Old is Gold in Tech

When I entered college, a family friend arranged for me to meet the head of Agilent in India. Agilent was and remains a leader in electronic instrumentation (it is called Keysight now). He told me that whereas he had many people who understood the modern digital side of devices, there was a worldwide shortage of engineers who could work with the older analog technologies.

When I started working, I heard a similar story about a major IT company in India. A defence sector organization wanted to update and indigenize an old signal processing unit they had bought from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The IT company decided to reverse engineer the box and gave it to their signal processing experts. The box was opened to reveal a network of transistors. The experts took one look and gave up. The defence organization was told that it would be simpler to design for their requirements from scratch rather than to understand how their device worked.

Actually, we abandon technologies all the time. Who, other than a boy scout remembers the art of making fire from dry kindling? Technologies deemed inessential or unprofitable are quickly lost. For example, the Inuit people of the Arctic abandoned bows and arrows in favour of hefty spears better suited to the large prey they hunted. In tropical and temperate cultures where small game abounded or where wars were frequent, the bow was considered a great advance over the spear.

Such quirks led many early anthropologists to conclude the Inuit were primitive. They were nothing of the sort, they were superbly adapted to exploit their niche extreme habitat. About a thousand years ago, on Greenland, they faced direct competition with the Norse culture. The Norse Vikings were a far more “advanced” iron-age civilization with extensive sea faring and animal husbandry skills. Bu the Norse colonies failed in the harsh Greenland climate while the Inuit continued to thrive till our own time.

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