There have been a number of mentions on the Internets recently that the history of a technology has some impact on how that technology serves a need. But does it? I argue that linking the age or history of a technology with its usefullness is a fallacy. I’ll reference the awesome Your Logical Fallacy Is when calling out the problems in this argument.
I was first rankled by an article in Dissent on Bus Rapid Transit, which uses the Genetic logical fallacy to suggest that BRT benefits the petroleum/asphault industries, has been promoted by them, and is therefore bad. Jarrett Walker has a good response piece, which concludes:
The mixed motives that underlie BRT advocacy don’t tell us anything about where BRT makes sense, any more than the mixed motives behind rail advocacy do.
Soon after, TransitCenter made a blog post that mentioned the following:
New York’s MTA, the largest transit agency in the country, relies on fare payment technology invented in the 1960s.
There are a fair number of problems with the Metrocard system, and I’ll reference those at the tail of this post. But the fare payment technology invented in the 1960s is not the whole technology. The referenced technology (the magnetic stripe) is only a part of the system. This is a logical fallacy known as Composition/Division (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/composition-division). Truth be told, there are other technologies used in the Metrocard system that have been developed in every decade since– even the current one!
My greatest frustration with this particular claim is that the “new” technology that would replace the magnetic stripe, “Ticketless,” is itself more than a decade old. I first saw it in Italy in 2005.
“… You can receive a free SMS on your phone with the receipt of the transaction. Once aboard the train, it is enough to give the received code to the crew…”
You might say, “SMS? But now we have apps!” Well, in 2008, Trenitalia released an App for mobile tickets
So, the next generation of technology to be deployed is a decade old… oh noes!
Not to be outdone, this quote from New York’s new Streetcar Czar raised the same ire.
“The subway was a 20th-century technology. Streetcars are a 21st-century technology, which is why all the fastest-growing cities in Asia and the Middle East are all looking at them.”
The glaring problem with that is that electrically powered streetcars running on the street actually predate the Subway by a decade. Oh, and both Streetcars and Subways both use steel wheels over steel rails, a combination developed in the 1860s.
The real questions to ask regarding technology’s continued usefulness:
1. Is it easily maintained?
2. Does it actually serve the needs placed upon it?
Or, as Jeff Atwood (https://blog.codinghorror.com/the-magpie-developer/) put it:
Don’t feel inadequate if you aren’t lining your nest with the shiniest, newest things possible. Who cares what technology you use, as long as it works, and both you and your users are happy with it?
For the Metrocard, the former is definitely the case– crucial components of the system are tied to not-easily-replaceable equipment. A strong case can be made for the latter, as it does place a limit on capacity on buses and at crowded subway stations.