Who needs the Enterprise when you can beam yourself to Klingon?
June 26, 2014 2:07 PM   Subscribe

I need examples of technologies that have "advanced" over time, (where "advanced" means looks better, and maybe runs faster, but is basically the same ol' same ol',) and then a counter example of a totally different thing that solved the problem in a different way than the original tech did. I'm doing a talk where I'm trying to point out that sometimes the solution isn't a faster starship Enterprise, it's a better transporter, except I'm not exactly happy with that example.
posted by nushustu to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For a revolution, try the switch from film cameras to digital cameras. In the blink of an eye, Kodak and Polaroid were wiped out.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:11 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

As to a gradually-advancing technology, that would be concrete. It was invented by the Romans, and the only radical improvement in 2000 years has been steel-reinforcing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:12 PM on June 26, 2014

There are some good examples on this wikipedia page:

posted by rollick at 2:17 PM on June 26, 2014

What about food preservation?

Dry meat, salt meat, etc to prolong its life.

Then someone realizes stuff stays fresher longer if you keep it cold.

So you keep it out of the sunlight.
Or underground.
Or in your cellar.
Or you start carving ice out of a lake and putting that ice in your cellar, too.
Or then you create an insulated box and put ice in that insulated box and keep your food in that box.
And companies spring up whose sole function is to deliver ice to people so they can keep their insulated boxes cool.

And then someone invents the compressor and you have refrigerators, and so long food preservation problems, so long ice block business.
posted by phunniemee at 2:19 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you have a flat tire, the original tech is to jack it up (they have inflatable jacks now which serves as evidence of a "faster starship") and the alternative tech is "Fix a Flat" which fixes the flat in a completely different way than the traditional jack.
posted by NoraCharles at 2:20 PM on June 26, 2014

False, but fun: the story of the space pen.
posted by Mchelly at 2:23 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your point reminds me of this famous quote attributed to Henry Ford:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

(Do note, though, that there's no evidence Ford actually said that.)
posted by mekily at 2:36 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Not a smoother Morse key, but skype (/email/cellphone/etc).

Not a better electric valve, a microchip.

Not a better escapement, a quartz crystal.

Zeppelin, aerofoil.
posted by metaBugs at 2:37 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

No need for faster mail, we have email and scanning.

Roads on the other hand, have changed very little over the years.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:00 PM on June 26, 2014

Not-too-distant scifi is great for these. The movie Bladerunner takes place in 2019 and was made in 1982. The main character uses a pay phone with a video screen. That was someone imagining how phones were going to improve. Instead we got little phones you carry around, not better pay phones.
posted by bleep at 3:08 PM on June 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

the switch from mouse/keyboard to multitouch screens is the first one that comes to mind.
posted by emptythought at 3:10 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pretty much all cooking falls under this banner of same ol' same ol'. I mean it's all just basically applying heat to food, just now it's via $2000 gas ranges and not fireplaces or campfires.
posted by wwax at 3:25 PM on June 26, 2014

I am surprised no one has already said this:

At one time, the West was saying that China could never catch up because running landlines everywhere was such a huge cost/burden and they were forever stuck in the dark ages. Then cell phones were invented and China largely skipped past the whole landline stage and embraced cell phones.

Semi supportive story from 2006 about Chinese "preferring" cell phones to landlines.
posted by Michele in California at 3:33 PM on June 26, 2014

Trains were developing slowly but surely to the point where we had lines crossing the US and huge businesses competing on rail standards and speed being some of the most exciting news in the country at the time - spawning whole genres of fiction even. Then airplanes happened. The rail to airplane transition for people transport is one of the most literal examples of adding a new dimension to find the solution.

Then there's the time when someone finally made a cargo plane refrigerated. Suddenly we could get raw ingredients from the other side of the planet. And this cut pretty sharply into the profits of freight ships. Related - fishing boats are now often little more than factories for immediate butchery, freezing, and packaging of seafood with nets attached.

In art, the classic example is the camera. People were trained to meticulously recreate realistic images - portraiture being probably the most historically important example of this skill. Note that we've had something like cameras for a very long time. The difference was that we didn't have a good way to commit those images to a surface in a cost effective way. When that finally happened, many artists despaired of the camera. There were people who embraced it. But some of the commonly considered best artists went a different direction, and that's where we get, essentially, the beginning of modern art in the western world. Art became less a way to capture things we'd already seen and more a way to create things we wouldn't be able to see at all, regardless of our place in life. Cameras, meanwhile, are still an art tool. It's kind of a shift from the expected direction of the metaphor. It's not that cameras are superior technology for image creation. It's that artists are needed to have different skillsets and attitudes than what they were trained for before the advent of the camera. You can see this whole thing repeated with computer imaging tech.
posted by Mizu at 3:42 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

People used to send written messages via a servant or clerk.

Then the telephone was invented and people could talk to one another, and servants and clerks were put in the position of answering it and gatekeeping the messages.

Then the answering machine was invented, and there was no need for a servant or personal assistant.

Then came voicemail, and answering machines are mostly obsolete.

Now people are abandoning voicemail and exclusively sending messages to one another or use the caller ID as an alert function that you want a call back.

