Technology Doesn’t Die

I’ve been slowly reading What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly after listening to the Econtalk interview some time ago. There’s all kinds of neat insight in it, one of which is this idea that technology does not die:

“I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.”

…That means, he said, “I can’t find any [invention, tool, technology] that has disappeared completely from Earth.”

Can’t be, I told him. Tools do hang around, but some must go extinct.

If only because of the hubris — the absolute nature of the claim — I told him it would take me a half hour to find a tool, an invention that is no longer being made anywhere by anybody.

Go ahead, he said. Try.

If you listen to our Morning Edition debate, I tried carbon paper (still being made), steam powered car engine parts (still being made), Paleolithic hammers (still being made), 6 pages of agricultural tools from an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue (every one of them still being made), and to my utter astonishment, I couldn’t find a provable example of an technology that has disappeared completely.

Well today I read about IBM’s old operating system, which I vaguely remember, called O/S 2. Dead, right?

Try though it might, IBM couldn’t force an unwilling world to use OS/2 as its primary operating system. But it also couldn’t extinguish demand for the operating system simply by declaring that it wasn’t going to sell and support it anymore, an announcement it made in 2005…

In New York City’s subway system, for instance, the travelers who gain entrance by swiping their Metrocard fare cards over five million times each weekday do so with the assistance of IBM’s theoretically defunct software. “While OS/2 is not running any visible part of the system, it does serve an essential purpose and there are hundreds of OS/2 computers in service,”…

…A company called Serenity Systems International sells an operating system called eComStation that’s a licensed, updated version of OS/2, giving users the option of buying a piece of software that’s still extant and still supported.

Waldhauer says that the checkout systems at Safeway supermarkets still run OS/2. So do certain Automated Teller Machines still in service, although big banks have largely moved on to Windows.

And perhaps more in keeping with the spirit of Kelly’s prediction:

And so do some holdouts who stick with OS/2 simply because they like it. For years, an organization called Warpstock has held OS/2 conferences in the U.S. and Europe.

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