Page last updated at 07:28 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 08:28 UK

When the new becomes old

Change happens to all structures, says Bill Thompson

Even the new gets old - and that includes the Internet, says regular columnist Bill Thompson

Sometimes on a Monday afternoon I find myself sitting a desk in a small room in a fairly nondescript office block near Cambridge railway station waiting for the network engineers at Bush House to call me up on an ISDN line so that I can take part in Digital Planet, the World Service technology programme I appear on most weeks.

It's the same studio used by contributors to many other radio programmes.

Every time I hear that the 'Thought for the Day' on Radio 4's Today is coming from Cambridge I think of the yellow panels, the squeaky chair and the 1930's style microphone I know so well.

While I prefer to be in studio C21 so that I can sit opposite presenter Gareth Mitchell and watch producer Michelle Martin through the glass, it isn't always possible - this week my son has his first GCSE exams and I want to be around to comfort him after his RE and Maths papers, so I'll do the show down the line instead.

My role on the programme is to discuss the various interviews and reports that are featured each week and try to take the story onwards by putting them into a broader context or adding some perspective, so I get sent the packages in advance so I can do some research and reading around.

Until recently this involved Michelle making low-quality MP3s of the various items and emailing them to me and Gareth. I'd save the attachments into a folder on my laptop and listen to them as time allowed.

Bill Thompson
The practices that emerged in the early days of the Internet and have grown up over the last quarter-century are no more guaranteed to survive than those that have developed elsewhere
Bill Thompson

Occasionally this would be on the train to London as I've got a 3G dongle so I can find out the background on the people interviewed or the projects we cover as I travelled.

But recently we've started using Dropbox instead of email, and I hate it.

Dropbox is one of many online storage services that let you share large files online and keep email traffic down. It works nicely, and it's more efficient than our previous way of working, but I really don't like it because I had established a nice, simple and inefficient way of working and now it has all changed.

Instead of looking through my e-mails for messages with attachments I have to remember to log on to an external site, which means I have to be online.

My dislike of the new system is absurd on so many levels it borders on hypocrisy.

I'm always online, so why should I find it objectionable that Dropbox requires it? The large MP3s clog up my mailbox so I should be glad to get rid of them. And every couple of weeks I do a slot for Simon Morton's excellent 'This Way Up' on Radio New Zealand where we can't afford a quality connection so I record my side of the conversation and then upload the audio to one of my servers, just as Michelle does for me.

I should welcome the new system as a simpler, easier and more logical way of working, but instead I resent having to change my working practices to adapt to the new model.


Of course our attitudes to change are not always rational, and it is sometimes hard to welcome new ways of working simply because adapting to change takes effort and requires more attention than we may wish to give.

But change is coming, whether we like it or not. In a recent posting on his blog my friend Will Davies, one of the few people I know who is capable of intelligently applying the work of social theorists, economists, politicians to the network world, is relevant here, talking about the work of Joseph Schumpeter.

He points out that the creative destruction described by Schumpeter is, of necessity, destructive. Old practices are abandoned, old companies die, and new ways of being, doing and making money emerge to replace them. This is not a weakness, not a failure, but an inherent property of industrial capitalism and those who complain about it simply do not understand the rules of the game they are playing.

John Naughton made a similar point in his Observer column this week when he noted that the future of journalism may well lie in the hands of companies other than today's giant corporations, however much that may annoy Rupert Murdoch.

What is sometimes hard to appreciate is this applies just as much to the 'old' world of established practice in new technology as it does to any area of human activity. The practices that emerged in the early days of the Internet and have grown up over the last quarter-century are no more guaranteed to survive than those that have developed elsewhere.

Last month Yahoo! announced that it was closing the Geocities web hosting service. Geocities was one of the earliest sites to let users create their own home pages and add their own content, and there was an outpouring of nostalgia at the news of of its closure, but its time had passed and nobody seriously suggested it should be retained.

My children rarely use email, relying instead on Facebook and instant messaging, and they probably think of me as slightly old-fashioned in my adherence to a thirty-year old technology.

Those of us who have been watched the network grow over the years need to make sure that we do not stand in the way of progress, that we do not act as if the way things were done in the old days of the internet should somehow be set in stone.

We need to remember that the wave of creativity that the network has unleashed is crashing over the digital world just as much as it changes things in the analogue one, and we should not expect to escape the revolution.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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