A few days ago Cory Doctorow had fun digging out an old clip of HG Wells talking about the imminent demise of newspapers – in 1943. As Doctorow went on to point out, HG Wells’s error was a common one – to think that new technologies would fully replace old technologies.
In fact, very few technical innovations kill off the old completely. In the internet age, books are still with us. Long after the rise of the motorcar, horses still have a niche. Neither the jet engine nor the helicopter has fully seen off the hot air balloon or the airship.
Technologies such as telegrams, which do fully disappear, are the rare ones. Vinyl is clinging on and other data storage formats, such as floppy disks or cassette tapes may also depart. More usually, however, new technologies add to old ones.
Not only do old technologies survive, they also stick around at usage levels well beyond what you might expect if you only listened to the technology buzz. Take the humble mobile phone. The iPhone only makes up around 3% of mobile phone handsets in use in the UK at the moment, yet the other 97% is not where coverage or attention is concentrated.
The lesson from all this? If you want to catch technological buzz, the newest, latest, fastest is often the most important. But if that isn’t your prime aim, make sure you look carefully at what your target audiences are doing – because often they’ll be reading with a fifteenth-century technology (Gutenberg press – 1440), dreaming of spending a birthday flying in an eighteenth-century technology (first human flight in a hot air balloon – 1783) and yet also be a keen watcher of films over the internet (first demonstration – 1989).
That’s because, to use the Bruce Sterling quote which Cory Doctorow also used, “The future composts the past”. It doesn’t replace it.