To say an idea, or a technology, is dead, mostly reveals an ignorance for how ideas work. If you look at the history of so called “dead things” you’ll find big surprises, as ideas rarely die completely. Radio, printed books, paintings and even blogs have been decried as dead in headlines for years, decades or centuries, yet are doing quite well. The word death is provocative and makes for easy clickbait, which explains why the formulaic headline “Is this the death of X?” will live on forever.
An idea may fade from popular attention, but you don’t need popular attention to survive, or thrive. Niche groups and specialized problems often find elements of older technologies that work better than modern “replacements.” And even if something is dying, it can take years or decades before it’s truly dead.
In technological history, the introduction of a new technology often forces champions of the old technology to figure out what their older idea does best, and possibly better, than the news one do. Television clarified the focus of talk-radio and talk shows, a format perfect for people driving in their cars (FM radio even threatened AM for a time). Photography freed painters from photorealism, and gave birth to abstract and modern art.
It’s often more accurate to say “X is in decline” or “X has settled into a stable base of regular users.” Often the truth is merely “X is less interesting to people who like to think they live on the cutting edge despite its sustained or growing popularity.” To notice the market share of a product dropping is important, but if 5% of a market still contains millions of customers, to call it dead is a grand misnomer. That is still far more popularity than most inventions ever see.
Having something you’ve made or done proclaimed as dead is a hallmark of having been successful. No one will trumpet your failure unless they’re trying to borrow from your success to draw attention to themselves for proclaiming your downfall.
For fun, here are some supposedly dead things that seem to be doing just fine:
- Print books (vs. 2015 statistics)
- Radio (see radio by the numbers)
- Painting (“killed” by photography)
- The Web
- Web browsers
- VHS (ok, this one is a stretch)
What other things, from ideas to technologies to people’s careers, have you seen proclaimed dead, yet still live on? Leave a comment.