This column generally explores web sites and technologies right there on the edge of innovation. Investigating these 'happening' developments is great fun. Undoubtedly we live in exciting times and one of my favourite pastimes is to speculate on how a new platform, protocol or product may impact on our lives. Then again, sometimes - through the haze of my own techno euphoria - the level-headed part of my brain throws up some tricky questions. What about a historical perspective? What happened to the famed IBM Selectric typewriter and mimeograph machine? Predicted to change our lives forever, these once-revolutionary technologies are now extinct. Could our much-touted Web eventually suffer a similar fate? Even more vexing - is there a technology graveyard somewhere where these victims of evolutionary elimination rest in peace? Extinct but not forgotten? Apparently so... The Dead Media Project
The Dead Media Project, run by Bruce Sterling and a merry band of techno freaks, is a technology graveyard. Working hand-in-hand with Griffin Multimedia University's site covering dead media, the site is an attempt to extensively archive technologies that have gone by the wayside over the course of human history.http://www.deadmedia.orghttp://griffin.multimedia.edu/~deadmedia
Strolling through the tombstones of the project's dead media list, one encounters some truly astounding techno mummies. Had you ever heard of Ramelli's Book Wheel? Neither had I. Developed as the first workstation for scholars in the 16th century, it was touted as a hot new technology that allowed studious monks, indisposed by gout, to go about their work more effectively. Consisting of eight lecterns each holding books, the machine could be rotated by a system of wheels and pulleys. Scholars stood in front, spinning the mechanism to bring the tome of their choice closer to eye level.
Or how about The Missile Postal Delivery System? This was a joint 1950's project between the US Postal Service and the Navy. An official (perhaps an earlier incarnation of Steve Jobs) spin doctored the following press release: "Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles". True.
The cemetery is fascinating. Also amongst the list is the Cahill's 19th century teleharmonium. This was a gargantuan electrical generating plant and distribution system designed to provide music over the telephone. The teleharmonium's signals unfortunately overwhelmed switching systems. Too bad!
Then there are the more recent graves. Modern Internet search engines trampled text-based predecessors such as GOPHER and WAIS. Presently, given their flaws, it looks as though these very search engines themselves may eventually find their way onto Dead Media's list. Another addition that is likely to make it onto the list soon is the Iridium Satellite Phone System. This (current) billion-dollar project promised communication anywhere/anytime but has failed to attract sufficient subscribers up to now.
It is rather ironic that the Griffin University site associated with the Dead Media Project itself displays signs of technology that is becoming extinct. Perhaps tongue in cheek, it is displayed using a typical 1995 icon sporting the slogan 'Netscape Now'. As we know, the first Web browser, once the hottest thing since sliced bread, that made the Web possible in the early 90s, sadly seems to be facing a slow extinction too. As is the Shockwave 'Plugin' technology...What's this got to do with us?
With new products and ideas irrepressibly mushrooming in the cyber forests out there today, it is becoming increasingly important that we ponder the potential mortality of technologies. No matter how great an idea looks, in the end there will be a natural selection process and only some ideas will persist. Others mutate and, taken to higher levels, will seem fundamentally absurd in their current iteration. IT platform strategists are among the most highly paid in the industry. Strategic mistakes can be costly and set organisations back by years!
This definitely applies to us as online educators. Just imagine laboriously learning to become proficient in a new skill, such as an in-vogue animation package or learning platform, only to find that the technology has been superceded by the time you've developed your content.
The laws that served us well in the industrial age are changing too. Organisations must be more nimble and capable of responding to market and technology trends - or miss the boat. While in the past it was a safe bet for organisations to be loyal to 'trusted suppliers', these can no longer be trusted to supply future-safe or indeed "current" technologies. A typical example in this context is IBM/Lotus and Novell GroupWise. Once leaders in the area of Groupware applications, these products are now slowly losing ground. After all, who needs proprietary groupware when Web applications inherently provide similar or superior functionality?
In the organisation where I work, more staff use the email services of Hotmail and Yahoo Mail than the official Groupware package. More specifically, in the field of online delivery, until recently there existed a non-negotiable directive to use the Lotus Learning Space learning platform, which is based on non-open standards. Clinging to old structures and habitual affiliations, the IT department actually tried to firewall staff traffic to Hotmail! Needless to say, after a near meltdown of the IT Helpline and a quasi-militant uprising by students, the old-fashioned response to market forces was quickly reversed.
While no one can accurately predict the future, might we consider that groupware platforms could oneday grace the tomb of honours in Bruce Sterling's Dead Media shrine? And when Microsoft rolls out their brand new Windows XP operating system later this year, and we find ourselves enthused by its fine new features, should we pause and reflect awhile?
Remember Ramelli's wheel...