The tech left behind

post by Leafcraft · 2019-03-12T14:47:16.217Z · score: 21 (10 votes) · LW · GW · 11 comments

This is a question post.


    5 quanticle
    2 Ishaan

Hello, I am asking for some insights for a research I am doing. Can you cite examples of technologies that have been forgotten? What I mean by "forgotten" is not things we don't know how to do but used to (I suspect there aren't that many), nor things that are no longer in use but used to (mechanical television), but things that were decently developed (either in theory or in practice) but never "saw the light of day" anyway.

It's my first time posting, so I won't do much policing on the answers, thanks in advance.


answer by quanticle · 2019-03-16T04:05:14.523Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I would argue that spaced repetition is one such technology. We've known about forgetting curves and spaced repetition as a way of efficiently memorizing data since at least the '60s, if not before. Yet, even today, it's hardly used and if you talk to the average person about spaced repetition, they won't have a clue as to what you're referring to.

Here we have a really cool technology, which could significantly improve how we learn new information, and it's being used maybe 5% as often as it should be.

comment by rsaarelm · 2019-03-16T06:30:54.403Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

It really needs a personal computer to schedule the repetitions, and we're only now getting to the point where every schoolchild having their own handheld computer is a somewhat practical proposition.

answer by Ishaan · 2019-03-16T13:32:49.906Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There's a large class of viable pharmaceuticals which don't see the light of day because their unpatentability causes companies not to fund the clinical trials which would be necessary to clear regulatory approval.


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comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-03-12T21:03:35.047Z · score: 13 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, here's another one: Lisp Machines. These were computers with alternative chip designs focused on executing Lisp (or really any functional programming language) rather than on executing procedural code. Had the direction been pursued further, they might have resulted in dramatically different computer architectures than what we use today. Some were built and used, but only in very limited contexts, so I'd say this meets the criteria of "never saw the light of day" in that less than 10k Lisp machines were ever built.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2019-03-12T17:10:00.298Z · score: 11 (5 votes) · LW · GW

One that comes to my mind is OpenDoc, a cool and exciting proposal for a way to make editable generic computer documents that were not application constrained. The idea was to make documents a cross-platform, operating system level responsibility and what we today think of as applications would instead be embedded viewers/editors that could be used when putting different types of "objects" in documents.

We did eventually get something like it: Google Docs, Word, and even web pages generally have the ability to embed all kinds of different other documents, and sometimes there is viewing/editing support within the document (you can see images, embed editable spreadsheets, embed editable diagrams, etc.), but with more vendor lock-in and missing the spirit of vendor openness OpenDoc intended.

comment by quanticle · 2019-03-16T04:12:40.838Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

In the same vein as OpenDoc, XMPP and RSS both come to mind. While they "saw the light of day", they never seemed to reach the threshold of popularity necessary for long-term survival, and they're not well supported any more. I would argue that they're both good examples of "left-behind" tech.

comment by pranomostro · 2019-03-12T22:01:28.557Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Plan 9 from Bell Labs comes to my mind (papers & manpages): By the creators of unix, tight integration of networks (better than other systems I have seen so far), UTF-8 all the way down, interesting concept with process-wide inherited namespaces.

It used up way too many weirdness points, though, and was fighting the old Worse is Better fight. It lost, and we are left with ugly and crufty unices today.

Another one that comes to mind is Project Xanadu. It was quite similar to the modern web, but a lot more polished and clean in design and concept. It probably failed because a really late delivery and by being too slow for the hardware at the time.

I guess that's mostly the problem: ambitious projects use up a lot of weirdness points, and then fail to gain enough traction.

A project that will probably fall into the same category is Urbit. If you know a bit of computer science, the whitepaper is just pure delight. After page 20 I completely lost track. It's fallen victim to a weirdness hyperinflation. It looks clean and sane, but I assign ~98% probability that its network is never going to have more than 50.000 users over the span of one month.

comment by Elo · 2019-03-16T04:26:55.730Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Bone conduction headphones but they are still alive and coming back into production. (and I would recommend them)

E cigarettes nearly died because the person who first patented them could not monetise them (I believe), then the patent ran out and people started manufacturing them.

There are lots of devices on advertising TV like the slap-chop and the steam mops that seem novel and useful but don't seem to be mainstream.

comment by avturchin · 2019-03-12T19:18:38.246Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

comment by quanticle · 2019-03-16T03:55:40.411Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Could you clarify how Damascus Steel qualifies? As I understand it, the question is asking about technologies which demonstrated promise, but never reached widespread use, and thus languished in obscurity. Damascus Steel was famous and highly prized in medieval Europe. While it was rare and expensive, I'm not sure that it manages to meet the obscurity criterion.

comment by Yoav Ravid · 2019-03-12T19:09:29.173Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Google glasses