The death of death? (the premature cliche of killing an idea)

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:

What other things, from ideas to technologies to people’s careers, have you seen proclaimed dead, yet still live on? Leave a comment.

25 Responses to “The death of death? (the premature cliche of killing an idea)”

  1. Arielle

    Web design from scratch? My grandpa still uses vhs.

  2. Greg Linster

    Television comes to mind. I think many people predicted the demise of television because of computers and the Net. Technologies rarely die (even if they become useless) because they still have nostalgic value. The return to and fascination with craft produced goods (imperfections and all) is another example. Everything from craft beer to old-school barbershops were probably once proclaimed dead, but have been revived.

  3. Peter Armaly

    Good post, Scott. I like Greg’s contribution to your list of things that were declared dead but refuse to actually give it up. I will add:

    – the mainframe
    – business travel

  4. Kathy Sierra

    Horses, declared obsolete once replaced by the “horseless carriage” for transport..

    Today, the recreational horse industry in the U.S. is $40billion. Yes, “b”.
    Buggy whips? I have $400 of Dressage whips in my garage.
    …and the saddle pad I just bought for more than the cost of an iPad uses the latest in high-tech/high-performance materials, etc.

    The guy who puts metal shoes on my horses feet makes more than the typical software engineer, and our guy has a three-week waiting list.

    Every time I hear someone use horses as an example of an industry made obsolete by tech, I smile. Granted, it required a massive “pivot” to shift from utility/transport to sport and expensive hobby, and lots of folks in that industry did not make the change to Horses 2.0, but… I hesitate to pronounce anything dead before asking if it might still morph into something else… Is it possible there might be more to this [thing made obsolete] than just the aspects that have been replaced/improved by new tech? Usually the answer is either NO, or the thing lives on only for purist collectors (or nostalgia). But sometimes the answer is an astonishing YES.

  5. Catherine

    CD players.

    My husband and I really like music, and after our CD player died, we considered switching to an iPod-only solution. And well, it failed dramatically.

    If you care about sound, it’s quite a lot of trouble and technology to get rid of CDs. First, you need to rip all your music in a fancy lossless format (and don’t even think about getting your music from mainstream sources anymore… those are all compressed to death). Then you need a media center to store those huge files. Then you need an expensive DAC (digital to analog converter) because all the good amplifiers are still fully analog.

    All this is done seamlessly by the humble CD player, which we ended up buying despite it being a “deprecate” technology. For us, the mainstream digital solution which is proposed just doesn’t work (and yes, we did several blind audio tests to convince ourselves that we weren’t just being audio snobs, and the difference was very clear. )

  6. Justine Musk

    Painting as an art form has often been declared to be dead.

    And yet people still do it…

  7. Shahram Khorsand

    When people shouted that Cobol, Fortran and Smalltalk were dead, I was making 200 USD per hour consulting on these languages.
    Hence, I agree!
    In these times nothing dies the interests just shift from one thing to another.

    Well written blog as always,


  8. Nuno

    Load “”

    ZX Spectrum is a great example of that nostalgic value that Greg talked about. Just check the ammount of websites that offer those oldy-goldy Spectrum games that are now played on emulators (some of them embedded on the websites)

  9. Calain

    One important technology still living today is the gramophone. While most people think it is dead there is actually a renaissance of the gramophone.
    – It has a much broader sound spectrum.
    – It provides a much higher “data integrity” and has a much higher lifespan then modern audio data storage types.

    You can still buy almost all new top records as a gramophone record.

  10. Don Kim

    Another perspective is that while some technology medium can decline or die away such as print media, the core need to read and be informed will never go away.

  11. Marianne

    You are talking tech only. As a broad point: It’s all about context, and meeting a need that some ostensibly dying thing meets that people are ignoring.

    Locavorism and climate issues are causing a lot of old-fashioned things to come back. Clothes lines. Canning. Glass refrigerator containers. Sewing–a whole generation of DIY’ers is getting on board. Slow food is back.

    Analog watches were supposedly dead.


    And you’re not even getting into fashion and interior design, which are all about “what was out is in”. 50’s is now mid-century modern.

  12. Jo

    Catherine – you are just being an audio snob. If you are that snobby you are clearly throwing crazy money at your audio setup probably down to the Monster cables. A $3-400 unit will house all of your music in one place with no need to switch CDs. If you’re going to be audio snob and you don’t mind changing media, go back to LPs. At least then you’ll get a possible sound quality improvement.

  13. Jordan

    Death (human death), unfortunately is not dead, and I doubt it’s been proclaimed ‘dead’, but I hope it can be in my lifetime!

  14. Hélio Campos Ferreira

    magnífico post Instrutor Scott.
    temos materiais para refletir e interagir por muito tempo.
    As tecnologias estão vivas dentro de nós por intermédio de
    nossos Desenvolvedores,e inovadores.

    Muito obrigado por você que desenvolve, e muda a trajetória de uma vida para melhor.

  15. sorin stefan

    Nothing is dead, because it cannot be forgotten for good.

    We started with home computers connected just to the power cord.
    We’ll go and live in the cloud.
    Then we’ll come back to where we started because it will be safer and better.

    Everything is sinusoidal therefore definitely not dead.

  16. Susan Teague-Rector

    Cobol – ha! I always pray that Cobol will die, but it tends to stick around. Our ERP is written in Cobol and Oracle forms (which I thought had died a slow death too)…The software company providing the ERP is doing quite well, especially their professional services :)

    One thing that truly died in IT was server-side javascript – from Netscape. I wrote this at the start of my career. I guess it didn’t truly die, as it basically morphed into client-side javascript and now jquery.


    1. Sexy Love

      the cassette audio tape. DJ Chicken Leather does all of his interviews this way.

  17. Jan

    I am astonished nobody has mentioned it yet:
    Punk is dead!

    Oh yeah, and Grunge, and rock and so on. This is an excellent post that, with some small changes, would wreck havoc at any place the music geeks hang out.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Excellent! They keep saying classical music is dead, unless you watch just about any major motion picture.



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