplifiers because they sound different. And because this is a measurable difference, society says “ok, musicians, you can keep using tubes.”

Now consider vinyl records. (You probably just had a chuckle about some hipster friend that listens to them, didn’t you?) Vinyl predates 8-tracks and tapes and CDs and iPods. It’s been replaced many times over. But people still listen to records.

Why? Well, to some, it “sounds warmer” – I’m not really here to debate that. All I’m pointing out is that a sizeable chunk of people think that “warmer sounding” vinyl is bullshit. “We’ve done tests!”, they say, and the “warmth” of a sound is not measurable. It’s not quantifiable. It’s not technical. So society often says “you’re dumb for listening to records.”

But there are advantages to vinyl that are not technical. They are abstract. The effort required to listen makes the act of listening more enjoyable. The aesthetics of the album art. The physical contact with the medium.

Society tolerates musicians using “outdated” technology like tube amps because there are technical advantages. Society laughs at hipsters listening to vinyl because the advantages are abstract, and not measurable.

When I realized this distinction, I looked for things that I had dismissed as old and useless because the advantages weren’t important to me. And I found a lot.

Just two days ago, I gave a talk on functional reactive programming. How it’s the future. How it’s only going to make things better.

What was I dismissing? What was I laughing at? Why?

I was laughing at C. At assembler. At imperative code. And at the people who still prefer using these old techniques to write programs.

Because the advantages weren’t important to me or the software that I write.

In my talk, I never once acknowledged that sometimes you need to know C in order to write a program that’s fast enough. Or that some tasks, especially relating to operating systems, require a knowledge of the CPU architecture to complete. These advantages don’t matter to me, but they are paramount to some.

I absolutely think functional reactive programming is the future, but only in the way that solid state guitar amps are. FRP is the future for the mainstream because in many, many ways it is better, but we may always need C and assembly programmers because as far as I know, no one has ported Linux to Swift.

As technologists, we often sit at the forefront of technological progression. We therefore have an obligation to think critically about the advances in technology that we enable. Not solely for the benefit of society – but for our own sake. It would be intellectually dishonest to always assume that every advance in technology is only a good thing. That it only has advantages. That it will only make things better.

New technology always has advantages and disadvantages that are not always priorities to us but may be important to others. Technological advances carry far-reaching implications on our society. It’s time we start acknowledging – and being upfront – about the drawbacks of what’s new.

Posted on June 14, 2015