At different moments, different unremarkable technical objects seem to evoke that same feeling: that one can’t have too many. These days, the things that seem to turn up all over the place—lurking in pockets of different bags, filling drawers, and junk boxes, dropped down the back of desks—are USB flash drives.
They’re everywhere. There is almost certainly one within ten feet of you right now. I seem to acquire them unceasingly—they’re handed out as promotional tchotchkes, used to provide meeting minutes and conference proceedings, and presented in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and configurations. They have become inescapable elements of the contemporary technological landscape.
The second irony, given how overwhelming the speedy pace of technological advancement can feel, is how primitive the technology on which USB flash drives rely actually is. The challenge posed by the flash drive is to find a way to work seamlessly and easily with every computer. Its solution is a technology known as the “FAT filesystem,” a system—named for its primary data structure, the File Allocation Table—that was developed as a means to manage early floppy disk storage units. Pretty much the simplest imaginable mechanism for representing data on a disk, it was speedily developed and deployed in Microsoft’s almost-ubiquitous BASIC programming system in 1977.
Although it has long since been displaced by more advanced technologies, those other technologies have frequently incorporated a version of FAT into their DNA. Some version of that same FAT filesystem has lived on, locked away inside the more advanced systems that allow for the use of today’s much larger, speedier storage technologies. When people rely upon the FAT filesystem, they’re plugging into an evolutionary throwback, like some kind of vestigial tail. It’s the lizard brain of your computer.
The flash drive exposes the great lie of technological progress, which is the idea that things are ever really left behind. It’s not just that an obsolete technology from the year of Saturday Night Fever still lurks unseen in the dank corners of a shiny new MacBook; it’s that it’s something that is relied upon regularly. The technology historian Thomas Hughes calls these types of devices “reverse salients”—those things that interrupt and disturb the forward movement of technology. They reveal the ugly truth that lies behind each slick new presentation from Google, Apple, or Microsoft: Technical systems are cobbled together from left-over pieces, digital Frankenstein’s monsters in which spare parts and leftovers are awkwardly sutured together and pressed into service. It turns out that the emblems of the technological future are much more awkwardly bound to the past than it’s comfortable to admit.