Why Are Old Technologies So Hard To Kill? Nassim Taleb Has A Theory

The author of The Black Swan is back with a sweeping new theory: The longer a certain idea or technology has been around, the longer we can expect it to survive.

In the physical world, lifespans are finite. The longer something has been alive, the closer it is to death, whether you’re talking about your aunt or your dog or even your refrigerator or external hard drive. But when it comes to the realm of the nonphysical—things like ideas and technologies and other cultural products—is it possible that the opposite is true? That the longer something has been around, the longer we can expect it to be around in the future?

That’s the theory put forward by author and big thinker Nassim Taleb in his new book, Antifragile. Taleb, who looked at unforeseen, unforeseeable events in his last book, The Black Swan, recently summarized his new work over at Wired.

We may be trained to think that the new is about to overcome the old, but that’s just an optical illusion. Because the failure rate of the new is much, much higher than the failure rate of the old. When you see a young child and an old adult, you can be confident that the younger will likely survive the elder.

Yet with something nonperishable like a technology, that’s not the case.

Or, as Taleb summarizes it: "For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable like technology, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy."

The author adapted the idea from something called the Lindy effect, which derives from work by the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot. And Taleb says it applies at any level of specificity:

…the Lindy effect doesn’t change with the way you define technology—it can be as narrow or as general as you like. A car can be defined as something broad such as a “box on wheels” (including both carriages and modern cars), or, it can be defined as something specific such as “the red convertible.” Each would have a life expectancy that is proportional to its age, as defined. A reading document can be a Mesopotamian tablet, a scroll, or a book—and the book can be physical or electronic.

Of course, looking at our current historical moment, you could point to plenty of things that contradict the theory. Why is the web thriving, for example, while daily newspapers are dying out? Taleb counters that the theory is concerned with greater trends and averages, not specific technologies at specific times.

And with that broad view in mind, it’s certainly an interesting formulation to unpack. Paper books endure, but not quite as reliably as the stone tablets that preceded them. Major religions hold sway, while cults come and go like fads. It’s something to consider, too, in terms of the way we live today. Digital files, we know, can remain pristine through the years, but the reality is far messier. Hard drives fail; file formats become outmoded. It’s a good thing, then, that when we decided to send the sights and sounds of Earth out into the cosmos aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, we did so on a tried-and-true phonograph record, instead of going with the hottest technology of the day. I don’t think aliens use eight-track anymore, either.

Read more from Taleb himself over at Wired.

[Illustration: Shutterstock]

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7 Comments

  • I love the fact I can download music and stream movies from itunes. I don't have to worry about buying Discs no more. I have loved computers since 1995 when I got my first pc with Windows 3.0 something like that. I fell in love and used many services for Internet like AOL, Fast.NET and now Comcast. I have used Windows 95, 98, 2000, XP, Vista, 7 and now Windows 8.

  • jeffhre

    Why Are Old Technologies So Hard To Kill? I'm hoping that the editor titled this so that it has something to do with the article because I'm using it as a pretest. Answer: because the old technologies make people money, no visualization of a future state required. Clock in at the beginning of the week, get a paycheck at the end. Predictable, though slowly dying. These are the people who do the everyday heavy lifting. 
    Post test: HUH! Mandelbrot and fractals are wildly popular but...

  • Nosybear_Demon_at_Large

    Any comment on robustness of technology?  While paper and stone both degrade over time, the rate of degradation of paper is much faster.  Any comment on the fundamental nature of the technology?  A wheel is very fundamental technology while an integrated circuit is derivative of many, more fundamental technologies.  If we look at the problem simply by imagining that every technology has a given probability of being supplanted or eliminated through a unit time, mathematically the formula becomes exponential decay - a few technologies will survive nearly forever while most will be eliminated early in the process.  So perhaps the effect Taleb is noting is merely survivorship?

  • jeffhre

    Isn't that more of a materials problem than a systems problem? EG. what if the writing tablet were not made of paper or stone but of gold? What then is the probability of survivorship based upon the formula for exponential decay?

  • AlainCo

    Taleb don't only talk of Lindy effect, but also of the "less is more".
    New technology often propose to REMOVE annoying elements to existing long lasting technology. Adding new technology, new feature, is unpredictable and uncommon.

    Take the car... it will last long because of Lindy effect. Bike will last longer, and shoes much longers. but can you remove something to those device ?

    You can remove the smoke ? the refueling ? the driver ? all is in process for next decade (for refueling, I admit it will be refueling every 6 month or 5 years depending on the available technology. today 6 month I admit).
    why not removing the car in the city to let kids play in the street (like what imagine Jed Rothwell), keeping the transport, the autonomy, the loneliness... car-tube ? taxi-bots? mini-car-on-train shuttle ?

    For bike, why not remove the pain... motorbike ... ok. the weight of the motorbike... electric bike... the recharge of the bike... got it, ask Nicholas Chauvin to prepare a bike version of his car.

    for the shoes, what can you remove ? the strings ... nearly done... the price... not bad... the weight... already good... the rigid sole ? done! 

    one idea is that to imagine what can be added, think first of what can be removed.
    For shoes the only big problem is need to walk... just add wheel, and you get the split roller-skate... not a success... too much added, but that is the idea.

    think about what you remove to old technology, and you have the future.
    At worst Think about what to add as new so you can remove from old technology.

    Prepare for the future.
    less is more.
    --
    AlainCo the techwatcher of lenr-forum