Cracked's Big Questions: 4 Reasons We Cling To Obsolete Technology
Welcome to Cracked's Big Questions, where we explain concepts that the average person might think they have a good grasp on but might be missing the whole picture. So, we're gonna look all of this stuff up, figure it out, and throw in some weird stuff we discovered along the way. It may not make any of us an expert on the topic, but at least we'll all be a little less of a dumbass than we were before.
It's always inspiring to think that we live in a world full of the greatest technological achievements mankind has ever created. Sure, but that statement has been applicable to every time in our history. But with all of the amazing advances we've made in every area of life, so many elements of the old ways still remain, and we just can't let them go. As much as we've made everything better, there's always an argument for "they just don't make them like they used to." So, why do we do this? Why do we always tend to gravitate to the obsolete over the objectively better?
It's Just How It's Always Been Done
We, as humans, are a ridiculously stubborn lot. Every time progress takes a huge leap forward, we take one look at the learning curve, our eyes glaze over, and we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. To combat this, we've had to adapt so many innovations around such antiquated ways of doing things instead of breaking people of their ingrained habits.
For example, the QWERTY keyboard layout, which is the standard key configuration for nearly every keyboard in every language that ever evolved from Latin. This arrangement of keys has been around since 1878, and the sole purpose of this letter configuration at the time was to make typing faster. While historically, this was attributed to preventing frequently used letter combinations from causing the letter strikers to jam inside the machine, new research suggests that it may have simply been due to input from telegraph operators that found it less confusing.
No one gives a crap about the opinions of telegraph operators nowadays, and we say that without fear since it would take 37 years for someone to transcribe this whole article for them. Meanwhile, the striker jam issue hasn't been a problem since 1961, when the first electric typewriter came out with all of the characters on one ball instead of individual strikers for each key. With the advancements in technology, they were free to create a new key configuration that would be more intuitive for the user. They also could've changed it when word processors rendered typewriters obsolete, but QWERTY has remained the default key configuration all the way through to the smartphones we carry in our pockets today, all because it's what we've been taught to use since the 1880s.
Another example: Bicycle seats. With all of the advancements they've made with bicycles, making them lighter, more aerodynamic, better gear mechanics, and stronger frames, you'd think by now they would've developed a standard seat design that wasn't always one pothole away from ripping you a new butthole.
Over the years, there have been many designs that would allow cyclists to rest their weight on the naturally shock-absorbing flesh of the human ass instead of the part that's way too tender for being that close to the pelvic bone. Still, none have ever matched the popularity of the most literally tainted product known to mankind. Every time a new innovation in bicycle seats comes out, the public consensus always seems to be, "No thanks, we prefer the one that triggers the worst sweat our bodies can possibly produce."
The New Ways Haven't Quite Caught Up to the Old
As more and more of the music and movies we consume move towards digital, the debate of the quality of that digital media versus its analog counterparts of vinyl records and film stock has only heated up. And just the mention of that debate just now is no doubt already getting the music and film snobs saying, "Hold my craft beer." But, hear us out here ...
We will give analog a ton of credit. There are so many subtle nuances and gradients in sound and color that just cannot be expressed in ones and zeros. That's fair, but digital technology has and will continue to catch up. Just look at the advancements they've made in the past four decades. We went from playing laserdiscs the size of a steering wheel on a low-res TV that weighed about as much as the engine block to being able to wirelessly stream 4K movies on a TV screen that's almost as thin as a LaserDisc. Who knows where we'll be 10 or 20 years from now.
The film vs. digital debate has a lot of merits on either side. Digital cameras can provide filmmakers with faster turnaround, more flexibility, and lower production cost, but they just don't capture light the same way as film. They work at a faster frame rate, lenses work differently on digital, and depth of field can be a real problem. Digital movies just still feel flat. Plus, with film, the development process can put a lot of character into the image. But again, digital is constantly evolving. A lot of the issues people complain about with movies shot digitally will eventually have a filter or algorithm available to fix it. If we could also one day be one click away from fixing plot holes, clunky dialogue, and the presence of Jared Leto, that'd be cool too!
The biggest problem with analog media is there's no way to permanently preserve it. Digital files don't have that problem, whereas film stock and vinyl records can take a beating over time. Even if you take the utmost care of that physical copy, the material will degrade and wear down just a little bit each time you play it. Only two records were ever produced to withstand that kind of wear and tear, and we shot them both into space back in 1977.
