Tech Zombies: 6 Technologies That Don't Know They're Dead
Some technologies are like a Tyrannosaurus running down the highway (without the awesome). They made sense once and now they're hideously out of place, carried only by momentum as they stumble toward their inevitable date with the sixteen-wheeler of Progress.
But, like the T-Rex, they seem intent on doing as much damage as they can until then.
About another million tons of these useless blocks will be shipped out to households and offices next year, where an increasing number will make a U Turn at the front porch and head to the landfill without ever being opened. William Rathke, an anthropologist who studies garbage, says you can "dig a trench through a landfill and you will see layers of phone books like geographical strata or layers of cake." Rathke, who despite digging through trash for a living has his Ph.D. from Harvard, claims phone books account for about 10-30% of the trash at your local dump.
In an era when you can fit many gigabytes onto a device small enough to be swallowed by a cat and even your local bait shop has a website, phone companies still want us to find phone numbers the same way we did 100 years ago: by dragging out a bulky, ten-pound list printed on dead trees.
Why are they still around?
Since you've probably never opened one, you may not realize that phone books are chock full of so many ads that they generated $13.9 billion last year. That sort of makes sense when you realize these ads are being force fed to every single household in America, like giant bricks of spam just appearing on your porch once a year. The only difference is you can click out of a pop up ad. Phone books weigh 10 lbs and have to be disposed of in special ways, to avoid becoming even more than 30% of your local landfill. Yes, it would appear that Satan works in advertising, and he's damn good at what he does.
But even though it reaches twice as many homes as the Super Bowl, does it get past the doorstep of those homes anymore? Are there really $13.9 billion worth of people using them? Well yes, if you believe the phone companies, and the people they've paid to conduct surveys. And in an industry with no sales figures (because nobody asked for the damn things in the first place) how else are you going to track who actually uses them?
Well there is one way. You could go hunting around in landfills to see if the phone books were thrown away all at once right when everyone got them, creating entire layers of phone book in the earth. You know, like a cake? But who's bat shit crazy enough to do something like that?
No sooner than we celebrate the death of the CD, its killer may be the next one in the grave. We're talking about the iPod (and its countless imitators) which is seeing falling sales for the first time in its short life.
But don't feel sorry for Apple, the reason for the MP3 player slide is that cell phones (including their own iPhone) make perfectly good MP3 players. Selling someone an iPod now is like selling a feces gun to a monkey; he doesn't need it.
Why are they still around?
MP3 players hang around for the same reason digital cameras and GPS navigators hang around; all those things are available on phones, but the standalone devices still do it a little better.
For instance, there are iPods that can hold up to 40,000 songs now (which we believe is more songs than actually exist) and the iPhone "only" has room for about 3,500. But since the average user hasn't stolen anywhere near that many songs anyway, fewer and fewer are seeing the point of carrying around a separate device.
It's true the iPod still has some fashion appeal, and Apple continues to crank out versions with new features (including the iPod Touch, which seems to have been designed as an iPhone that you can't call people with). But it's a hopeless battle, since some of us just don't have the extra pocket. That won't get any better with time, since experts believe spandex jumpsuits are the future.
As processors and memory get exponentially smaller and smaller, the cell phone will swallow up every device in the home. By 2020 you won't even need a separate computer or laptop. By 2040 cell phones will be in charge of the planet, and our job will just be to tote them around from place to place so they can have meetings with each other.
After ten years we're finally seeing dropping DVD sales. Considering movies can already be downloaded onto set-top boxes on a pay-per-view basis, and can be downloaded over the internet on a pay-nothing-per-view basis, it's a wonder it took this long. Any economists reading may recognize that combination of risk factors and symptoms the same way doctors recognize coughing, shortness of breath and a constellation of funny-shapes on a chest X-ray.
Companies like Sony would like to think the dip is due to people getting all excited about Bluray, but while Bluray sales have inched along, movie downloads have doubled.
Meanwhile Netflix has made a deal with Microsoft so that anyone who owns an XBox 360 can get a subscription to download Netflix movies, physical media be damned.
Why are they still around?
Box sets of TV shows have inexplicably injected huge profits into DVD over the last few years. Even though the shows are free to watch in rerun form and, if you're not happy with that, rips are available four nanoseconds before a show finishes airing. But loyal fans hold out for the official box set. If you're new to this human thing called "capitalism", corporations interpret "loyalty" the way a prisoner might interpret "dropping the soap".
For example, The Sopranos box set planned for later this year will cost four hundred dollars. This officially makes the studio better at criminal extortion than the characters on the DVDs. Unless they include a special "real ending" as an extra, we're guessing it won't be worth it.
The big question at this point is if Bluray ever takes off, since it's offering something that can't be downloaded (or not easily anyway--an HD movie takes an entire day to download on most connections). So until our internet connections improve, sellers of movies on disc will have to depend on the market segment willing to pay to see every speck of dust on Batman's suit.
Magazines, Catalogs and Newspapers
How many of you read an actual newspaper this morning? Yeah, didn't think so. If you're reading this you know how to use the internet, and if you know how to use the internet then you have no reason in the world to read a newspaper unless you're sitting in the dark for refusing to pay your electricity bill. In that case, stop reading this and go get a job.
