Tuesday, March 19, 2013


A recent newspaper had a one-panel cartoon, with one woman talking to another over drinks. She was saying, "My ex and I were incompatible: He was into Android, I preferred an Apple platform."
I groaned when I saw it, thinking, boy, how old is that joke?
Then I started wondering, how old is that joke, really?
I've seen it numerous times in the older version of people breaking up over IBM vs. Mac. But does it go back further than that?
I'm not talking simply about disagreements over technology, which have probably been going back since before the introduction of Clovis points. I'm talking about different technology choices that make it difficult to interact with each other.
If two people who are dating are using different operating platforms (for phones, games, computers, etc.), they won't be able to use all the same applications. They can communicate in different ways, but there are parts of their lives that they won't be able to share directly.
Choosing different platforms may also indicate philosophical differences. The stereotype for IBMs and Macs was (and still is, AFAIK) that IBMs are for business and Macs are for creative types. More recently, Apple iOS (iPhones, etc.) have just a few, sleek, user-friendly options, while Google Android has a lot more flexibility and, well, isn't Apple. (Yeah, Blackberry and other options are out there, but they're not really in contention for dominance.)
But I'm wondering, when did technological incompatibility start affecting people's lives?
The first example that I can think of is machined weaponry. When Hopalong Cassidy was arguing with Buck and Red about which rifle was best (Sharps vs. Henry, IIRC), different choices led to different calibers, meaning they couldn't share ammunition when they were pinned down in a siege. In real life, capturing an enemy army's ammo dump won't help you reload unless it happens to fit your guns.
Also, different railroad companies used different gauges for a long time. When railroad use started exploding in the 1800s, individual lines set track widths without much regard for what others were using (sometimes deliberately choosing odd gauges to prevent business from being diverted to others. Remind you of anything today?). When trains couldn't transfer from one line to another, every bit of cargo had to be unloaded and reloaded.  It took decades before a standard gauge was put in place. 
Still, although these incompatibilities in warfare and business made some exchanges difficult, they would have been extremely unlikely to break up a courting couple. Let's see ... steam engines vs. internal combustion? Cassettes vs. 8-track, Beta vs. VHS? I'm sure there were many arguments between boyfriends and girlfriends about which of these might be better, but I really can't think of any technology that would interfere in communications and hinder relationships to the extent that it became a common joke until the rise of personal computers, and later personal (cellular) phones. Can anyone else?


  1. Weren't there different phone lines/systems, once upon a time? I can also imagine different communication *preferences* (mails versus phone calls, early on?) but not to the extent of a common joke, either. Interesting!

  2. I've been thinking about this off and on and really can't come up with anything before PC vs MAC that had the potential to directly influence the way large numbers of people interact. There were plenty of technological incompatibilities in the past, but they involved far fewer people.
    Even Sarah's example of incompatible phone systems probably had much less impact because phones were far from universal at the time.


Let me know what you think about this!