Silicon Valley and continuous obsolescence of computer technology

Anyone watching Silicon Valley on HBO? I caught up on an episode before I came to work and God, there are so few shows that can make me laugh like that one. (my favorite line: You look like a ferret that gave up six months ago) One theme throughout the show is the fight to introduce this new cutting edge technology before they are scooped, then made obsolete in the market place. It implies that if you aren’t first or the richest, then you are almost as bad as last and totally irrelevant.

Since our topic is about things becoming obsolete, I was thinking about technology, where there is such a fight for relevancy. It almost seems like people are either on the bleeding edge, the industry leader or the technology is obsolete or irrelevant. Computers seem to last a little longer than they used to about 10 years ago when they seemed to be unworkable after a couple of years ago (ok, I DID hang on to Windows 3.1 for far too long, but still) but still, things that were on the vanguard become unworkable within a decade. You don’t find that as much with other products. It’s almost unreal how fast things advance (and yet, they don’t seem to advance fast enough at the same time).

Consider this article from Relatively Interesting. This is a comparison of computers from 1995 to 2012:

1995 PC
2012 PC
8mb at $400 per 4 MB
4 gigabytes is common…, which is 4,000 megabytes
Hard Drive
400 to 1000 megabytes
500 Gigabytes is low end… which is 500,000 megabytes. 500 GB can be as low as $80. Terabyte drives are common (1,000,000 megabytes) for less than the cost of a 1994, 400MB drive
4,000 MHz+ with multiple cores and countless optimizations (clock speed is not a clear measurement for processing power)
24-bit accelerated
PCI Express 2 (replacing PCI, and then AGP) with 1-2 Gigabytes of dedicated RAM, for about $250
14” CRT
22” wide screen LCD/LED
Sound Blaster 16 (16-bit)
24-bit, PCI Express, 3d, quad core processors with onboard RAM
Obsolete, except for users in very rural areas
Optical Disk
BluRay, DVD, some CD-ROM left…


The difference in the capacities are enormous (as well as the rise of wifi and cable internet as opposed to that loud modem sound—I think the first modem I had actually was around 9600 baud) and if this chart was extended back to the 80s, you’d have hard drives with kilobytes of memory. There is nothing usable about this computer.

But then again, a computer from 2005 would be struggling to handle basic applications—am I wrong here? Not only is the RAM memory not enough compared to n0w but the processor would be too slow.

I remember I also started buying Wired Magazine from the first issue (in 1993) and it’s really funny to look back about what was cutting edge then.

But paper decay is only one force pushing libraries to move text onto other media. Another is the rising cost of paper publications and the difficulty in sharing them. Although many libraries can all plug into an electronic database, far fewer can have a given book or magazine on their shelves at any given time. Problem is, libraries can no longer afford to have all the books and journals they feel they should have on their shelves. Over the past few decades, the number and cost of academic journals has skyrocketed.

If publishers and researchers are not to be caught in a vicious spiral, whereby rising prices cause declining circulations and declining circulations push prices further up, the pressure grows on libraries and publishers alike to find new ways that enable researchers to get and to pay for only those journal articles that are needed. Here’s where new technology can help.


Online research, something that many young scholars don’t even question now, is a relatively new phenomenon. The amount of information available is exponentially larger because of this innovation, making research easier and paradoxically more challenging than yesteryear (there was much less of an expectation for students finding every resource 20 years ago, only because that was much less conceivable, unless you were doing something like a systematic review—it makes sense that technology makes things easier and raises the bar). I remember entering college, getting an email my junior year (i noodled around on usernet a bit around that time but the worldwideweb hadn’t been invented yet). I remember when they began introducing cd-roms in libraries. Then I went back to school in the late 90s and all those course packets were quickly becoming obsolete and there was so much time online. Flash forward to 2009, no one had even heard of course packets and the books were online.

I don’t know—this might all sound like I acting like an olde but the rise and fall of technologies as they come in successive waves is something I’ve always found compelling. Everything changes so quickly in positive ways but it also makes it difficult to manage keeping up with the technology and the culture. Here I took the long view—it’s easy to see applications and hardware from much more recent times that have become obsolete (try to use a past generation iphone) though but sometimes I think we can get caught up with seeing things very up close and in some ways, not get the full idea about how fast things are progressing.