O is for Old, Out-of-date, Obsolete?

It’s interesting how data goes from current, to out-of-date, to history.

“Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge.” – Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress (1973-85) on the computerization of libraries, 1983.

One of the things I learned in my first year in library school was that information disappears over time for a number of reasons, but that three are foremost: war, when the other side wins; commerce, when there is not enough of a perceived market for the cost; and technology when the newer methodology renders a previous iteration obsolete.

I remember seeing pictures of these massive computers back in the 1960s, storing all sorts of seemingly important information. Unless ALL of it got transferred to a later technology, and then the one after that, one must assume that some of that data is lost and irretrievable. How many of you had files on 5 1/4″ floppy discs, or even 3 1/2″ discs, but your current computer has no place for them?

Take music. Some of the symphonies originally recorded on those shellac 78 RPM records made it into 33 RPM LPs, but surely not all. And the music on 33s and 45s might have made it onto 8-tracks and cassettes, but did all of it make it to CDs? Certainly not, let alone other digital forms. Or take movies on Betamax/VCR tape, only some of which made it to DVD/BluRay.

So it is heartening to see that some old forms of technology are still hanging on. The LP, while still a small segment of the music business, continues to grow, as the sales of other physical forms of music continue to decline. There was a piece on CBS News Sunday Morning about the resurgence of – are you ready for this? – the typewriter.

Data goes from being current, to woefully out-of-date, to important history. A map of Europe showing the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and two Germanys might have been tossed at the end of the 20th century, but now has contextual value. Check out these old maps online.

Old cars, if they avoid the junk heap, might become antiques; old books, perhaps collector’s items.

I started thinking about this because of an article a young woman wrote, in part speculating whether the book will become obsolete in favor of Kindles, Nooks, and the like. I sure hope not.
LISTEN to Neil Young – Old Man (from the Harvest album )

ABC Wednesday – Round 10

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

41 thoughts on “O is for Old, Out-of-date, Obsolete?”

  1. Watching the first season of Mad Men for the first time with my wife last night, someone was dialing a rotary phone. My wife lit up, all excited, and exclaimed “My grandmother had one of those!”

    I didn’t even note the type of phone being dialed until she said this, but of course, I grew up with rotary phones and they don’t seem like obsolete relics to my eyes.

  2. I just get nauseous at the thought of the sheer size of the information.

    When information was difficult to record, people only recorded important things – from religious stories to financial transactions.

    Now we record… everything. 20 years from now, who will be able to FIND anything in that mess?

  3. I own a black rotary phone. It’s AWESOME.

    I was just reading about a speech Lincoln gave in 1856 about the evils of slavery and how no one wrote down what he said because all the reporters there were so rapt by the words he was speaking, and at the time it was considered the greatest speech by an American ever. Losing data doesn’t just happen because of those reasons you mention – sometimes there are other, stranger reasons!

  4. Okay, yes, not everything is written down.

    But stop and think about the process:

    Step 1: Buckets of information are produced, only a tiny fraction of which is relevant

    Step 2: Format change, where only some things are moved

    Step 3: People completely cease using the old format

    Real world examples of relevant recordings and data lost include all the old original tapes from the Apollo missions and many of the the old engineering documentation as well.

    That’s one of the reasons why when we attempted to return to the moon – the now-mostly-ended Constellation Project – we couldn’t figure out how to do things like re-create the heat ablation shields.

  5. Totally agree with you. I also find that the knowledge any society has of its past is often a reflection of what is relevant to the present.

  6. Obsolete? I did my doctoral dissertation on a Morrow Micro Computer (with less memory than my cell phone)… the statistics were done with a computer program written in “C” . The data and program were enetered on cards – punched to represent each line or piece of input and hand fed individually in very specific order into the computer. A “tape” with the results was produced. God I feel obsolete!

