Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Charms of Obsolete Technology

By Yopo

I've got a thing about obsolete technology.

The photo below, for example, shows the control cluster of a non-functional three-band floor model radio that has occupied a corner of my bedroom for the past fifteen or twenty years. (It's only non-function in the sense that no sound has issued from its hefty ten-inch speaker since sometime shortly after the fall of Berlin; it does quite well as a bedside lampstand, as a convenient place to put a digital answering machine, and as a spot to park whatever I'm currently reading before I fall asleep.)

There's another floor radio in the hallway dating from the late 1950s; that one is a Wards Airliner with an illuminated horizontal turning drum, that originally belonged to my grandfather. (It still works just fine; in shortwave mode, on a good night, it will pull in Berlin, or Moscow, or Tokyo, or the distant voices of proselytizing Christian missionaries holed up somewhere in Indonesia.)

While I'd readily admit to being something of a pack rat, I'll also assert that the psychological connection runs deeper than that of a rodent to his own odd bits of collected junk. I suppose the accumulated flotsam and jetsam represents a tangible bridge to the past. It renders the past more real, more immediate, and, in some hard-to-define way, more accessible.

There's something that I've noticed in recent years: many--perhaps even most--of the manufactured objects filling up our modern lives seem to have little real potential for becoming such connections in the future. I don't think this is simply a matter of such objects not having yet survived for long enough to be perceived as novel. I think it may be because most of our modern-age gadgets and gizmos are largely soulless to begin with.

Contrast a modern radio with the 1936 Zenith. The Zenith was largely built by hand; its appearance was dictated by Art Deco artistic sensibilities and a contemporary vision of Flash Gordon technological possibilities. The functional object was created of natural-appearing materials--wood and cloth and hand rubbed varnish--as well as from assembled bits of gleaming glass and metal. The result was an object that functioned on multiple levels: that of technology, and that of art. By so doing, it captured a bit of the soul of the times, and became a carrier of cultural information.

Almost any modern radio you come across will be a slick assembly of plastic and metal and micro-circuitry. The design will be primarily a reflection of function, calculated to minimize production cost, with a thin veneer of some faddish style dictated entirely by marketing considerations imprinted as an afterthought. Like most modern objects, it will not be designed for duration; no one will ever think of having a twenty-dollar radio repaired; it is intended to function marginally well for a limited time, and then be tossed and replaced. Perhaps the transitory nature of consumer goods is the soul of the times, but it is becoming difficult for me to distinguish that state of affairs from the absence of any soul at all--at least on the meaningful human level that we're talking about.

It's interesting to speculate about what our future descendents might think about the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. (Call me an optimist, but I do presume there will be some. Our current lack of a future vision may very well be only a symptom of our passing cultural preference for the transitory, which has seduced us into including ourselves in the mix.) We relish the artifacts left behind by the Egyptians, the Romans, and scores of past cultures, largely because of what they communicate to us across the centuries about the people who lovingly made and used them. There was often great beauty even to utilitarian, everyday objects. What we'll leave behind are buildings designed to be torn down in twenty or thirty years tops, and landfills overflowing with incomprehensible bits of mass-produced plastic and metal gadgets. From that someone will deduce the soul of our time--or the lack thereof.
©8/23/2006 1:40:00 AM Gregory Hargrave

Click on Yopo for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.

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