Tech and the Topsoil of Tradition


If you’re reading this, you’re well on your way to surviving the holidays.

You’ve avoided being trampled in retail roller-derbies. You’ve sat through the big meals without stabbing any deservedly obnoxious relatives with the turkey skewer. You’ve maintained a pasted-on grin while swiping iPhone pics of in-law kids who no one but blood relatives find cute.

Every family has its own holiday traditions, and almost all involve some measure of stress-induced cortisol release.

In my family, one of our grand traditions is my dad re-suggesting that I clean out closets of stuff I’ve had packed to the rafters at his place for bordering on two decades. And I make small dents in the job every year. (But if it were a process I finished, then it wouldn’t be a tradition, would it?)

Note: I consider myself a minimalist. But one of my tricks-of-the-trade here involves long-term storage of stuff on other people’s turf.

During this year’s seasonal closet-rummaging, I started to think about tradition itself. In the broad sense.

I started my work in an orderly way. I have a bunch of old papers — from high school book reports to Dungeons & Dragons character sheets. Things I couldn’t quite bring myself to trash outright, but I realize I don’t really need to maintain in a physical form. Technology to the rescue.

I could scan this stuff, store it digitally, and shrink a sheet of paper down to a few tidy kilobytes (archived and searchable for the convenience of future biographers).

A few hours of scanning, saving, file-naming and paper-recycling and all seemed well. I had a placated father, more elbow-room in the closets, and a computer hard drive barely more crowded than it had been previously.

But then… a bit deeper in the closet, something gave me pause.

The shoebox

The shoebox was filled with something ominous.

Iomega Zip disks. About 20 of them.

Do you remember these?

If you owned a computer in the late 1990s, you may remember a company called Iomega. For a while it was near-dominant in the external data storage industry. They had two big products: the 100 megabyte Zip disk and (someone correct me if I’m wrong) its 1 gigabyte big brother, the Jaz disk. These were both ejectable disks in the intermediary era between 3.5-inch “floppy” disks and the successor technology, (re)writable CDs and DVDs.

100 megabytes was a significant block of storage space back then. This was before every human had multiple gigs of free space as his or her birthright on Google Drive, Dropbox, and similar “cloud” platforms. There were no clouds in the digital sky back then.

“I know DVDs aren’t a dead technology yet, but how much longer do they have, really?”

So a younger me had thought to myself: “Hey, I’ll store my files on Zip disks, and stick them in the closet for the convenience of future biographers.”

Good thinking… Except that it didn’t occur to me to save the external drives that these ejectable disks could be inserted into.

This wasn’t (quite) as stupid as it sounds; Iomega’s technology was so dominant back then that its drives came preinstalled in many Macs from that era. I owned such a Mac.

But then I’d “traded up” at some point — without realizing that the hardware change had orphaned my Zip disks.

It never occurred to me that I’d been archiving my life on a storage medium I’d have no way to access in a few short years.

The March of Progress

I realize that with some effort, I can regain access to these shoe-boxed files.

But what am I going to find there?

Most likely, once I access the disks, I’ll find a bunch of ClarisWorks files (a long defunct word processing application). Then I’ll have to translate ClarisWorks to an equally-old version of Microsoft Word, and then hope that modern Word can upgrade the resulting files from its older format.

After all that — a process less effortful but significantly less sexy than chiseling dinosaur bones out of aeons-old rock — I’ll finally be able to see what seemed so damned time-capsule-worthy to me back in the late 1990s.

The amazing thing here is the speed at which things become ubiquitous, and then irrelevant.

My closet also contains Laser Discs. It contains audio tapes. And I know DVDs aren’t a dead technology yet, but how much longer do they have, really?

That’s just talking about physical stuff.

Do you remember the sound of a dial-up modem? That distinctive “connection sound” that it would make — an audio representation of a process called “hardware handshaking,” when your modem would establish communication with your Internet Service Provider’s telephone bank?

If you know what I mean, then you’ll know exactly what I mean. It was this weird machine noise with precisely-choreographed static, hissing and beeps that sounded like nothing else has, before or since.

It was everywhere for a few years, like a theme song for the early Internet. And then it was gone.

Everywhere, then nowhere.

Like an algal bloom in the digital ocean.

But also not like that. Because algal blooms, locust swarms, and all nature’s strangest cyclical phenomena are just that — cyclical. Eventually, they’ll happen again.

But I don’t expect the dial-up modem sound will ever see a resurgence. The once-mighty Zip disk will never rise again.

A 1,000,000-year megatradition…

Over two million years ago, our ancestors began making stone “hand axes.” You’ve seen these in archaeology textbooks or anthropology TV shows. They look like teardrop shaped arrowheads of rock, with a knife-like edge on the pointy end.

These hand axes are the ultimate tradition. They actually pre-date the Homo Sapiens species and were still manufactured (hand-made! artisanal!) until shockingly recently. Not quite as recently as Iomega Zip disks, but close.

But tradition is hard to sustain in the face of technological change.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many of our traditions are based on seasonal changes or major human life-events (births, deaths, childbirths, etc.), there’s a good reason. These traditions are the ones that have survived. They’re still relevant. (Brush up on Survivorship Bias — a concept always worth remembering — on the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast.)

“It was everywhere for a few years, like a theme song for the early Internet. And then it was gone.”

Don’t doubt that there was once a grand tradition of hand-axe-manufacture. A million-year-plus tradition. (Eat your heart out, Christmas!) But advancing technology killed it.

Nowadays, nothing technological has a chance to become a tradition[1]. I will never teach a child how to back up files to an Iomega Zip disk. That technology lasted just a sliver of a decade, a brief supernova of utility that flared and faded, to be remembered only by tech historians and spelunkers in my closet.

Traditions, like species, can go extinct.

Tradition emerges from the topsoil of relevance and repetition.

Topsoil, I say, not bedrock.

The faster technology expands, the greater becomes the fragility of our surviving traditions. What happens to seasonal traditions on a near-future Mars colony where “years” are 22.5 Earth-months in length? What happens to funereal traditions when “mind-uploading” allows your digital facsimile to be the executor of your will, or eulogize at your own funeral?

Making hand axes must have seemed like a pretty well-established tradition 50,000 years ago.

When we zoom out to the broad perspective of history, our traditions seem almost doubly poignant. Affirming, enclosing and repetitive at one scale; unique, fleeting and defining at another.

It’s something to think about as you close out your holidays and do your physical and mental closet-cleaning for 2016.

[1] Traditions based on older technologies — like “the use of forks” or “the riding of bicycles” — will (probably) persist, but anything invented in the past quarter-century can aspire at best to become a personal habit, not a multi-generational tradition.

This article was written by Jesse Lawler and was originally published at Smart Drug Smarts on December 29, 2015.

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