Deprecated Tech: The Ecology of Innovation

Lamy Safari, by Colin Harris, CC 2.0 License via Flickr


Our world obsesses over the new and disruptive. We’re on constant lookout for the next big development, creating a common narrative of technology as constant disruptive progression, with each new innovation successively killing the previous by simply outclassing it.

However, new technologies aren’t always unquestioningly better. Competition is more a matter of selecting for different traits based on user needs. It’s only as good as the impact it makes for its users. What is gained in convenience or portability may suffer in maintainability or side-effects. Bottled water may have won out over water fountains but it still packs landfills.

I like to look at it through the lens of ecology and biological competition, borrowing from organizational ecology. What makes one animal effective in one environment, say water retention for desert climates, may not be advantageous in another. Markets are collections of economic niches. Preferential traits meet the needs of different customers. As customers and economic situations change, products must also adapt to control their niche.

Darwin’s Finches, Illustration

Deprecated, not Obsolete

One technology achieving dominance doesn’t mean that others disappear. Frequently, competitors continue to draw customers because of more targeted traits. These same customers can also be surprisingly loyal and enthusiastic. Additionally, just because a product serves 80% of the population well, doesn’t mean that it adequately fits more demanding tasks.

These deprecated technologies, those that continue to find meaningful use, also may continue to develop and refine their approaches. Development may even continue to the point where deprecated technologies begin to regain market share, as they improve traits that were selected against previously and traits that were previously advantageous may become a hindrance.

Examples

    1. Fountain Pens

      While many current students would be confused at the idea of pens which do not already contain their own ink, the fountain pen is far from dead. It enjoys an enthusiastic hobbyist group, along with new developments in manufacture and ink formulation. The result is a fountain pen market that is consistently growing despite a flat “luxury sales” market.

      Why the appeal? For those who’ve only really known the ballpoint, the very disposability itself can be a turn off. Constantly buying packs of cheap pens can feel extremely wasteful and serves as another reminder of increasing environmental consciousness.

      Secondly, they allow for a greater level of customization. The ability to select, or even blend, inks to meet ones preferences means that your favorite pen consistently reflects your personal touch.

      Finally, many different users report that fountain pens are simply more pleasurable writing experiences, with some citing reduced hand pressure while writing. While harder to quantify, it certainly is an appeal for many.

    2. Horses

      Estimated by IBIS World to be a $2 billion industry, horse production continues to enjoy enthusiastic customers.

      While animal power was key to many economies, with horses enjoying widespread logistic use during World War II, it simply doesn’t compare to the usefulness of the engine, particularly in the large requirement of time and money. However, it still fascinates many due to cultural nostalgia and the charismatic appeal of the beasts, themselves.

      While horses are highly unlikely to become an upcoming economic force, there are still innovations in their care, such as  clip-on horseshoes.

    3. Vinyl Records

      While replaced with a neverending series of advancements (8-track cassettes, CD’s, MP3s, etc.), the vinyl record has managed to keep a sizable market, and even is at a 28-year high.

      While vinyl records have that distinct nostalgic tint, hearkening back to early days of the music industry, they also have several notable advantages over other formats.

      Their analog sound quality is frequently higher than that of digital recordings. While this is of little consequence to the average consumer, it appeals to audiophiles.

      Secondly, the long history of music production in vinyl allows access to a cultural archive not always available in other formats, allowing for a constant process of rediscovery.

      Even if the technology is decidedly last century, there is increasing interest in modern touches, such as Bluetooth modification of vintage hardware to interface with modern speakers.

Summary

Our fascination with novelty can blind us. While these examples may not seem so notable, there’s no guarantee that deprecated technologies won’t make a comeback.

Stay tuned for Part II: “The Future is Deprecated!”

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