  7. Man, I feel OLD! I learned to type on that old Underwood in the photo! Our family had one of the first Atara computer games…good old Mario Brothers. My late husband died before the internet came into being and that’s only been 20 years! So much has changed in the recent past but I must say I WILL NOT BUY A KINDLE! I’m a voracious reader and prefer to have the actual book in my hands. It’s my bedtime ritual to read for about 20-30 minutes before turning out the light. I can’t imagine lolling on my back in bed holding some piece of metal. Hah! lol

    abcw team

  8. The first computer I inherited from my brother had 5 1/4″ discs. It also had a unique word processing program constructed by him for that computer, so not much use saving the discs when I got rid of the machine! 🙂

  9. I hope actual books never go the way of the platypus. I am with Leslie on that one.
    Also learned to type on an old Underwood too. I do like the ease of a computer keyboard though.
    Very interesting post today Roger. Thanks.

  10. I have nightmares about typing class. While I love the look and feel of actual books, I can see a day when most, if not all, publications will only be digital. Pen and paper to floppy disks to zip disks to CDs/DVDs and USB drives. Everything evolves; everything changes. Maybe sometimes not for the best, but we all adapt…or adopt! 🙂

  11. Yed I agree before you know where you are something else is obsolete – just when you had got used to it – I dont have a Kindle – although tempted – but what would happen to all those wonderful books – my shelves are full of them and I intend them to remain so – have a good week – Jane UK

  12. Oh boy, I do agree with Paula, – I am forever learning new things because what I learned yesterday is now obsolete. I remember the Tandy that first introduced me to computers, and all the language and discs that accompanied it and that I have now forgotten!!!

  13. I’ve seen, but not used, a typewriter like that before they all were moved to the museums and collectors’ shelves. I’d continue loving my books despite Kindles and Nooks.

  14. Hi Roger! I really hope that books won’t become obsolete! For I read sometimes an e-book, but it is a bit impractical if I want to read in bed.
    Besides the battery is always depleted after a while.
    Great post, Roger. I love the old typewriter.

  15. I went through so much different technology in the early days of computerized typesetting equipment. So many companies selling completely different machines with different combinations of keystrokes.
    From now on I’m sticking to my iMac.
    Unless it’s obsolete before I am.
    I remember phones with no dials. I’d pick up the phone and say “This is Kay, I want to speak to Grandma.”

  16. It is amazing how fast things seems to become obsolete these days. In the early 1960s I went on an elementary school field trip to IBM and we saw those computers that took of whole large rooms and had the punch hole card output or maybe input or maybe both. I still have an old typewriter. I would hate to see books become obsolete. They certainly never will in my house as I re-read old books all the time from my shelves. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  17. I have just retired and I guess, though I don’t feel it most of time, would qualify as old. The title of your post sure caught my attention, so there must be a connection. My father loved to work with old cars, taking parts out of some to build composite “new” ones. He was a recycler before anyone thought of the term and mourned the “throw away” lifestyle that he saw emerging around the 1960’s. At the time, I didn’t really get it, but now, many years after his death, I often ponder the third of your three points about why information disappears. I remain optimistic that we are beginning to see the error of making “stuff” to last for only a short time. Thanks for “Old Man” and for the great picture of the Underwood typewriter.

  18. Probably everything mankind has ever created will become obsolete one day in the faraway future. Meanwhile, existence seems more meaningful when the present is in touch with its recorded past. It is something to gauge by.

  19. My friend,
    What is old today was once new and so important to mankind. Penelope’s comment sums up what I myself would say.

  20. I learned typing using the manual typewriter, the little fingers used to get stuck in between keys! I hate it till the electric typewriter came along….the whole office was filled with typing noise then.

  21. Fascinating topic! It’s almost scary to contemplate all the missing information (not to mention mis-information!) The Alexandrian Library for example. And think of all those old hand written manuscripts. It actually doesn’t bear thinking about.

  22. Losing information has been going on since as long as there has been information—think of all we don’t know about ancient civilisations. That said, we certainly have the capacity to store more information than ever before, and that can have unexpected benefits. For example, the trend toward e-books means we can now access and read out-of-print public domain books, or simply those for which the market would be way too small to justify ink on paper publishing.

