Why we will be using email for at least another 50 years

Nassim Taleb recently explained why technology seems to age in reverse:

Nassim Tableb, The Surprising Truth: Technology Is Aging in Reverse

We’re living in a Black Swan world, but what does this mean for the future of technology? My new book Antifragile argues that technologies, ideas, and theories – anything informational or cultural, as opposed to physical – age in reverse.

We may be trained to think that the new is about to overcome the old, but that’s just an optical illusion. Because the failure rate of the new is much, much higher than the failure rate of the old. When you see a young child and an old adult, you can be confident that the younger will likely survive the elder.

Yet with something nonperishable like a technology, that’s not the case.

There are two possibilities: Either both are expected to have the same additional life expectancy, or the old is expected to have a longer expectancy than the young. In this situation, if the old is 80 and the young is 10, the elder is expected to live eight times as long as the younger one.

So, applying Taleb’s reasoning and Benoit Mandelbrot’s version of the Lindy effect, our modern social technologies — most of which haven’t been with us more than five years — can be guaranteed to be with us only an additional five years or so. And those pre- or proto-social technologies — like instant messaging and email — may be with us 50 years or more, even if the social tools don’t fall into disuse.

So, if you are scratching your head five or ten years from now, and wondering why people are still using email to do things that might be better done with newer and shinier tools, just remember this is not about rationality, it’s about something more like gravity, more like deep culture:

If there’s something in the culture – say, a practice or a religion that you don’t understand – yet has been done for a long time – don’t call it “irrational.” And: Don’t expect the practice to discontinue.

My sense is that new communication technologies have to be a full order of magnitude better that those that came earlier to beat the Lindy effect, and force older ones out of use. But what we’ve cooked up with social tools hasn’t reached that level of benefit, at least not yet.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

researcher-at-large Stowe Boyd

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