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No Backwards Compatibility in the Future

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"Alright, time to play me some
King's Que... oh."

"Spies are used to battling cutting edge encryption and billion dollar security, but sometimes the toughest challenge is cracking something old and out of date. If you find yourself up against an obsolete tape drive loaded with arcane software, you can either find yourself a time machine, or admit defeat."
Michael Westen, Burn Notice

Our time-traveling protagonists need to recover a piece of information on a computer from our time and they end up stealing the whole laptop. The Fridge Logic asks why didn't they simply just do a file transfer? As it turns out, the future tech doesn't work with tech from our time. Even though the future technology has its roots in the technology that we have currently developed, it is not backward compatible with that of its predecessors.

Let's think about that for a moment. In the 1970s through the 1980s, the common forms of data storage for mainframes and minicomputers were 1/2", 1200' magtape reels (capacity about 60MB), and punched cards (96 bytes on the IBM S/38 card, 80 bytes on the standard Hollerith card). Minicomputers and microcomputers might use paper tape or 8" floppy discs. None of these are readable today by most equipment. In the 1980s-1990s, the 5 1/2" floppy disc and the 3 1/2 inch hard shell floppy were popular. Today, computers do not have floppy drives. And there was the Zip disc around 1995-2000, which was readable/writable either by an external drive or you could buy one to install like an extra floppy disc. Nobody uses Zip discs any more. Heck, most computers these days don't even have optical drives, and that's a form of physical media format that is still being used.

Now let's go backwards. Today, in the 21st Century, if you have to move a medium-sized file, say a 2GB 10-minute video from one computer to another, what would you do? Copy it over the internet or onto an SD card or external hard disk. But let's say you wanted to take that video into the past and make it widely available. Prior to about 1995 access to the Internet was rare, and slow (most people at best had modems at 14.4kbps while the few poorer folks were still stuck at 9.6kbps, and a "broadband" 128kbps ISDN internet connection cost several hundred dollars a month. Cable internet, which promised supreme speed, was still in development at the time). Copy it from your external hard drive, jump drive, or SD card and adapter? Prior to 1998, Windows did not support USB and even then it wasn't reliable. But let's say you figured out how to connect your device, how do you copy it then? Copy it to or from flash media? Prior to about 2004, the most common form of flash-type external device was SmartMedia, and the maximum size was a whopping 128 meg. SD cards didn't exist then, and while writable CD drives (capacity 500MB) were commercially available, writable DVD drives weren't.

And let's consider non-computer media: 33- and 45-rpm vinyl phonograph records, photographic film, photographic slides, reel-to-reel magnetic tapes, cassette tapes, home movies on 8MM film, video tapes. All either gone, or unreadable except by collectors who specialize in obsolete equipment.

Now, this is just what has happened between 1975 and 2020. Imagine the changes over a hundred or two hundred years. Needless to say, this trope is 100% Truth in Television.

This can also be applied to a post-apocalyptic future stories only if the equipment is in good condition due to Ragnarök Proofing. Otherwise it is merely a subversion or aversion of said Ragnarok Proofing.

Of course, when the record must be accessed, this is a job for Mr. Fixit to rig something up to make that possible.

The inversion of this, where things that shouldn't be compatible are, is Plug 'n' Play Technology.

In-Universe Examples

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  • Cowboy Bebop: Spike and Jet hunt through esoteric tech shops, black markets and ancient ruins, to chase down a working Betamax VCR, which is so scarce even avid collectors don't have much hope of seeing one in their lifetime. They have a tape that supposedly holds clues to Faye's past — how far from the past she must have come from in order to have anything recorded on Beta is the biggest clue. Ironically, when they finally do find a VCR in a derelict museum it turns out to be VHS. (Made funnier because they had their choice of VCRs in the museum, and chose the VHS because the tape slot was bigger.)
    Spike: Which one do we take back?
    Jet: Uh...let's see...well, they say the greater serves for the lesser.
    (later, on the Bebop)
    Jet: Hm...
    Spike: What's wrong?
    Jet: The size.
    Spike: What about it?
    Jet: It won't go in!
    Spike: Push harder!
    Ed: Uhhh...that's the wrong one!
    Spike and Jet: Huh?
    Ed: You got a VHS!
    Spike and Jet: Huh?
    Ed: <giggles> It won't play Beta!
    Spike and Jet: Huh?!
  • A significant amount of the plot in Steins;Gate consists of the cast's struggle to obtain a very old model of computer called an IBN 5100, because it's the only piece of technology capable of undoing the Alternate Timeline they've created, due to the fact that it was used to create that timeline in the first place, using a method that wouldn't be compatible with a newer model.

