The Burden of Obsolete Technology


By Samuel Greengard

Digital technology consistently delivers incremental gains that, over time, add up to real improvements. Yet, ironically, the end result of all these enhancements sometimes amounts to a giant step backwards.

For example, we once tucked away our photos in albums and boxes. There was no Box 2.0 or Album 3.5. We had a drawer brimming with videotapes of our vacations and our kids. Although digital cameras and camcorders introduced an array of remarkable features, they've also created new headaches.

Last week, I stumbled across a drawer of old VHS and 8-millimeter tapes. One of the tapes is a compilation of 16-millimeter films that my parents shot during my childhood. Unfortunately, I no longer own a VHS player. So, I now need to have the tape converted to DVD. Of course, DVD will eventually become obsolete too, just as the underlying codec for playing the video will sooner or later become archaic.

I already have video clips that I digitized years ago and the codecs no longer work. I have CDs and DVDs that a family member or friend burned that won't play correctly. I guess they're lost forever. And let's not even discuss how many music albums, movies and other content I can no longer access because of "advances" in technology. I have to shell out more money to replace what I already own or wave goodbye to all of it.

Businesses large and small get sucked into the tractor beam, too. I have files from now-extinct software programs that I can't retrieve. I have floppy discs sitting in my garage. At this point, the file formats are obsolete or there's no way to easily extract the data. Within the enterprise, obsolete formats and technology has serious repercussions, including an inability to retrieve crucial medical data.

It's a pain on numerous levels. For enterprises, data and format obsolescence translates into higher costs—or an inability to cash in on data collected over years. For all of us, old video files, CDs or clips that won't play means that the precious moments of a wedding, bar mitzvah, sweet 16 party or a funeral might be lost forever.

This certainly is not the picture-perfect result we originally envisioned.


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