Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

On Mix-tapes, floppy disks, and gopher

When we were out for dinner last night, I was talking about the AT&T “you will” ad campaign.  It seems like this happened ten minutes ago, but it was twenty years ago.  I don’t entirely know why I remember these ads, since I didn’t have a TV at the time, and downloading a ten-second 320×200 MPEG would take you half a day, so I’m sure I didn’t watch it online.  But the commercials featured a bunch of far-future technology, which now either exists (the ezpass, telemedicine, RFID, sending PDFs from your phone) or is so stupid we’ll never have it (home automation, robot butler crap.)

What amazes me, thinking about this, is all of the technology that was ubiquitous twenty years ago that a kid today would totally not understand.  I wrote about floppy disks yesterday, but here’s a few more off the top of my head that are dead forever:

  1. Pay phones.  I guess they exist now, in a very limited form, but I remember when even in rural Indiana, you could find a pay phone almost everywhere.  My dorm had a bank of pay phones in these little wooden booths with glass doors, I guess from the days when the dorm rooms didn’t have phones, or maybe for when you wanted to have a private conversation without disturbing your roommate.
  2. Cassette tapes.  Vinyl’s making a comeback, but tapes are dead.  I would probably have an extra year of life if I could get back all the time I spent re-winding fucked up tape back onto the tiny reels with a pencil, or untangling a long strand of tape that vomited out of the little holes on the bottom of the norelco shell and into my walkman.  Which reminds me of…
  3. Walkman.  I guess capital-W Walkman was the registered trademark of Sony, but everyone called every portable tape player that ran off of AA batteries a walkman.  I guess now people call every portable digital player an iPod.
  4. Ghetto blaster.  Is that a politically incorrect name for a portable stereo?  I don’t know, but when I googled “jambox”, I got some bluetooth wireless speaker.  I’m sure someone will come out with a “throwback” version marketed toward people who like hip-hop music and see the old ones in Spike Lee movies, but it seems like a dead format right now.  Now when you want to annoy everyone around you and look cool, you play your music through the crappy little speaker on your phone, which should be punishable by, at the very least, a kick to the balls.
  5. The Wizard.  In the days before iPhones synched contacts, there were these bastardized calculators that would store names and phone numbers.  There was no way to sync or back them up, and they all had horrible chicklet or membrane keyboards.  I got one in the late 80s, either as a holiday gift or when one of my parents got one for opening a checking account or something and couldn’t figure it out.  It was so painful to enter in any phone numbers, and by the time I did, the battery would die and I’d have to start over.  I did my own poor man’s wizard, which was a sheet of paper folded up in my wallet, which I guess now I could call a “hipster organizer” and start a whole web site about.
  6. Floppy disks.  I talked about this yesterday.  It also reminded me of the whole cottage industry of plastic holders for floppy disks, the various clamshells and rolodexes and plastic cubes and whatnot.
  7. Zip disks.  These had a brief window of maybe five years of popularity, somewhere between hauling around fifty floppy disks and just burning a CD-ROM.  All I remember about these is they had this “click of death” issue, and would suffer from catastrophic failure, which almost always caused the owner to freak the fuck out because they didn’t have a backup, because the Zip disk was the backup.
  8. SyQuest drives.  You need to dig deep to find someone who remembers these, but we had a bunch of SyQuest drives on the IU campus in the early 90s.  They were basically a removable hard drive, a 5.25″ plastic cartridge that held a hard drive platter and was nowhere near as sturdy as a floppy.  I never had one, because they were not cheap; I think they cost like a hundred dollars for a 44MB cartridge, and $100 was like a month of beer in 1992.
  9. Film cameras.  I guess they still exist, but unless you are an artist or hipster, you aren’t dropping off an armful of black plastic spindles at the local Osco’s to wait and see if the pictures you took last week were fucked up or not.
  10. Gopher.  Almost nobody remembers it, but it was a brief precursor to the world wide web.  You used a browser program to look at servers, but there was no real page layout, just menus that went to documents.  You couldn’t really publish your own gopher page, but for about ten seconds in 1991, every big university or government office had a gopher server, and it was so cool to browse through links and find text documents up to eight times faster than just FTPing there.  Then the web came out later that year, and we all forgot about gopher.

