Kevin Kelly is a technophile, and has been since his Whole Earth Review days; like many people who really like tools, he often finds that specialized and old-fashioned implements are the cheapest, most efficient, or most aesthetically pleasing way to get jobs done. And if his theory that "species of technology do not go extinct" is correct, then he’s in luck — those lovely speed levers and screw punches will be around for generations to come. Kelly acknowledges the counterexample of Greek fire, the terrifying napalm-like weapon used by the Byzantines to ensure their naval superiority. Various glazes, perfumes, and dyes are gone, but it’s doubtful that Kelly would consider the failure to replicate particular shade of blue stained glass a "species extinction". He’s right that in an amazingly wealthy world, it’s possible to find almost anything. Even if we can’t duplicate a Stradivarius (ignoring the debate about whether Stradivarius himself had any secret techniques), it’s possible to buy a violin in any well-equipped music shop; given enough time and money, you could acquire a brand new pianoforte or glass harmonica. The problem isn’t with Kelly’s insight; it’s with his metaphor. When languages go extinct, they no longer have native speakers. Rongorongo, the untranslated Easter Island written language, represents an exception; the vast majority of the languages that will go extinct over the next hundred years will remain comprehensible thanks to projects like the Endangered Language Fund and the Foundation for Endangered Languages, along with less secular efforts. But nobody will speak them to their siblings or their children or to their lovers in the dark; the language in the wild be as vanished as the Hawaiian crow. Technologies (and language is a technology as sure as any other) require ecosystems, and it’s not evident to me that Kelly’s "heritage-based minorities" are enough to keep them alive. The Nipkow disc television is unquestionably dead, while Kelly asserts than many other items on Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media list have merely retreated to the wildlife preserve of hobbyists and authenticity fetishists. But if an American teenager can’t go buy a vinyl video system and watch brain-deadening comedies on it, it’s not really alive.
Lindsay Books, which publishes reprints of turn-of-the-century engineering and popular science articles in addition to classics like their Gingery guides to building machine shops out of scrap metal, makes it clear how much of a community built up around these self-same hobbyist communities (automobile nuts, bicycle enthusiasts, all the steam engine cranks and rail-hounds and radio freaks and jet engine-obsessed gearheads and photography junkies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) back when the technologies were young and vital. If there was a performance tweak to be made, a patent to be filed, a letter bragging about one’s accomplishment to the appropriate fanzine to be written, and a quick buck to be regretted when it didn’t appear, it happened. Today, Canon and Nikon are considering leaving the film market and the jet engine crazies have been superseded by people trying to build hydrogen peroxide rockets. Technologies sometimes change. (Sometimes they don’t; bike nuts are still around, after all.) What good is remembering how the telegraph works when Western Union has turned it off?
When one of my friends read Kelly’s essay, he thought about vacuum tubes. Amazingly enough, they’re still made in a few factories, mostly in Russia; the Russian failure to develop a Western-style semiconductor industry meant that there was an island ecology out there, with solid-state dinosaurs still roaming the earth. Audiophiles and guitar amp manufacturers presumably rejoiced. But as with reel to reel tape, it may not last forever; producer and analog enthusiast Steve Albini bought a year’s supply of tape when the last American factory closed. Now ExpoPul, the parent company of Tungsol, Mullard, and Svetlana Tubes, is facing a corporate raid and the doubtfully legal hardball tactics that often surround such things in Russia (via). (The company is owned by the American inventor of the classic Big Muff fuzzbox.) Will the vacuum tube go the way of the dodo, the Tasmanian tiger, and Damascus steel? Or will remain a living fossil, like the coelacanth, the dirigible, or flush cut chain mail? Thanks to the Internet, the interested heritage-based minority can buy a titanium hauberk tonight. Even the maker of reel-to-reel came back from the dead. Maybe once in a while extinction simply takes a holiday.