In this scene from the first season of BBC historical drama Downton Abbey, the serving class confronts its future.

What is this scary object found hidden in a housemaid’s closet? Why was she hiding it? What upheaval will it bring?

Does it bite? Will it explode?


The Long Goodbye

“Every generation rewrites the book’s epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit,” writes Leah Price in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Her essay, Dead Again, traces predictions of the book’s demise back to the early 19th century. Long before e-readers and other digital technologies:

Théophile Gautier’s novel “Mademoiselle de Maupin” had already declared that “the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.” This was in 1835. And Gautier was only one-upping Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” which, four years earlier, depicted an archdeacon worrying the book would kill the cathedral, and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were throwing the scribes out of work. (The novel is set a quarter-century after Gutenberg’s first Bible, when a thriving industry of manuscript-on-demand was forced to readjust.)

At long last, a New York Times writer acknowledges what we at Obsolescing have been saying for a long time: predicting and lamenting the book’s demise is an age-old habit. Cultural and social critics thrive on recycling that tired trope: looking back with regret and forward with doubt and fear (and occasionally excitement).

Personally, I was thrilled to learn that waning technology is a key theme in Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Now I’ve got to go read it!). But Price, a specialist in Victorian literature at Harvard, also offers a compelling analysis of novelists who look forward into a bleak, book-less future. She delightfully catalogues the fantastical (sometimes eerily prescient) technologies 19th and 20th century science fiction writers invented to destroy books (and tyrannize the freedom of the human imagination), from Aldous Huxley’s “feelies” to Ray Bradbury’s firemen. And she exposes the paradox in these dystopian visions: while books may vanish, the libraries that house them nearly always survive.

Writers foresaw space travel, time travel, virtual reality and, endlessly, the book’s demise; what they never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear.

The insight that sticks with me appears early in the essay:

In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another. Television didn’t kill radio any more than radio ended reading.

One might quibble that television fundamentally changed radio — and movies too — but how old technologies answer and adapt to the new is a topic for another essay. The larger point Price makes is more important.  Progress is rarely the juggernaut we fear. Our technologies don’t come to us like a line of tyrannical despots, beheading predecessors in order to claim dominance. Rather than usurp, they draw on and respond to what’s come before. 

Worth Saving?

Block that Metaphor!

In a previous post I wrote about the long, second life of outmoded technologies and utilitarian objects as digital icons on our smartphones and computer screens:

What’s most intriguing about these icons is that they may outlive the object they refer to. Future generations will know what an image of an envelope, postage stamp, or telephone means even when those objects have long since disappeared from daily life. Technologies past are preserved in all sorts of ways. In today’s media, icons are one of the most ubiquitous.

What happens when that past technology doesn’t seem all that iconic? When the visual image itself — and its associations — don’t kindle either fond feelings (in those who can remember using the antiquated form) or the instant, intuitive recognition interface designers count on? Case in point is the much maligned, rarely mourned floppy disk as icon for “save.”
Designers at Tobias & Tobias Interactive in England discuss this problematic skeuomorph in a recent blog post. As does the blog “Things That Need to Die” (which, by virtue of its name alone, gets my nomination for Obsolescing’s evil twin): “… it’s only a matter of time before people start asking ‘What’s with the square thing?'”

Both sites are seeking nominations for a better icon to replace the poor floppy disk. If you have any suggestions, post them here — or there. One of the few suggestions (on the British site!) is an image of home plate (Safe, get it?), which, to my mind, qualifies as the visual equivalent of “Block that Metaphor.”
 What do you think? Is the Floppy Disk worth saving as an icon for saving? Or should it be tossed in the

The Past in Living Color

How do you picture the distant past? Do you see it in black and white? Edges blurred? The people standing stiff in their formal poses?