I think it’s easy to come up with a list of predictions for stuff we’ll have in 20 years.  What’s harder is to come up with a list of the stuff we use every day today that will be obsolete in 20 years.  Here’s my stab at a list of stuff that will go away by 2031:

  1. DVDs.  Probably Blu-Ray, too.  I think either everything will be streamed/downloaded, or maybe there will be some successor for optical media that’s smaller and stores more, maybe with some read/write capability.  I’m also certain that all of the optical media you buy today will be dead by then, either from some defect in manufacturing that will cause the discs to oxidize/disintegrate/fall apart, or because nobody will have the players anymore.  (How many of you still have a Jaz drive laying around the house?)
  2. GPS. I mean the TomTom unit you stick on your windshield with a suction cup.  I think this functionality is going to be built into cars for the most part.  I doubt we’ll get to fully automated driving in 20 years, but I think by then, high-end cars will have some sort of autopilot functionality in bigger cities.  Of course, that means every square inch of Japan will be wired for it, and we’ll see it in parts of New York and LA.
  3. Incandescent light bulbs.  Sorry tea party, but within five years, LED light bulbs are going to be cheap, low-watt, dimmable, smaller, way less fragile, and have no flicker.  That probably means the compact fluorescent ones will die too, if that makes you feel any better.
  4. USB.  It might exist in name only, but I think that some descendant of the optical version of the Light Peak/Thunderbolt interface is going to eventually kill USB, DVI, and HDMI.  I see two stumbling blocks with it: one problem is you can’t power a device over an optical interface, and the other is the endless pissing contest that happens when anyone wants to introduce a new interface format and everyone else doesn’t want to be the next betamax.
  5. Console gaming systems.  A big part of the market is going to mobile phones and tablets as we speak, and we’re just about to reach a massive crash in console sales.  The other thing is that TVs are getting smarter, and you’ll see a point where your TV is the client for the game, and some server out in the ether will do all of the processing.
  6. Printers.  Tablet-type systems will be everywhere and paper-thin, so you’ll just shoot documents back and forth like that.  If you’re one of those “I can only work on stuff that’s printed out” people, you’ll either be dead or blind in 20 years.
  7. Terrestrial radio.  I’m not sure why it hasn’t collapsed by this point, but I expect some combination of right-wing deregulation and greed over those coveted frequency bands to cause the entire system to get shut down and repurposed for commercial long-distance baby monitors or digital parking meter uploads or something else.
  8. Von Neumann architecture computers.  We’re at the point where you can’t fit any more crap on an integrated circuit, and CPUs aren’t going to get any faster.  In the next few years, it’s going to be all about adding more cores and more processors and more GPUs and coprocessors, but that’s all eventually going to go sideways.  Someone will get serious about using optical interconnects at the chip level, and when that happens, they’ll look at stuff like neuromorphic computing, emulating neuron networks, or something.
  9. Pretty much every web site you use today.  Facebook, twitter, and google will all be five iterations gone.  How many of you still use AltaVista?  Friendster?  Something new will always come along.
  10. Microsoft.  If you asked me 20 years ago about IBM, I would have predicted they would run the world.  Now, what do they even do?  I think they do consulting?  And maybe mainframes?  Microsoft is going to go through this 1-2-3 of a CEO change, a collapse of their long-term ponzi scheme of running a constant loss in their online divisions, and probably some major split or sell-off or restructure.  I’m sure there will be a Microsoft in 20 years, but I’m also sure it won’t be ever-present in every corner of your life unless you work there.

I guess I forgot to mention the death of the VCR, so maybe that’s another later post.  I also wonder if DVRs will still be around.  Seems like it would be much more efficient if the cable company stored copies of everything and you browsed them like the web, instead of trying to “catch” the recording and store it on your end, and then if you miss setting the recording or the stupid thing ends 90 seconds after the 30 minute mark, you aren’t screwed.  Why don’t the do it that way now?


4 responses to “On Mix-tapes, floppy disks, and gopher”

  1. Marc VH Avatar
    Marc VH

    Cable companies can't run head-end DVRs for everything because the content providers won't let them; at-home DVRs are considered the same as VCRs with respect to fair use but an aggregated approach is licensed differently.

    1. I figured it was something like that. They do on-demand for some shows, but it's always a toss-up on when a given week's episode will get posted. Also, the UI for comcast's on demand is mostly unusable, and they put the shittiest commercials ever in the middle of the shows, always pegged at full volume ("Seniors! Have you had your prostate removed? You may be able to sue!") and they now have a way to disable fast forward on certain shows. It's almost always better to wait until it ends up on netflix or to just go buy a subscription on Amazon.

  2. Marc VH Avatar
    Marc VH

    Yep; ideally watching TV shows would be an aggregated RSS-like mechanism where it shows you what's new on shows you follow without you needing to worry about the details of whether it's recorded locally or streamed or what. But that would make channels largely obsolete (maybe that's another thing that should go on your list.)

  3. I love the "ghetto blasters" you can buy now that you just stick your iPhone into. Just because you can stick an iPhone into it doesn't make it a good idea.

    For a more in-depth stroll through ghetto blaster history: