At the beginning of the computer revolution, there were no smart phones or tablets. Computers were known as “mainframes” and they resided in large, air-conditioned rooms. Interacting with the computer was much different than today. At one point you used punch cards, which were stacks of cards that had chits punched out, like in the US 2000 Presidential election. The punch cards were fed into a reader which translated the sequence of holes into some sort of intelligence. If you tripped while carrying the box of cards and scattered them on the floor, the order was fried and your work was ruined.
It’s hard to understate the revolution of technology that we’ve lived through. So I’ll resort to the cliché of saying it’s hard to understate it. I am writing this essay on a word processor, which allows me complete freedom in composing, saving and moving text. It also checks my spelling, informs me about goofy grammar, and in general removes much of the mechanical drudge work associated with writing. A word processor was beyond the imagination of 19th century novelists who had to write everything long hand. Of course there are tradeoffs, although we don’t recognize them. 19th Century novelists needed great organization and discipline to write novels. With the freedom of word processing comes a release from forced organization and layout of writing. Today, even a structural engineer can write whatnot, and then post it on a blog for all of humanity to appreciate.
The advancing technology implies advancement. That’s why they’re called smart phones, which are really little computers that facilitate continuous texting and ignorance of the surrounding environment.
As the technology marches on, we consider the old technological applications to be relics, gone and mostly forgotten. But that’s not really how it works. It turns out that the latest and greatest is really part of a continuum in which the old applications and ways are still there. The advent of smart phones hasn’t croaked the old flip phones (and I can prove that because I have the last flip phone).
It was startling to see a recent announcement from NASA looking for Fortran programmers.
Fortran is a very old computer language that dates back to the days of mainframes and the first PC’s. My master’s thesis was written in Fortran. Decades later, absolutely no one uses Fortran, except for our advanced space agency, NASA, which needs to interact with the Voyager spacecraft. The unmanned Voyagers are still plowing forward in the universe, and they rely on old Fortran programs for systems and interaction. But Earth has moved on to new computer languages and smart phones. So NASA, the ultimate organizational symbol of technology, the place where you have to “Science the shit out of it” to survive on Mars, needs to rely on ancient legacy technology to keep communication channels open to explore the universe. Ironic.
It’s not just NASA that must deal with this. Bridge engineers also encounter a historic range of technologies, with different eras encapsulated in different bridge structures over the decades. It is a challenge to deal with and interpret the technological legacy, such as when you need to analyze a perfectly good bridge that worked under the old code, but fails in analysis today. The bridge hasn’t really stopped working when the code was updated. It helps to appreciate technology as something developed over time and not just the latest and greatest. This then leads to better understanding of how to interpret and manage legacy applications, whether it be an old bridge or communicating with the universe.