5 Things We Fear New Technologies Will Replace


It's the end of the year, the time when we take stock of what we've gained and lost, and what we expect (or hope) to gain and lose in the months ahead.

When it comes to technology, the gains and losses go pretty much hand in hand. We get new features and devices, and we set down old ones to collect dust on a shelf. Sometimes, a new gadget comes along and we can't ditch the old one soon enough, but often, technologies disrupt conventions, institutions, and other technologies that mean something to us and that we don't want to send off. We can feel change coming, and we don't want it. Sometimes, our fears are overblown, but other times the disruption is real and permanent, such as the effect literacy had on society (for a more extensive discussion, see chapter two of James Gleick's The Information).

Today, with Kindles and iPads and mobile phones changing so much of how we go about our business, there are more than a couple of things we fear are nearing the ends of their shelf life. Here's a quick survey of what people are worried will become obsolete in the years ahead.

1. Books

shutterstock_546012.jpg Books take the number-one spot because they occupy the exact center of the Venn diagram at issue here -- they are both much beloved and directly threatened by new inventions. There's ample writing on whether books really will become obsolete, what it would mean if they did, and, the money question (literally), what will become of the publishing industry.

2. Newspapers

shutterstock_10875352.jpgNot far behind the fate of books is that of their daily counterpart, the newspaper, and for much the same reasons (final link from The Onion) -- they are that just-right combination of something many people feel very attached to and also quite directly threatened by the web and mobile, which can provide news and commentary both faster and cheaper.

3. Teachers

shutterstock_80439436.jpgThe end of schoolteachers may seem less intuitive -- and less likely -- than the anticipated demise of books or newspapers, but that doesn't stop people from worrying about it. Some schools in South Korea are using robots to teach English, and The New York Times profiled a program in Miami-Dade County, Florida, which had 7,000 students sitting at computers, studying core subjects, with a facilitator but no teacher in the room. The program had not proved popular with students.

4. Schools

shutterstock_82721611 copy.jpgWidespread robot teachers is not a likely imminent scenario, but more classes will be happening outside of classrooms, over the Internet, albeit with a real human teacher at work, as free online course offerings from top-notch schools such as Yale and Stanford increase. Stanford's Artificial Intelligence course enrolled more than 100,000 people this fall. For now though, these seem like a supplement to a traditional classroom education, not a replacement, but over time as these course gain in legitimacy and reputation, that could change.

5. Old-fashioned mail

shutterstock_75181504.jpg With email ubiquitous, who sends personal mail via the post office anymore? Very few people. According to the AP, the average American receives a personal letter once every seven weeks. If you miss the thrill of physical mail, Quarterly Co. has a solution: Sign up and receive a package in the mail, once every quarter, from a contributor of your choice (for $25 you can subscribe to Alexis Madrigal's care packages).

Not everything we fear we'll lose will actually become obsolete, and much of our worrying stems more from a love for these objects or institutions than from an imminent threat of its disappearance. For a humorous take on all the things someone has declared "dead" in 2011, check out Adrianne Jeffries take at BetaBeat. On her list: email, texting, and Facebook.

Images: 1.) Mark Graves; 2.) Photosani; 3.) koya979; 4.) FreeSoulProduction; 5.) Quang Ho, all via Shutterstock.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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