  • In Erico's Mega Man X fanfic series, the Cossack-class Robot Masters are recommissioned at one point in Demons of the Past to help protect Russia. However, they prove to be incompatible with 21xx technology for their internals, so the tech/medic who was sent to do the upgrading had to cannibalize the now-useless Cossack Fortress Guardians for parts like superconductor cabling and power control components. They were also not willing to risk overloading on 21xx subtanks and stuck to their stockpile of E-Tanks from the Classic Era.
  • In Touhou: The Cursed Tape Enters Gensokyo, Yukari is unable to find a VHS compatible player in Kourindou's stock, despite the piles of forgotten "modern" digital devices he had collected from the outside world. In a humourous inversion of what happened in Cowboy Bebop, she does find a Betamax VCR instead.

  • In the Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventures novel, Illegal Alien the Doctor complains that his TARDIS can decide the most complex alien computer programs and link with his brain but can't play 20th century audio cassettes. He ends up using a custom boom box he made for Ace from various alien technology including Time Lord and Alpha Centaurian.

    Live Action Television 
  • Burn Notice has this happen in the present. In one episode, Michael finds an old tape drive that a rival was after in a wall. The next episode, in a voice over, he explains that old technology is often a spy's biggest headache for just this reason, before we hear Fiona say, "Fourteen phone calls, seven data recovery experts and three hours of arm twisting to find out what's on this thing and it's unreadable!"
  • Continuum plays with this. On the one hand, when Kiera arrives from 2077, her super-advanced Augmented Reality implant can't interface with 2012's internet, phones, or pretty much anything else, though she is able to use her suit to brute-force hack an ATM. On the other hand, when she arrives she accidentally contacts a Teen Genius playing in his lab—because he's in the middle of inventing the tech she's using.
  • In Journeyman, Dan has to steal a phone charger from his past self so he can keep a phone that will work during time jumps of a certain length, because the rapidly changing state of phone technology over the last ten years caused him a great deal of trouble.
  • An episode of White Collar has a present-day example. Mozzie breaks into a high-security vault expecting to copy an algorithm onto a thumb drive only to find that it's stored on a platter-sized floppy disc.

    Video Games 
  • In Mega Man ZX, Aile and Vent have no problems using the 20XX Energy Tanks from the Classic series, while in the Battle Network series, Lan and MegaMan.EXE have no problem exploring ancient parts of the Internet.
  • A character in Shadowrun: Dragonfall keeps his notes on ancient DVD-R/W recordings. You have to go on Fetch Quests to track down an old DVD player and an analog TV with the proper inputs to connect it before you can view them.


    Web Original 
  • The story of John Titor, supposedly a time traveller from the 2030s who appeared on Art Bell's forum in 2000, revolved around this — in the post-nuclear-war future he came from, the Year 2038 problem had yet to be solved, and he had been dispatched to a time before the war in order to acquire an IBM 5100 for use in developing a fix.
  • This used to be the case, along with Rock Beats Laser, in Orion's Arm. For example, different colony ships (launched decades or even centuries apart) would experience incompatibilities in their information systems, propulsion systems and docking equipment, and sometimes even their environmental requirements and genetics. The Compatibility Protocol was created to avert this.

    Western Animation 
  • South Park has the episode where Cartman froze himself to avoid waiting for a Nintendo Wii. When he is thawed out (500 years later), he discovers that future displays aren't compatible with those of his time.note 
  • Beast Wars:
    • The Maximals, the descendants of the Autobots, can't use their ancestors' hardware in conjunction with that of Maximal technology. Somewhat justified in that both pieces of technology they're attempting to use in conjunction are cobbled-together, oft-patched desperation-grade junk in the first place. And, y'know, the fact that the Autobot tech they're trying to use is over three million years older than their Maximal tech and is built on a different scale.
    • Even the smarter Maximals can't figure out how the Ark was made in the first place.
    Optimus Primal: "Die-cast construction. It's a lost art..."
  • Subverted in Danny Phantom. Apparently, technology in the future (or at least Skul Tech) is still eligible for Tucker's PDA to hack through. Lampshaded when Tucker declares his hacking skills are just that awesome or just very, very sad.
  • Averted in the Mega Man (Ruby-Spears) episode "Mega X", where the eponymous future robot scans and copies the weapon of Snakeman, an older robot. He can improve on the originals, too, as a single shot destroys Wily's weapon. Wholly justified, as X is based on Rock's design and has a modernized version of the Weapon Copy system, so he can copy anything Rock can.
  • In The Batman episode "Artifacts", a 1000 years in the future, archaeologists discover the Batcave. Their advanced computers cannot interface with or download the Bat Computer's data. Fortunately, Batman saw this coming and etched the computer's data in binary code on titanium sheets. They are able to scan that into their computers, which gives them instructions on how to defeat the ageless Mr. Freeze.