The Segway was released in 2002. It was a new way for pedestrians to travel that was supposed to change our daily lives and bring a revolution in urban planning. It was going to sell 10,000 units per week, and the manufacturer would reach $1 billion in sales faster than any company in history. It didn’t happen. This incredible new product turned out to be no better than old fashioned walking and bicycling. It was an overhyped, unproven method of personal transportation, and it flopped.
There’s always been a conflict between the old and the new, between methods and things of the past and the new ones of the present and future. Do you like antiques, or the latest styles? Do you think conservatively and traditionally and prefer old ways of doing and thinking over modern ways? It’s a debate that will never go away.
Instead of thinking about old and new, think of proven and unproven. Some methods, styles, and products have proven themselves over time. Many others have not. Like today, there were a lot of products throughout history that were never going to catch on, or were just plain bad. You probably won’t find someone trying to tell you wooden bathing suits from the 1920s were a good idea. The things that have proven themselves are often still around. You can still buy the classic Anglepoise 1227 desk lamp. It’s been in continuous production since 1935.
It’s easy to look down on old things and ways. It’s also easy to forget or ignore their value out of ignorance. We live in a time when new technologies arrive at an unprecedented pace. We’ve all seen new technologies replace older ones, often multiple times through our lives. I remember, VHS, then DVDs, then Blu-rays, and now streaming on Netflix. A lot of the time this is good. A VHS tape is inferior to HD internet streaming in almost every way.
The problem is the incredible number of new technologies and methods we see in our lifetimes makes us used to the idea that maybe new is always better and everything old is, or will soon be replaced.
But putting too much faith in unproven new tech and methods can lead to disaster. Take political campaigning. There are a variety of reasons why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, but one big problem with her campaign was that it abandoned a lot of traditional politicking in exchange for new, still unproven methods using big data and voter modeling, and it led to critical mistakes. Politico investigated what happened with the Clinton campaign in Michigan, which they thought was in the bag for her. The campaign often assumed they did not need to use a variety of older, proven campaign strategies because, somehow, lessons of the past did not apply in this new, highly computerized world of voter modeling:
Michigan operatives relay stories like one about an older woman in Flint who showed up at a Clinton campaign office, asking for a lawn sign and offering to canvass, being told these were not “scientifically” significant ways of increasing the vote, and leaving, never to return. A crew of building trade workers showed up at another office looking to canvass, but, confused after being told there was no literature to hand out like in most campaigns, also left and never looked back.
The campaign ignored traditional door-to-door politicking and all the campaign literature and activism boosting activity that come with it. This meant no one was drumming up support or learning how actual voters were feeling about her candidacy to check against what their models showed. They had a bigger enthusiasm gap than they thought, and their refusal to use traditional campaign strategies meant they could not see it.
Ignoring traditional door-to-door campaigning meant ignoring the local political operatives who knew what was happening on the ground. Repeated attempts to tell the Clinton campaign that they needed more resources and Michigan was not as safe as believed were ignored. The state of the art voter model that determined where campaign resources should be allocated did not show any problem. The operatives on the ground were wrong, and the wonders of modern voter and campaign modeling had to be right. Clinton lost Michigan.
Politico reporters spoke to dozens of Clinton campaign officials who determined, “that a lesson being missed is a simple one: Get the basics of campaigning right.” The lesson of course wasn’t that data driven campaigning and voter modeling won’t work. It was that it can’t replace the basics of what makes a political campaign work. The old methods still reign supreme.
Those failures came from conscious decisions, but the rapidly changing world is also leading us to slide into new, unproven ways of living our social lives. How many of us realized people were spending less time with friends and feeling more lonely because of our increasing use of social media until we started reading articles about it? Dating is another example. How many people, especially around the age of 30 or younger, have ever asked someone out on a date in person — or even been asked by someone else? It’s an increasingly rare ritual.
Instead of just asking in the more traditional way, we increasingly use texting with ambiguous intention to start relationships. When 69% of people aged 18-59 report having been confused about whether they were actually on a date or not there may be a problem. One professor of psychology who studies relationships explained that modern dating is often a situation where people try to slide into a relationship where intentions are never known, and the state of the relationship remains in a permanent state of ambiguity. The result is an increasing chance of divorce and unhappy marriages. Couples avoid real decisions about whether they want to be with each other so that it’s easier to just keep going and slide deeper into a relationship. But often one or both will eventually realize they may have gotten too deep and it’s only getting more difficult to make a decision they should have made long ago.
So what would a personal preference for proven things look like? If you had the money you could think like Daniel Craig as James Bond. He likes traditional things he can rely on and he knows will work. Think of his preferred cars (classic Aston Martins), cocktails (martinis with traditional ingredients), clothing (well made traditional suits), classic furniture in his apartment, guns (the Walther PPK came out in 1930), and even shaving method. It’s not about old things for their own sake as pieces of heritage or history. It’s things and ways of doing that have been proven to work — exactly what a secret agent would need.
But everything was new once. How many of us still use typewriters instead of a word processor on a computer? Sometimes the benefits of the new ways are obvious and they prove themselves quickly. Others might take a long time as reputations grow. The Eames Lounge Chair was new and unproven in 1956, but decades of success as a well crafted lounge chair have made it one of the most proven and recognizable pieces of furniture in existence.
Philosophies and ideologies can have proven value. What we know and believe often has its origins in classic, proven works of literature, ideas, and ways of thinking created long before we were born. You may not be able to fully grasp an idea until you know its ancient origins. You can believe that democracy and free speech is right and is the best form of government we have, but you might not be able to fully understand why until you have read older works by enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, Voltaire, or Diderot.
Modern concepts of democracy, free speech, and equality were once new and unproven things during the enlightenment era of the late 18th century. George Washington called the United States of America the “great experiment” because of its founding on enlightenment ideals. Could a nation function where all citizens are considered equal, and leaders are chosen only by election and not by divine blessing on that nation’s nobility? In the late 18th century these were new ideas. Perhaps the ultimate tests that proved their value came in the 20th century when democratic, liberal nations went head-to-head against the new totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Fascism, communism, and totalitarianism were themselves all new, untested forms of government. In the end they failed and liberal democracy triumphed.
Stories and entertainment have their own proven works. Could you ever hope to really get the fantasy genre of literature without having read Tolkien? How about sci fi movies and shows without Star Trek: TOS, or its spiritual forebear, Forbidden Planet. You can go back even further since Forbidden Planet is based on the ultimate in proven entertainment, (at least in the English speaking world) Shakespeare. Forbidden Planet is a sci-fi retelling of The Tempest.
Look for things of proven value as you consider what to buy, how to do something, and how to live your life. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it will prove itself any better than what’s already available. But remember as well that just because it’s old doesn’t mean it was ever any good. Try new things and ideas. They are risks, but the successes will be worthwhile, and you’ll learn from the failures. Experimentation and exploring new ideas are themselves proven ways of bettering yourself.