the passions we chase
lead us home.
One of the things that interest me most in life is finding the ideas that create harmony between disparate ideas and people, and while it might not always seem that way, even things I put forth that seem contentious follow in that vein; take, for example, the question of “extinct” technologies — of all the technological goodies that have been lost to the past over the course of my life, which one do I miss the most? The question seems innocuous, but it’s loaded with all sorts of connotations that prompt further questioning and definition.
First: obsolescence is one thing, while extinction is another. I have two portable typewriters in my office, a light blue and white model from the 50’s or 60’s, and a black one from 1944.
I have other things too; I’m a casual collector of the retro useful, the forgotten flotsam of old ways in faded days. Some things are tchotchkes, like three pair of old brass binoculars — two of which were added to the lot when we found them in our new house. We have a three-foot stack of vinyl records and a record player. I like to save these things because they’re links to the past, and they have a retro appeal to my senses.
In point of fact, they inspire me with their very existence.
Rather than talk about technologies that are “extinct”, maybe it’s more useful to put them in the context of their function in our lives: to play music — surely a most ubiquitous function in the modern world — we use our phones; phones that supplanted digital music players, which competed with CDs, which squeezed out cassette tapes, which trumped 8-track cassettes, which had a short run alongside vinyl records, which are just an improved vehicle over Victrola and gramophone records, which came after cylinders, and before that . . . well heck, we just sang and played instruments. If anything out of that lineup is more or less extinct, it happened to be made in the 1940’s or earlier.
Here’s the point: when I try to think of technologies in my time that have gone the way of the dodo, I think of things like VHS and cassette tapes, boomboxes, landline telephones with corded handsets, pocket calculators, laserdiscs, minidiscs, microcassettes, 5 1/4-inch floppy disks, 3 1/2 inch floppies (which weren’t floppy on the outside, you might know), cathode ray tubes (CRTs), electric typewriters, pencils, et cetera. But the thing is, what’s to miss when nothing is gone?
Think about it: all of these technologies represent things we are still doing: watching videos and movies, listening to music, communicating by voice over distance, storing data, writing essays, making music . . . anything we could call “extinct” has merely had its functions migrated to something whose function is improved in some way. In the case of vinyl records, they’re not extinct at all, but live on as a niche product for professional DJs and audiophiles. In many cases, we have seen the consolidation of these functions onto single devices: computers and mobile phones, which really shouldn’t be called phones anymore. This is a good thing, yes?
Well . . . maybe what we miss about the old things are the memories and associations we have attached to them; we grew up with them and learned with them — made them our friends in a very real and tactile way. As we progress toward a more ethereal future, with software taking up much of the work for what has previously required something physical, something real — I think we miss the touch, the smells, the sounds, and even the familiar curves, colors, and colloquial styles of the golden oldies. That’s why I like to rescue and adopt old things: they speak to me, give me ideas and familiar feelings of comfort . . . like the lighthouse in the picture above, they guide me to a safe place; back to a time when nothing was all that pressing; when you hung out and nobody’s attention was stolen by a sounding or vibrating device; when you had dozens of telephone numbers memorized, and you could pick up the phone and dial someone without even thinking about which numbers to press; when you would sit down and write a letter by hand, put in in an envelope whose flap would stick firmly down, lick the stamp and stick it to the envelope and put it in a tall blue box (not that blue box!) for the mailman to pick up . . .
Basically, a time when doing something was still a matter of craft.
We used to be so crafty!
Putting all of these functions into a flat, rectangular chunk of matter that has just a few buttons pushes their importance into a grey area where even the very question of their existence becomes somewhat foggy. Hell, its an insult to call our old technologies extinct considering I can touch them and use them any time I want to. I refuse to call them extinct; I’ll rationalize them into something valid if I have to —
You know what I really miss? Peglegs and monacles. What the heck happened to those?