Because our imaginations are conditioned to see through the lens each era affords us, these sailors from a hundred years ago at first struck me as fake, staged. They look like contemporary actors in costume, those vivid colors are so unexpected, so alien from what we expect a century-old photograph to be. But then, when they reveal themselves to be authentic, they suddenly seem miraculous. How alive these sailors look! How less distant Imperial Russia seems!

So, while this is only marginally connected with Obsolescing, I had to post a link to these amazing photographs, which appeared yesterday on BBC News online. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was a Russian aristocrat, a chemist intrigued by photography, who invented his own technique for making color prints in the early 20th century. As the BBC reports, he “took thousands of pictures between 1909-1912 as he toured the Russian empire, armed with a special pass from Tsar Nicholas II. He created a panorama of all the peoples, landscapes, industries and antiquities under Russian possession.” The plates are in the collection of the Library of Congress, and you can see the entire, extraordinary archive online. 

Century-old glimpse of Russia in color

Touch Type

Virtual letterpress for iPad and Mac

John Bonadies remembers well the heady early days of the digital revolution, when designers, himself included, enthusiastically discarded their outmoded tools of drafting and production, and replaced them with shiny new Macs. Creaky old letterpresses were dismantled, cases of lead and wooden type sold for scrap. Some 550 years after Gutenberg, it looked like movable type, the invention that changed history, was obsolete.

Leap ahead 25 years, and Bonadies is fostering a typesetting revival — in a digital context. He invented LetterMpress, an iPad app (and now for Mac desktop) that brings the look and feel of typesetting by hand into the digital age.

Though the app looks backward for inspiration, nostalgia was not what motivated Bonadies. He came up with the idea encountering a prototype of the iPad. The iPad’s novel interface, that glide of fingers across the screen to move and open files, enlarge or shrink images, reminded him of something. In his undergraduate days, he’d taken a course using a letterpress at Indiana University. His brain made an intuitive leap, a spark of connection: iPad = Letterpress. Thus, an app was born.

As Bonadies says:

Actually, a letterpress and an iPad operate similarly when it comes to manipulating objects in a composition. Just like placing blocks of wood type on a surface, you drag the type images across the iPad, and then move them around to create your design. This is why [I thought] the iPad would make an ideal platform for people to experience the creative aspects of letterpress and typography.”

The experience is virtual, of course. But LetterMpress never pretends to be the real thing.  The app is not so much replication or simulation as re-interpretation, a revival in the sense that it breathes new life into an outmoded technology. This digital translation aims to give those who might never have access to an actual letterpress the chance to have fun creating a design by hand, as Bonadies’ associate Molly Poganski demonstrates:

Virtual, in the case of LetterMpress, does not mean “pale imitation” either. In creating the app, Bonadies aimed for authenticity. With money raised from Kickstarter, Bonadies set about collecting actual vintage type, letterpress machines, and the proper paraphernalia, which he then scanned. The resulting interface is vivid and nearly tactile, capturing the textures and patina of old type, the battered type drawers, the metal gears and roller of the press itself. There are sounds effects too. This attention to detail, never pedantic or fussy, makes the experience satisfyingly inventive. With the bold wooden type forms evoking children’s building blocks. LetterMpress feels like an invitation to play.

The story of LetterMpress’ invention and creation has an interesting twist, a coda that even Bonadies didn’t foresee. After acquiring three Vandercook presses and a cache of vintage type to make the app authentic, Bonadies didn’t want to turn around and re-sell it. Instead, he established a typesetting cooperative in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where he lives and works. The Living Letter Press offers workshops, training, and access to the machines. The virtual renaissance spawned an analog twin, so to speak. Though, fitting for our time, the Living Letter Press maintains its own vibrant presence online, with a Facebook page and an Etsy shop.

LetterMpress Valentine

So those who mourn the passing of old technologies should take heart in the LetterMpress story, a charming marriage of hi tech and low. Reframed, reinterpreted, translated for a new medium, what was relegated to the scrap heap suddenly seems fresh and vibrant again, a creative tool poised to yield new forms of expression.

