November 1, 2023
In 2022, Cormac McCarthy published two novels at the age of 89. An impressive feat, doubly so because he wrote them on the same old dead tech typewriter he’d bought from a pawn shop in 1963. Prior to his death, he no longer had the original, a light blue Olivetti Lettera 32, because that was sold at a charity auction for a quarter of million dollars in 2009. A friend replaced it with an identical model for just $11. But one that lacked the cultural imprint, clearly.
Now there’s an element of this tale that is about somebody using the tools with which they feel most comfortable. But no doubt McCarthy would have also told you it changes the way he worked and what he created. The tools we use are not neutral conduits for creativity. They shape what we create. It may seem unlikely that future writers will work in the same way as McCarthy, but we shouldn’t rule it out.
The best example of a dead technology finding a new lease of life – and not for entirely logical reasons – is the phonographic record. The product degrades with use. It is large and needs to be stored and maintained. It has a woefully poor storage capacity. Its reputation as a superior format for sound quality has been debunked. It requires specialist equipment. And it’s expensive.
Yet Taylor Swift’s most recent album Midnights sold 575,000 vinyl copies in the US in its first week of release. And vinyl is not the sole preserve of boomers digging around charity shops for nuggets of nostalgia. It offers a different experience to Spotify, and doesn’t suffer from a potentially boundless carbon footprint in the same way as your streamed playlist. But it’s not a format that is particularly lucrative for the record industry, which gives the impression it would like to shoot it in the face for the same reasons your mobile phone company wants you to get that new handset.
Another format that refuses to die is the floppy disk, but for more prosaic reasons. The last man on Earth to sell them in significant quantities, a guy called Tom Persky, claimed in September 2022 that his two biggest markets were – worryingly – the medical and airline sectors, both of whom operate with more archaic tech than we might like. Persky estimates that half the commercial aircraft in the world are over 20 years old and rely on floppy disks for their avionics.
Another peculiarly modern phenomenon that keeps supposedly obsolete tech going is that people just can’t be bothered with the new stuff, however indifferent they are to the old stuff. That might explain why in October 2022, researchers Statcounter found that just 15 percent of PC users had upgraded to Windows 11, seemingly content with their existing operating systems, the owners of hardware incapable of coping with the new system or – perhaps more likely – beyond caring or too exhausted to bother. They may even feel they are doing something good by turning their backs on the endless exhortations to upgrade from what they are told is dead tech but clearly isn’t.