Ah, the coelacanth. Thought to be extinct for over 60+ million years, it was rediscovered in 1938. There is a note in the Wikipedia entry that it may have evolved somewhat, but very slowly, because evolutionary pressures have been relatively light. Still, it is the classic representative of the “living fossil” trope. After getting a “new” flip (feature) phone (replacing an old one that was going wonky), it was interesting to muse on what other technologies are essentially “living fossils,” in this age of turbocharged, electronic (r)evolutionary change. Yes, my personal telecommunications needs are still being met by a feature phone. There are a few reasons this is done, and a quick search turns up a few articles, ranging from the humorous to matter-of-fact to the serious. A feature phone, in this day and age, is essentially a ‘digital coelacanth’, still evolving, but still retaining the basic layout of its ancestors. If you were to hand a modern feature phone to someone twenty years ago, they’d probably be able to figure it out (although the ‘browser’ option might confuse a few folks).
From a computer perspective, very little seems to not change; Windows 3.1 is a distant memory, as are a host of other operating systems. The one computer operating system that has any relation to its ancestors, and that might be consider a living fossil (yet still evolving!) is the wide variety of Unix-like systems that are in use. The Unix philosophy isn’t for everyone, but it seems to have done well in creating systems that work, and that people don’t have to relearn every N years when a new version comes out. Many of the commands that have worked in the past still work, and much of the the intellectual framework is still the same.
A few folks still keep a calculator on their desk; a classic Casio FX-260 Solar, for example, has no batteries, and runs on solar power. Although these features can be found on many smartphones, having computational capability, and only computational capability in a device can be useful. For example, when on the phone, you don’t have to switch apps when talking to someone, and the calculator itself is cheap enough to be used in situations where an expensive smartphone might be destroyed. In a laboratory or workshop, using a smart phone is great… until someone puts a soldering iron on it, or accidentally breaks it with a piece of nearby heavy equipment.
As much flack one can get for having these “coelacanthic” devices (a feature phone, a standalone calculator, a GPS for the car, a digital camera, a computer with a flavor of the Unix operating system), having your digital life spread out can also be a benefit. When someone hacks a smartphone, they hack an entire person’s life. Yes, these phones do have security measures, but when those measures are bypassed, a great many personal details can be released, as many a celebrity has found out. By “air gapping” your devices, you can prevent, or at least slow down, some of the disasters that can happen in the modern digital world. In some ways, this is a Unix philosophy applied to technology in general – everything should do one thing really well, and that’s it. Now, of course, there may be situations where having a ‘Swiss army knife’ of a smart phone is desirable, but putting too much faith in once piece of technology is always a bit dicey.
- What other digital “coelecanthinc” things come to mind?
- Are there times when going forward makes perfect sense? After all, very few of us use slide rules (although it is a good idea to know how to use one). Learning these old technologies (from slide rules to sextants) that are hundreds, instead of mere decades old certainly makes your more cognizant of the underlying mathematics.
- What is the metric or decision point for going with any new digital or other type of technology, instead of staying with the old ones?
- Although not digital or electronic, many transportation modes are still being used, and still quite old, from sailboats to bicycles. Both have evolved considerably over the years, with new materials and technologies, but people still do ride “beaters” and wooden sailboats. When do we consider technologies “coelecanthinc”? When we think they are obsolete, but still used by a small minority?