Even art.

In Trust

In the opening paragraphs of the short story “In Trust,” Australian writer David Malouf articulates so eloquently the themes of Obsolescing, that I’m quoting amply here, no need of my own interpretation or explanation. The boldface is my own. I hope that the copyright lords will be appeased if I urge you to read this book, even buy this book (The Complete Stories. New York: Vintage 2007), or anything else the masterful Malouf has written, for that matter.

We’ll let these paragraphs stand as our epigraph for 2012:

There is to begin with the paraphernalia of daily living: all those objects, knives, combs, coins, cups, razors, that are too familiar, too worn and stained with use, a doorknob, a baby’s rattle, or too swiftly in passage from hand to mouth or hand to hand to arouse more than casual interest. They are disposable, and are mostly disposed of without thought. Tram tickets, matchboxes, wooden serviette rings with a poker design of poinsettias, buttonhooks, beermats, longlife torch batteries, the lids of Doulton soup tureens, are carted of at last to a tip and become rubble, the sub-stratum of cities, or are pulped and go to earth; unless, by some quirk of circumstance, one or two examples are stranded so far up the beach in a distant decade that they become collectors’ items, and then so rare and evocative as to be the only survivors of their age.

Survivors of their age, from The Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, Vermont

So it is in the life of objects. They pass out of the hands of their first owners into a tortoiseshell cabinet, and then, whole or in fragments it scarcely matters, onto the shelves of museums. Isolated there, in the oddness of their being no longer common or repeatable, detached from their history and from the grime of use, they enter a new dimension. A quality of uniqueness develops in them and they glow with it as with the breath of a purer world — meaning only that we see them clearly now in the light of this one. An oil-lamp, a fragment of cloth so fragile that we feel the very grains and precious dust of its texture (the threads barely holding in their warp and woof), a perfume flask, a set of taws, a strigil, come wobbling towards us, the only angels perhaps we shall ever meet, though they bear no message but their own presence: we are here.

It is in a changed aspect of time that we recognise them, as if the substance of it — a denseness that prevented us from looking forward or too far back– had cleared at last. We see these objects and ourselves as co-existent, in the very moment of their first stepping out into their own being and in every instant now of their long pilgrimage towards us, in which they have gathered the fingerprints of their most casual users and the ghostly but still powerful presence of the the lives they served.

…We stare and are amazed. Were they once, we ask ourselves, as undistinguished as the buttons on our jacket or a stick of roll-on deodorant? Our own utensils and artefacts take on significance for a moment in the light of the future. Small coins glow in our pockets. Our world too seems vividly, unbearably present, yet mysteriously far off.

David Malouf, “In Trust,” The Complete Stories (New York: Vintage, 2007) pp.478-479

Tweets & Goons

Is social media the path to perdition, as Bill Keller fears? Or to a glorious future where, as a character predicts in A Visit from the Goon Squad, "we'll know each other forever... we'll rise out of our bodies and find each other again in spirit form"?

What is it about digital media that turns otherwise sensible journalists into latter-day Cotton Mathers? Case in point: Bill Keller’s recent jeremiad in May 22’s New York Times Magazine. His target: Twitter, that social media site where people meet and “tweet” to each other in 140 characters or less. Not only is Twitter making us stupid (or at least make smart people sound stupid, Keller waffles at the end), it threatens to destroy our very souls.

…my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our  ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.

As with the predictions of the end of the world that failed to materialize the day this article arrived on my front porch, Keller’s fear for our imperiled souls is premature. We all may well be going to Hell in a handbasket, but I doubt Twitter is the cause. Demonizing the future  –as we at Obsolescing have pointed out time after time, (sounding like that now-obsolete broken record) — is an old and tired journalistic habit. Quick copy. Instant controversy.

