The death of the floppy disk? ( and a Technological Discontinuity (personal reflection)

From 747’s that need weekly software updates, to computer controlled embroidery and design machines, floppy disks are still the required transfer medium.

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Floppy Disks and the original Mac

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My dad bought me an Apple II in the 1970’s. It ran off 8 inch floppies. I learned Microsoft Basic, played Adventure (text game), where I learned about “xyzzy“, and lost many hours of childhood.

Original Macintosh (

Then I got a Mac that ran on 3.5 inch floppies, and have never looked back. In junior year in college (1984) I bought a 128K Mac (128K of RAM! What more could one want?). It had one floppy drive. Microsoft Word fit on ONE floppy disk. Of course if you wrote a paper, you would have to eject the Word disk and insert a fresh disk to store your paper. If the paper was longer than 3-4 pages, you could quite some time swapping the Word disk and the document disk to fully save your paper.

Roommate: “Hey, CT want to have lunch?”
Me: “Yes! Oh, wait, let me save my document”

Mac: Click / whirr / disk ejected / “Please insert document disk”
Mac: Click / whirr / disk ejected / “Please insert Word disk”
Mac: Click / whirr / disk ejected / “Please insert document disk”
(repeat x 30)

Me: “Uh, you guys go ahead, I’ll be down in about 30 minutes. I gotta save my paper.”

I wrote my undergrad thesis (Mapping the P4 Bacteriophage gene!) on 3 Macs: one to write the manuscript, one for my friend to help me generate figures (using MacPaint!) and one (full time) to print the current draft of what I was writing so I could clip them in a 3 ring binder and take the bus and deliver it to my professor to read, red-line, and return to me for another re-write. See below for an actual video of the image writer printing 1/2 line of text with each pass. At the time: AMAZING!

Introducing the Apple ImageWriter II

Wired reports on the surprising finding that 3.5 inch floppies are still around and still crucial in a number of industries, including IN 747-200’s!!! They carry the weekly updates in navigation and there is NO OTHER MEDIUM to transfer this information.

Invented FORTY YEARS AGO in 1981 by Sony, the latest evolution of spinning disk, from the original 8-inch, to the 5 1/4-inch to the 3.5 inch, was very popular for decades. The the last manufacturer stopped producing 3.5 floppies in 2010, and here we are 13 years later, still buying up the remaining supply and using them as storage and transfer media.

Phase transition

Like many adults my age (50’s), I lived through a phase-transition in technology. From most things being analog, to most things being digital:

We even had to explain to my mother-in-law, the difference between analog and digital, after which, she announced that her new name would be “gram-alog”. Cute.

The bigger picture

It occurs to me, that perhaps my generation is the last to know many of these analog technologies, and the accidental discoveries, or serendipity, of thumbing through a card catalog and finding unrelated, but delightful books. Or walking the actual stacks of a library and seeing titles jump out at you in unexpected corners.

Yes, we click on links in google searches, but is that really the same?

We have also lost the sensory input of that “foot-high heavy stack of paper records” or the moldy smell of records pulled out of the archives that smells of 1970. How can one miss the paper chart that is filled with yellow-colored paper that all radiology reports were typed on? This folder is FULL of YELLOW.

In contrast, our EHR’s have 30 lines of “chart review” history, and one can scroll for more. Sometimes even “click here to see more.” We don’t know if “more” is one more line, or 1000’s more. There is no “heft” no “moldy smell” no FAT SECTION FULL OF YELLOW.

I wrote about this before, in Grokboard, a way to rethink the way humans engage with large volumes of data.

Here we are 5 years later, still pining away for ways to re-engage our senses. How might we approach this?×1024.png
  • A homunculus to show us which organ systems are disordered?
  • Sit in a Gamer’s Vibrating Chair? Perhaps it would vibrate your left arm to warn you of a penicillin allergy, or your right calf to remind you of an elevated creatinine?
  • Maybe your mouse vibrates when it rolls over a patient chart with high risk, unaddressed alerts?
  • Maybe we need Smell-o-vision so that we can smell the fruity breath of the patient in diabetic ketoacidosis.

Something is missing. The Glass Cage?

We are in a Glass Cage, just like airline pilots. The critique is: instead of the “glass cockpit” where the convenience of electronics give you context-specific controls (wow, great), pilots instead are in a “glass cage” where everything is anesthetized. Your fingers no longer feel the ‘thrum’ of the wires connecting you to the aircraft wing, and feel turbulence. You see the iPad electronic display and move the virtual sliders and knobs.

Similarly for physicians, sitting at the EHR, we no longer see and smell the patient, we view pages on pages of test results and progress notes and assemble the patient virtually in our head.

CMIO’s take?

The Technological Discontinuity

Just like the industrial age kicked off with the advent of the steam engine, and work would never be the same, computerization and the internet have kicked off an information revolution. We will never think the same.

Of course in the short term (the past 50 years), we have learned to be Burned Out with all the keyboard and mouse work. We have learned that information is at your fingertips, but MORE is not BETTER.

We have learned that putting things under Glass might look pretty and cool and win some design awards, but we lose the use of other types of senses (smell, texture, resistance, vibration, weight, heft), and we become disembodied brains.

And, serendipity, where art thou?

What else might be missing on our headlong rush to digitization? When should we push the pendulum back the other way?

Sure, AI and Chatbots are coming. The balance of skill and power is shifting between human brain power and silicon compute power. Meanwhile, is the physical world disappearing? Are we paying attention?

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

4 thoughts on “The death of the floppy disk? ( and a Technological Discontinuity (personal reflection)”

  1. Thanks for the happy memories, CT. A little older than you, I recall taking the shuttle bus up through Strawberry Canyon to Lawrence Berkeley Lab with three boxes of punch cards to load my program and then data file into the mainframe to run and then print the output on the rector printer in the late ‘70s. My first (homegrown) EMR experience was on that same boxy Mac you had with the floppy drive in the SF Kaiser ED in the late ‘80s. When young docs complain that the EHR was designed for billing without physician input, I just say, “where were you (or your parents) when we we self trained techie docs were doing this for the first time?”

    1. These are precious memories. We are the ‘phase transition generation’ between analog and digital, or the ‘digital immigrant’ explorers.

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