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New vs Old Technology

February 6, 2001

A public radio commentary

There is an illusion about technology that whatever is the newest and most different succeeds. Yet to really catch on a technology must blend the old and the new together. You can see this best in automobiles.

My father bought a new Oldsmobile every five years or so - and when he hopped into his new one it felt like his old car, with all the controls in the right places. The main engineering principle is that to succeed you must combine the old and the new. I learned this principle indirectly from my father years ago.

He sent my sister, brother and me weekly envelopes filled with clippings, articles and all sorts of odd things. He reached his pinnacle when I was a college freshman. An envelope arrived and I opened it expecting the usual clipping but found a sack. A brown paper lunch sack folded neatly with a scrap of paper clipped to it: "Here," my father typed, "have a sack." There was no hidden message here, no joke he just thought I might need a lunch sack. The note was his key signature.

He'd grab any odd-shaped scrap toss it into his trusty Royal Typewriter and tap out a masterpiece of condensed prose: "Weather fine, enjoying back porch, here's an article. Love, Dad." About a year after the sack - in 1981 - my siblings and I bought Dad a computer.

We returned to our dorms anticipating his letters. Yet, soon the same typewritten notes arrived. "Use your word processor" we implored. Soon even his typewritten notes trickled to zero, and never did a word processed note arrive. Finally, I asked "Why don't you use your computer?" "Because," he responded, "when I turn it off, what I'm writing vanishes and I've got to begin all over again." He had no concept of save. Here was the solution: Explain save. But then I thought of how happy he was to send out these short notes written on a scrap, and how happy we were to get them. I looked at his printer seeing how we'd locked him into a white 8 1/2 x 11 sheet - in those days the printers could use only a roll of perforated sheets. Today, nearly any sized scrap can be run through a printer, but in 1981 printer technology zapped my father's creativity - it took away his medium. He said to me again "my letters vanish when I turn off the computer." I bit my tongue and said "yeah, isn't that terrible. You might as well use your typewriter." He never again turned on his computer.

And to the end of his days he filled our mailboxes with odd-shaped missives of love: clippings, notes on scraps, and even a sack or two. And I've kept that Royal Typewriter to remind me of this engineering lesson.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises