Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

What's New Is Old Again

That’s a phrase, and often a Twitter hashtag, that I use when people talk about a seemingly new development or trend, but one which turns out to be something that is anything but new.

We seem to take for granted that every development, every idea, every trend that we encounter these days is unprecedented. Is original. Is fresh. In a number of cases, that’s true. But more often than not, that development or trend or idea has existed for decades or longer. It’s just the form that’s different and the execution that’s changed.

But far too many people don’t realize that, including a number who really should. And they’re shocked to learn the truth.

Let me tell you a little story:

Sometime in 1999, at around the height of the dot-com bubble to be exact, I had an interesting conversation with a co-worker. A decent enough fellow, but someone who took to pontificating a bit too much.

We were discussing the Internet and security; that’s not a surprise, considering we worked for an encryption software vendor at the time. He was lecturing me about how security on the Internet was a whole new ballgame, and how the challenges were unprecedented. His words were (and they stuck with me for 10 years) we’re in a new era of communication, and we’re facing problems that no one has foreseen. He then trotted out the usual buzz words like security, encryption, scalability, protocols, etc. etc.

I let him say his piece, then pulled out the large pin I keep in reserve to burst balloons. Slowly, deliberately I explained that those problems weren’t unique to the Internet. They were problems with the telegraph, dating back to Victorian times. Telegraphers, too, had problems with scalability and security as well as reliability. If you want to learn more, read Tom Standage‘s excellent book The Victorian Internet.

Old Ideas, New Twists

I can point to any number of new things that are old again. Take, for example, social media. It’s been with us for a long, long, long time. Just in a different form. Way back when, people would use telephone and the mail and word of mouth to spread trends. A slower sort of one-to-many diffusion of information, but it worked. Nowadays, that diffusion is faster. Much, much faster.

But the principles remain the same. What’s different is the technology and speed at which it all happens.

Just Because It’s New Doesn’t Mean It Is

It’s that simple. Revolutions don’t just happen. Neither does evolution. They’re often built on the back of something else. That something else may be an old idea or concept, but one that’s been updated for today’s technology. Or it could be an offshoot of something that had hit a dead end, but only required a little more time and thought to get right.

Either way, don’t take it for granted the everything coming out of a basement, dorm room , garage, or co-working space is a radical departure from what’s come before. Chances are, it isn’t.

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