Those Who Forget History Are Doomed To Repeat It…

… first as tragedy, then as farce.

There is a strange attitude among many in this industry towards what are contemptuously referred to as legacy systems. No-one would ever articulate this of course, because when you say it out loud it sounds ridiculous, but the implicit belief is, in the 70s, 80s, 90s they had: smartphones and AJAX† and Ruby-on-rails and Chrome (and a long shopping list of “modern” technologies) but because they were stupid they chose to use dial-up modems, and dumb terminals, and program in FORTRAN. And because they were stupid, we have nothing to learn from them.

On a similar note, it is a common refrain to hear that newspapers are obsolete. And as a business model, that may well be true – but since the 1980s, newspaper publishing has defined mission-critical computing. Come hell or high water, the paper has to be on the newsstands in the morning. The desktops, the networks, the servers, the presses, the logistics, and all the software and IT have to work. Nowadays, it is as much as anyone can hope for for most software to mostly work, most of the time. If a browser or an operating system crashes or freezes, you take it in your stride and restart it. If a website is down, you might try again later, or you might just not bother. Even major bits of infrastructure are unreliable. The skills required to do serious computing are simply decaying, while individuals such as myself retain and practice the old ways, I don’t think when the last newspaper switches off its presses, that talent will then make its website five-9s reliable… Even the best civil engineer can’t build a castle on a fetid swamp. We’ll have to nuke it from orbit – only way to be sure – and start again.

† I recently used AJAX to build the interface for one of my projects. Even with bolt-ons like Comet, it’s pretty crude and feeble compared to Tcl/Tk… From the last century. I’m sure by the end of this decade it will be as-good‡, only to be swept away by some shiny new thing, and we’ll be back to square one in terms of getting useful work done. Since the 80s, every decade in computing has been a shallow copy of the previous decade. Eventually it will go full circle, like pocketwatches being replaced by wristwatches, to be replaced by clocks on mobile phones in your pocket…

‡ And yet, actually no more powerful or easy to use than Curses, for either developers or end users.

About Gaius

Jus' a good ol' boy, never meanin' no harm
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