But also clinging to life despite an absurd inferiority to their online competitors, are magazines (two million tons' worth every year) and catalogs six million tons' worth). Most of the time when people find something they want in a catalog, the first thing they do is hop online anyway, where they can comparison shop and see in real-time whether or not the item is in stock. So at this point their entire business involves printing out something already on the internet--at huge expense--and making your mailman carry it to your door.
As for magazines, two that went bust in just the last year include Life and Stuff--which together should technically cover every subject ever. FHM US, Jane and Child also went under, covering all the bases from "liking tits" and "having tits" to "the purpose of tits." When a titty-triple-threat can't stay profitable there is just no way to make a profit. Trust us, we know.
Why are they still around?
There are still some places you don't want to take a laptop, like to the beach or the shitter, and most of the world's cell phones still kind of suck at surfing the internet. Also you can't swat a fly with either a cell phone or a laptop, though as discussed above we assume fly-swatting cell phone capabiltiy is just around the corner, along with everything else.
But considering 3G phones are hitting the streets as quickly as they can be manufactured, anything that's only purpose is "having words printed on it" is pretty fucked. Unless you're "Luddite Wattle & Daub Mixing Quarterly" then you have until your current audience dies of old age to put your affairs in order.
Video Games on Disc
Much has been made of the dying record stores, and we've already explained why movies on physical media are doomed, but we're guessing even they will outlive the video game disc.
Services like Steam, Greenhouse and XBox Live are already delivering code in exchange for cash in a process remarkably free of scratchable discs and staff who appear to have been grown or scavenged rather than hired. You might notice that one of those (Greenhouse) is run by Penny Arcade. So what is it about game discs that is so egregious that even the guys whose job it is to draw funny pictures about them feel compelled to take action?
It's not the media itself, it's the retailers who sell it. The greed of shops like GameStop that make a binge-eating Hutt look like a Milan model. Their industry-breaking "Trade fifteen games you bought last week for one this week" scam allows them to resell games at "second hand prices". A leading team of scientists and economists are hoping to measure the difference between second hand prices and the regular retail price using a microscope, a supercomputer and five precisely calibrated millionths of a dime.
This racket allows them to make up to 400% profit on every title (because you can sell the same used game over and over again), which we think is slightly more profit than you're allowed to make without being technically considered a racketeering outfit. Total sales last year were seven billion dollars, otherwise known as "Holy Fucking Shit" money, and of the money made on used games, approximately zero of it went back to the people who actually make the games.
The executives seem blind to the consequences of their actions, possibly because they're too busy playing in forts built from bricks of thousand dollar bills. This isn't so much killing the goose that laid the golden egg as sexually assaulting it then filming the worlds first bestiality/metallurgy/snuff film.
It was around here that game developers realized that:
a) The vendors are screwing us over;
b) Our customers, by definition, have machines that can download things;
c) Downloadable games let us cut out the middle man, who is an asshole anyway.
Why are they still around?
There are still a fair number of consoles that aren't hooked up to the internet, since not every gaming family wants to spend a day fucking around with cables and/or trying to make their home a Wi-Fi hotspot. Plus, game makers may lose in piracy, what they gain by cutting out the GameStop racket. In consoles it's always been the disc itself that was the first line of defense against illegal copies, where PC games allegedly see piracy rates of 70 to 80 percent.
Still, the chance to sell direct to customers, as well as to release smaller, low-cost games and to release titles in episodes to be sold separately, is too much to resist for console makers (not to mention cutting the cost of printing the discs). When the next generation goes to a download model, they'll surely find a solution to the piracy problem. And that solution will no doubt be incredibly annoying.
Cash only exists by the grace of banks and the government, and it's a major hassle for both of them. Printing, maintaining, actually having to physically move the stuff around in order to charge you for doing so? Your bank has already made it clear that they'll charge you for whatever they feel like, so pretending to exchange that for an actual service is becoming kind of a drag.
The web has shown that virtual money can function perfectly well with the added advantage that they always know exactly what you criminal thieving unpatriots are doing with it. In the UK credit card spending has already overtaken cash, and if there's one thing the current economy tells us it's that America is WAY better at spending money we don't have than those Limeys. USA! USA!
If only there was some kind of widely accepted, eminently trackable ID that was already legally protected, which they could force everyone to use instead. (Hint: it's your credit card, and you can count yourself lucky they haven't already jammed your social security number on there and called it a day, citizen.)
Blizzard have already perfected the process, converting troublesome civilians into ideal consumers with the World of Warcraft VISA card. People doing nothing but sitting still and generating debt like a shopaholic hamster. Do you honestly see banks or the government getting in the way of this? Hell, only 8% of the world's money is in the form of printed currency.
Why is it still around?
There are some things you just can't do with a credit card.
For a look at the terrifying practices of tomorrow that will replace the zombies of today check out The 5 Creepiest Advertising Techniques of the (Near) Future. Or enjoy Gladstone's look at the traffic accidents of tomorrow in 6 Things I Hate About the New Miley Cyrus Song.