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FROM THE EDITOR
Mark Shuttleworth, a South African Internet tycoon who paid
tens of millions of dollars to go to the International Space
Station aboard a Russian Soyuz craft, recounts his arrival in
space---blinking, wondering, and weightless after the fire, shaking,
and acceleration of lifto ---in Adam Fisher's oral history of space
tourism (" 'Very Stunning, Very Space, and Very Cool,' " p. 58):
The thing I remember as being quite striking was this collec-
tion of very domestic sounds that kicks in after the main-
engine cuto . Mechanical sounds, like the air circulation
and the conditioning, and then bits and pieces are kind of
kicking in. You've got alarm clocks and fans, and you've got a
big device called the "globus." It's a ball---your map, basically---
that turns, and it starts going tick, tick, tick, like a cuckoo clock.
You've just gone through this extraordinary experience of
getting into space, and then suddenly it's like waking up
inside the workshop of an old Swiss clockmaker or some-
thing. So it's this amazing contrast between what you might
expect---which should involve special e ects and background
music---and the very mechanical physical reality of it.
Thus, even the most transcendental of real, human experiences
(which Saul Bellow, in Mr. Sammler's Planet, evoked, wonderfully:
"To blow this great blue, white, green planet or to be blown from
it") occurs amid the most mundane technology.
That technology can be very old. The space tourist Charles
Simonyi, a former Microsoft executive responsible for Word and
Excel, whom we profiled two years ago ("Anything You Can Do, I
Can Do Meta," January/February 2007), describes the optical sight
on the Soyuz: "It's like a very old-fashioned---I don't know what it
is. There is nothing, no items like that anymore. ... That instru-
ment could have been constructed in the 19th century."
Famously, the Russian space program employs a brutalist
approach: its engineers use the crudest, oldest technology that
works. (Since the first Soyuz flew in 1966, only those parts that
have failed or are obviously obsolete have been redesigned.) But
the technology aboard the space station, much of which was
constructed by the U.S. and European space agencies as well as
the Russian, is only a little shinier. Simonyi says, "The space sta-
tion is so messy. Words don't do justice. It's like going into the
messiest hardware store you have ever seen."
Because they are professional futurists, technologists like to
contemplate new, bright, and disruptive technologies. Often, by
a process of substitution, they talk about the newest iterations
of things as if they were the only things people actually use. But
our spaceships disclose a universal truth: old technologies are
seldom abandoned, and only when they are intolerably incon-
venient. (The former financial analyst Pip Coburn calls the
moment when a "perceived crisis" is worse than the "perceived
pain of adoption" of a new technology the "Change Function";
see "Who's Sorry Now?", May/June 2006.) Mainly, however, old
technologies accumulate like geological strata, changing under
the pressure of new circumstances.
The writer Robert X. Cringely has succinctly expressed this
idea in one of his "laws of computing": "Old software never dies;
it just gets upgraded." In "Parallel Universe" (p. 54), Cringely
explains how multicore computing---the use of many micro-
processors on a microchip---can multiply processing power
without increasing the heat associated with ever-greater minia-
turization. Cringely writes that in order to solve some of the
problems of parallelism (or how software is torn apart so that
a process can be run in parallel on hundreds of processors),
Intel has recalled to service "some graybeards of 1980s super-
computing." For these graybeards, parallelism never disappeared.
Now, in order to preserve Moore's Law, we will use technologies
first developed to build nuclear bombs during the Cold War.
Or consider the U.S. electrical grid. In our cover story, "Life-
line for Renewable Power" (p. 40), our chief correspondent, David
Talbot, writes, "A patchwork system has developed. ... But while
its size and complexity have grown immensely, the grid's basic
structure has changed little since Thomas Edison switched on
a distribution system serving 59 customers in lower Manhattan
in 1882." Talbot shows that the old grid, constructed to transmit
the predictable flow of electricity from the burning of fossil fuels,
must be upgraded if it is to accommodate more-variable, renew-
able energy sources like wind and solar power.
As much as they are a deepening coastal shelf beneath our
technological civilization, old technologies also live in each of us.
Biologically, we are their creatures. Exploring how archaeo-
genetics, the application of genetic analysis to the study of
prehistory, might explain the puzzle of how we came to be highly
civilized creatures (see "Our Past Within Us," p. 74), Mark
Williams argues that we evolved through our technology.
"Humankind invented agriculture, started eating di erent foods,
and began dwelling in cities; populations expanded, allowing
large numbers of mutations. Natural selection promoted the
spread of beneficial variations." Among those traits selected,
Williams suggests, were those that allowed us, eventually, to build
spacecraft and space stations. But write to me and tell me what
you think at email@example.com. ---Jason Pontin
The Geological Strata of Things
OLD TECHNOLOGIES SELDOM DIE; THEY GET UPGRADED.
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