It's as if we never needed the telephone at all. Just a more reliable 'servant.' Weird.
posted by Mchelly at 4:44 PM on June 26, 2014

In the early 2000s I spent years working with a company that was developing software and standards for mobile video broadcasting. The technology was called DVB-H and the idea was to broadcast digital video from cities (much like HDTV) and show programs directly on your phone or an inexpensive portable television set. There was an entire worldwide industry preparing for this - everyone from tower equipment makers to software companies to handset manufacturers to television networks.

Then the iPhone came along in 2007 and everyone started watching YouTube and Netflix on their phones via wifi. Then the cell networks got way faster. In under 5 years, DVB-H was completely gone. Turns out nobody wanted to watch broadcast TV anymore, much less on a phone.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:58 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Typewriters evolved over the course of a century from manual to electric to correcting, and then within a decade were largely supplanted by computers in most offices.
posted by zombiedance at 10:57 PM on June 26, 2014

You might consider the parallel evolution of body armor and the things people used to make holes in other people.

While armor developed from hides and padded cloth, through to strips of metal, chain mail and big ol' plate mail suits, the weapons side went from knives and clubs to sharper/harder knives and clubs, with some developments in knives on long sticks and bows/arrows.

Then: gunpowder. Suddenly wrapping a single person in metal wasn't worthwhile. You get a couple centuries of bullets pushing through uniforms without much change.

Then: synthetic fibers and modern body armor.

Just a thought.
posted by Tara-dactyl at 2:43 AM on June 27, 2014

Transcription - there used to be entire secretary pools at large companies who did nothing but type letters and memos, and transcribe spoken letters from the white-collar employees. Then dictaphones and voice recorders came along, and the secretary didn't have to be in the room while the memo was spoken aloud - improvement, but not much. Then affordable word processors, and later PCs, made it so that it was faster and more efficient for workers to just write their own memos and letters (eventually emails) and secretary pools all but disappeared.

Less extreme example - but in the late 90's/early 2000's, Intel was essentially just speeding up their Pentium processor line with smaller transistor sizes and faster clock speeds (with some extra instruction sets thrown in). Really just more of the same. Then they created a brand new x86 processor architecture, with performance that beat their newest Pentium-class processors at less than half the clock speed.
posted by trivia genius at 9:27 AM on June 27, 2014

This is an interesting question to me because a long time ago I trained as a graphic designer and all the skills it took my cohort so many pains to learn are now obsolete. Laying a gouache ground; drawing perfectly regular lines with a ruling pen; constructing curlicues and arabesques with a set of French curves; setting wooden type by hand, in a frame, using a quoin to tighten the whole thing up; colour separation with three sheets of layout paper on a board base, using a sky blue pencil for the registration marks....

In general the history of graphical reproduction is full of examples of one technology being superceded, made obsolete, by another, so it could yield a number of instances of this kind of thing. However there have been IMO three huge graphic technology revolutions in the modern age: letterpress printing, the invention of photography, and digital technology. Someone's mentioned photography upthread, and I thought someone else had talked about books ('nother thread) which are part of that history; but here is a very specific example:

Newspapers used to be illustrated by artists, who drew the pictures, and engravers, who rendered the pictures into discrete lines and dots that could be mass-reproduced by the letterpress process. As photography was becoming more accessible and less expensive, these artists and engravers got involved in a huge challenge to emulate its realism and immediacy - photography then being pioneered by forward-thinking publications through the use of half-tone rendering. The battle was already lost, but the heights of skill reached were formidable. It's an example of a flowering happening precisely because a competing technology was about to take over.

The Dover pictorial archive contains some beautiful examples of this sort of late Victorian reportage.

Come to think of it, I've never seen this proposition written down, I think I'm half-remembering it from one of my very first lectures. So no references, sorry. See, we thought we were outriders in the van of technology too! I mean, we had Rotring pens and airbrushes and everything. Poor fools.
posted by glasseyes at 10:12 AM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

ooh, with regard to transcription, I remember a story from the 20's or 30's, Stenographers Hands, which combined futurism with evolution to propose natural selection would eventually produce a cadre of female workers with huge hands and ears and not much else. Which i think is kind of like the wrong turn/ tori miss road vibe the OP seemed to be after. Though fictional.

Nobody saw mobile phones coming, as someone said above. I mean phones have gone where people thought computers were heading. Especially in developing countries - my country, no infrastructure, no infrastructure, no infrastructure and suddenly Bam! mobile phone masts everywhere. And still no other infrastructure.
posted by glasseyes at 10:25 AM on June 27, 2014

Griots, Bards, Scalds etc have an important function as the keepers of history. In particular they memorise genealogies (as well as battles, alliances, migrations and so on.) There are contemporary cultures in which they still have this function. The office tends to be hereditary and training starts very young, say, about the age of 5. And I think there's quite a lot of crossover, in traditional societies, between musicians and historians, and between the political and the ceremonial.

So those prodigious feats of memory those poets undertook and trained for over a lifetime, all obsolete now. Because first we had rhyme, meter and music, then we had writing, then we had printing, and now we have data. And nobody knows just how much has been lost from the memory of poets as they have died out. What they knew leaves no trace, no direct evidence in material culture, only the most enigmatic of hints. Unless it's recorded in some way intelligible to future people it's lost.
posted by glasseyes at 11:20 AM on June 27, 2014

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