When it comes to vinyl records versus digital audio, the most frequent claim is that vinyl gives off a much warmer sound and that it sounds more "alive." And yes, that can be true, but there are a variety of factors at play to explain that. For one, there's the matter of what's called the noise floor, which is the low level of background noise in the recording. It's not just the tones of the room it was recorded in, but also little buzzes and distortion of every piece of equipment that signal has passed through.
Digital recordings go right into a computer where they can instantly identify that background noise and filter it out, giving each track the cleanest possible sound. In analog recording, that noise adds up pretty damn fast. Every microphone, cord, the circuit boards of every amp or receiver, the tape heads, and the tape itself are each capable of picking up an infinitesimal amount of electromagnetic static. Then, after you combine all of those analog tracks together during the mixing and mastering process, it combines all of the noise of all those tracks and picks up more noise from all of the mixing equipment. So, a vinyl record doesn't exactly have a sound that's warmer or more alive; it's just busier.
Yup, just listen to that warm sound which in no way makes every song sound like it was recorded during a sleet storm.
But the main difference between analog and digital sound is the dynamic range. This is the ratio of the loudest loud to the softest quiet in the recording. Vinyl records have a much narrower range (70 dB) because the louder the sound is, the bigger the waveform is in the groove of the record. If the waveform goes too loud, the needle might ramp off the crest of the groove. It can only go so quiet, because the groove may be too small for the needle to fit into it. Music producers had to mix every analog album to account for this problem, which also resulted in albums having less bass and more treble.
But when digital came along, they had a much broader dynamic range to work with (96-144 dB). They could go much louder and much quieter. In the '90s, they went a little nuts with that newfound volume power, giving in to the temptation to make everything sound as loud as possible with more bass and less treble. And with the quiet parts capable of being even quieter, it made digitally produced music sound way more jarring than what everyone was used to.
This also caused a problem when music was played on the radio because their dynamic range was even narrower than that of vinyl (50 dB). The loud parts of newer music on the radio would sound blown out, and the quieter parts wouldn't be heard at all. This was probably one of the reasons why classic rock became such a popular radio format: They don't have to work the volume knob nearly as much.
We Just Assume It Cannot Be Hacked
There is a common misconception that just because no one really uses a form of obsolete tech anymore that there's not much need to worry about it posing a security risk. That ancient computer in the back office that runs one piece of software our company needs to use, but it can only run on Windows 98? It can't even connect to the internet anymore, so it's pretty safe. That huge copier that we could use as a printer, but no one ever really does. That's not a problem. The fax machine? Pfft ... No one could hack into that antique even if they wanted to, right? Right?
If that last paragraph gave you even a moment's pause, then you might want to get an IT expert in there ASAP to make sure those devices are secure. Because if you're not careful, that old equipment might be giving hackers an unlocked back door into your network.
There are three very important things to consider here. The first is that if it's connected to your network in any way, it could be used to hack into that network. Second, not all hacking is done remotely. Any device on that network that has a USB port (or any data port for that matter) can have something plugged into it to monitor activity or install a virus. Third, just because something has become obsolete doesn't mean hackers won't bother with it. If anything, it may be the first thing they look for because they know it hasn't received a security update in over a decade.
Fax machines have a unique vulnerability because everyone assumes they just aren't used anymore. For the most part, that is true. But most fax machines in use today aren't just used for that purpose but rather as part of an all-in-one model that also functions as a scanner and a printer. That requires a network connection. Remember that first thing we said to consider here?
One of these all-in-one models from HP was discovered to have a vulnerability just three years ago. All the hacker would have to do is send a fax that's too large for the machine to handle, and while it went into buffer overload, the machine could not only let the hacker in but the machine could also bridge the network with the phone line for them. It's like hearing that someone robbed a bank by hypnotizing the security guards: You wouldn't even think such a thing is even possible, but at the same time, you'd be kinda impressed they pulled it off.
The good news is the manufacturers of these newer fax machines, just like any other computer company, are constantly keeping an eye out for these kinds of vulnerabilities and quickly issue security patches to fix them. You might even be thinking to yourself that this problem wouldn't affect you because you don't own or use a fax machine. Well, you might wanna rethink that stance when we inform you of two professions that still rely heavily on fax machines: Healthcare and law enforcement.