    But as you mentioned, this does require transferring to later technology. You’d know this, Roger: Wasn’t one of the US Censuses “held hostage” because the computer system it was recorded on no longer existed? I seem to recall they had to get museum samples of the machines to retrieve the data. Or, is that a myth?

  23. I wonder how many of us who blog actually learned how to type on one of those old ancient typewriters? Too many things, i.e. books are becoming obsolete and artifacts.

  24. Super post, Roger. If books ever become obsolete, it won’t be because of Kindles or the like. It’ll be more like governments not wanting to fund libraries. Just saying.

  25. Well I well remember rotary phones!!I also learned to type on an old manual typewriter–I built up those muscels for sure.

    I don’t enjoy reading on a Kindle, I like the smell of the book–hold on to the pages.

  26. I have quite a lot of useful? information stored on old technologies that I can’t access anymore. Obviously it can’t be that important, or I would have found a way to retrieve it.

  27. I always remember Mr. G. (Analyst/Programmer) when he left the house early mornings with an enormous disk under the arm, which was for the computer in 1971 !! Now you have a little USB key !

  28. Technology is so frustrating, because you never feel as though you are up to speed. When you have learned one thing, something newer has already replaced it. My mind can’t even fathom what technology will look like in one hundred years.

  29. I just saw one of the new ultra minute memory sticks, it even peaked the IT guys interest. Though at that size it will be sure be easy to lose. Things are becoming obsolete even quicker than ever.

  30. BEST movie for hindsight on computers? Tracy and Hepburn in “Desk Set,” assisted by the marvelous Joan Blondell and Dina Merrill in her screen debut. So many moments where you see the eventual replacement of folks. My mom worked in a steno pool for years, perfectly fine employment. Those rooms full of women have been replaced by… an IPhone. Thanks, Roger! And I am NOT old, nor obsolete, but you knew that! Amy

  31. Roger, thanks for the visit and nice comment to my post on “Overlooks.” I enjoyed your post on “Old things” but must point out that you missed mentioning the best old machine out there. The old person. So many old people still have the memory of a hard drive and the ability to provide music and stories that have yet to be recorded on a computer chip.

    I actually considered the topic of getting old before deciding on going with my Overlook post. It was one of those pesky e-mail forwards that gave me the idea. But, unlike some this one hit on some good points. Perhaps I will share all my Old people photos next time this theme comes around.

    Perhaps my e-mail will inspire you are one of your readers to also consider “Old People” as a topic. So I will share it with you here.

    • Old People are easy to spot at sporting events; during the playing of the National Anthem. Old People remove their caps and stand at attention and sing without embarrassment. They know the words and believe in them.
    • Old People remember World War II, Pearl Harbor , Guadalcanal , Normandy and Hitler. They remember the Atomic Age, the Korean War, The Cold War, the Jet Age and the Moon Landing. They remember the 50 plus Peacekeeping Missions from 1945 to 2005, not to mention Vietnam .
    • If you bump into an Old People on the sidewalk he will apologize. If you pass an Old Person on the street, he will nod or tip his cap to a lady. Old People trust strangers and are courtly to women.
    • Old People hold the door for the next person and always, when walking, make certain the lady is on the inside for protection.
    • Old People get embarrassed if someone curses in front of women and children and they don’t like any filth or dirty language on TV or in movies.
    • Old People have moral courage and personal integrity. They seldom brag unless it’s about their children or grandchildren.
    • It’s the Old People who know our great country is protected, not by politicians, but by the young men and women in the military serving their country. This country needs Old People with their work ethic, sense of responsibility, pride in their country and decent values. We need them now more than ever. Thank God for Old People

  32. Once upon a time students actually worked math equations with a pencil… Once upon a time we were expected to write out our research papers in cursive with ink… Once upon a time we actually had to wait several days for our film to be developed… Once upon a time we were the young and the restless…

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