|Sometimes the traditional ways really
can be the best
THE march of technology is a social as well as an
economic phenomenon. Some whole industries, such as personal computers,
seem to rely on the insatiable desire of people for the latest gadget.
Never mind whether you really need it: just throw away your old
computer, television, hi-fi, or whatever and buy a newer, better (and
often cheaper) one. An unwelcome side-effect is an instinctive tendency
to disparage older technologies in favor of newer ones.
Yet ditching the old completely can often prove a
mistake-because technologies that are dismissed as yesterday’s habits
sometimes turn out to be not such old hat after all. What was once
regarded as obsolete can, with a minor tweak or embellishment, be
revived as fast as any old fashion.
The latest instance of an old technology to be
rehabilitated in just such a way is clockwork. Once a standard method of
powering clocks, watches and children’s toys, it fell from grace with
the rise of battery-powered gadgets. Yet, as the power needed by modern
circuitry decreases, clockwork is becoming a feasible power source once
more. Wine-up radios and torches are on sale. The American military is
evaluating hand-cranked satellite-navigation devices and landmine
detectors that would save soldiers from having to lug bulky battery
Plenty of other mechanical devices have been revived
too. A hundred years ago, all calculators were mechanical, but they were
displaced by electronic ones containing valves, then transistors, and
finally microprocessors. Now microscopic mechanical components are
staging a comeback at the heart of a new class of silicon chips. Such
microelectro-mechanical systems can sometimes do things that electronics
cannot: tiny silicon arms and levers can, for example, act as compact
filters, timekeepers, optical switches and sensors.
Transport offers other examples. Filthy,
soot-belching steam locomotives were rejected in favor of diesel and
electric ones decades ago. Now new, modernized steam engines are
sometimes more efficient and more environmentally friendly than diesels.
Airships and balloons are also poised to return to the ascendant. New
airships, built with space-age materials and filled with inert helium
rather than explosive hydrogen, are taking to the skies. Plans have been
floated to use them as fixed communications relay-stations over big
cities. Researchers are looking into the use of balloons to carry
scientific instruments over the surface of other planets.
Or consider the triumph or paper. The computer has
entirely failed to dethrone paper; instead, computers make it easier to
generate documents, and the introduction of the PC, far from fostering
the paperless office, has led to a huge increase in bumf. It is even
possible to spot a similar pattern in wars: as events in Kosovo are
showing, even the stealthiest fighter/bomber cannot substitute for the
man on the ground with a machinegun.
The lesson of history is, in short, that even apparently moribund
technologies such as clockwork have a persistent habit of, well,
springing back to life. That is worth remembering next time you hear the
death-knell being sounded for a supposedly outmoded way of doing things.
Last year’s habit can often turn out to be near year’s habit too.
© 1999 The Economist Newspaper Group, Inc.
Reprinted with permission. Further reproduction prohibited.
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