It is estimated that almost 75% of all medical communications take place by fax. Doctors have to sign off on medical procedures, and that paperwork must somehow be transferred safely and quickly. Email too often isn't considered secure enough, and regular mail would take too damn long. Law enforcement still uses fax machines because when they need to send crime reports or information on suspected criminals, they'd much rather fax it in and receive a confirmation that it went through than wonder if it got lost in someone's spam folder.
But what both of these fields have most in common is that while they may prefer to communicate in analog, the information they have stored digitally on their networks would cause an absolute s**t show if a data breach were to occur. And it would be even more insulting if it were to happen by way of a device the rest of us stopped using back when Netscape was still a thing.
We Haven’t Finished Playing With It Yet
Every time a new video game console is announced, one of the specs most gamers are interested in is backward compatibility. They will definitely drool over the new system for all of the upgraded bells and whistles, but they also want to know if it will play games from the previous system as well. Even if the system does not have that capability, finding out that the classic games will be remastered or made available for download through their online store is the next best thing.
Make no mistake, modern video games are absolutely amazing, but there's always gonna be a soft spot in our hearts for the classic games we've played and beaten hundreds of times over. Those old games may not be as technologically advanced. Hell, some of them may even be downright primitive by today's standards. But even in that simplicity, we still find them challenging. Retro gaming is increasingly popular, and the reasons for that go way beyond mere nostalgia.
There is a huge market for old-school games and consoles right now. Sure, you can find ROMs of nearly all of these games online for cheap or even free and play them using emulator software, but there's just something about playing it on the original hardware. And part of that appeal is that we all kinda know we may not be able to play it this way for much longer.
Nearly every time one of these consoles were originally released, especially when the original NES came out, skyrocketing customer demand caused a massive shortage of silicon chips and processors. To be able to make all of their consumers happy, manufacturers had to make some hasty deals, sacrifice some of the quality, and have everything built by the lowest bidder. The chips inside the machines were not meant to last too far beyond the release of the company's next system, much less be expected to still work 35 years later.
Now, this also created a market for people who could repair and restore this hardware to its former glory, and once people started tinkering around under the hood of these consoles and exploring the coding of the games themselves, they found some interesting stuff. They discovered unused sprites, abandoned level designs, alternate music scores and sound effects, as well as previously unknown glitches.
They were able to rig up the games to be played by a computer to create tool-assisted speedruns to demonstrate the absolute fastest way to beat the game then competitive players started using that information to try to beat it that quickly by hand. Think of the billions of times Super Mario Bros. has ever been played. Well, the first recorded instance of someone beating that game in less than five minutes happened in 2018 … 32 freaking years after the game was first released:
Plus, knowing exactly how these games work has allowed cheaters to be more easily exposed. The 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters followed Steve Wiebe’s attempt to break the world record for the high score on Donkey Kong, as well as the then-record holder Billy Mitchell’s smarmy attempts to keep Wiebe from dethroning Plus, knowing exactly how these games work has allowed cheaters to be more easily exposed. The 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters followed Steve Wiebe's attempt to break the world record for the high score on Donkey Kong, as well as the then-record holder Billy Mitchell's smarmy attempts to keep Wiebe from dethroning him. The documentary is excellent, but everything that's happened since is the real story.
A lot of things that came up in the documentary showed that Billy Mitchell had a pretty cozy relationship with Twin Galaxies, the organization that officiates video games scores and the official arbiter of record scores for Guinness World Records. Eagle-eyed gamers started noticing a lot of Mitchell's claims were not quite adding up, and they started compiling evidence that he was cheating his ass off by using a game emulator instead of an official Donkey kong arcade machine.
This emulator would've allowed Mitchell to revert back to a saved point in the game; if he ever made a mistake, it would be possible to edit the mistake out of the video evidence. It also didn't help that the only man who could back up Mitchell's claims and verify his scores was Todd Rogers, a Twin Galaxies referee who was also found to have fabricated many of his own world records over the years.
Rogers ended up receiving a lifetime ban from the Twin Galaxies leaderboards and had all of his world records revoked, as did Mitchell... until he started filing defamation lawsuits against nearly everyone who ever so much as looked at him funny. Guinness World Records ended up reinstating Mitchell's records for Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, not so much because those scores were proven legitimate, but rather because there wasn't enough evidence that proved they weren't.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.
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