What’s maddening is that Keller seems to understand this. In the heart of his essay, he offers vivid examples of the trade-offs society is always making as the new replaces the old. He begins by discussing Jonathan Foer’s recent book about memory, which asserts that the invention of the printing press eroded human’s ability to memorize literature.

He continues:

My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?

In other words: Thus as it has always been, thus it will always be. The obvious conclusion would be that, as a middle-aged parent of a 13-year-old daughter, Keller is behaving exactly like generations of parents before him. “And so he plays his part,” as Shakespeare wrote. With good-humored humility, Keller would then admit he’s entered the fifth age: “the justice.”

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances …

But no. Somehow, even as he waves away his father’s concerns over his math deficiencies, Keller seems to believe that this time is different, that his own parental concerns are somehow more valid. The digital technologies of the current age pose greater threats and perils than ever before.

What he doesn’t understand is that the present is always the most arrogant –and most benighted– of perspectives. From that high perch, we can dismiss the follies of those who have come before (“I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.” Keller writes.) while making ominous pronouncements about the dangers ahead in the scary unknown.

To back up his argument, Keller concludes by quoting novelist Meg Wolitzer, who describes a teenage character in The Uncoupling as belong to “The generation that had information, but no context. Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing.”

Whether this quote reflects Wolitzer’s point of view or is quoted, out of context, from a middle-aged character’s mouth, I don’t know. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading The Uncoupling. Instead of Wolitzer, I turn to Jennifer Egan and her brilliant novel A Visit from the Goon Squad to counter Keller.  Hailed as an “inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed,” by the Pulitzer-Prize committee, Goon Squad offers argument and antidote to any tiresome anti-technology sermons.

By following a loosely interconnected group of characters over a 40-year span, from the 1970s into a near future, Egan explores how we, as human beings, simultaneously embrace and flee from the changes that time – that “goon” of the title – inevitably brings. Like Shakespeare, she regards the various “stages of man,” the many parts we will play in a lifetime, with a detached precision and intimate sympathy.

Much of the change Goon Squad addresses is technological. Readers glimpse one character, a visionary grad student in the mid-1980s, experimenting with a prototype of the Internet (“Oh, we’ll know each other forever,” Bix says. “That days of losing touch are almost gone.”) We see a future iteration of Twitter, a corruptible tool for stealth marketing and a source of unexpected poetry. And there is one luminous chapter “written” entirely as a series of PowerPoint slides composed by a teenager. (Her Mom, a character readers know first as a wild, impulsive and sentimental young woman, is suspicious: “Why not try writing for a change?” “Excuse me, this is my slide journal.”)

Ultimately, time is the only medium that matters, the tough, tidal current keeps pulling us back and sweeping us forward. That tide surges inside us too. Goon Squad so richly explores themes close to Obsolescing’s heart, that I could go on and on (I will say Orpheus and Eurydice make a brief appearance). I’ll leave its delights for you to discover on your own.

The book’s final chapter (SPOILER ALERT) provides the most pointed retort to Keller. Set in a near-future Manhattan, a dystopia of buzzing surveillance helicopters, barricades against the rising sea, ever taller buildings blocking air and light, and a marketplace dictated by the whims of three-year olds and manipulated via paid “influentials” generating buzz, this chapter could be viewed as fodder for Keller’s fears. Except the airless, lightless Manhattan functions not just as dystopian vision but also a metaphor for the onset of middle age, that time when horizons vanish, even as the next generation, voiced by one character’s 3-year-old daughter, chirps “Up, up, up.”

That character, returning for the first time from the first chapter, is guiltily involved in engineering buzz for an “impromptu” downtown concert. New Yorkers pour into the streets and pack Lower Manhattan, oblivious to the fraud. But the concert, miraculously, transcends its suspect origins. The crowd, the excitement, the music itself — the human need for connection and expression and depth and uplift — work some kind of alchemy, transforming the fabricated into the spontaneous and genuine, the event into legend.

The novel ends wistfully, as it must. Egan might even agree with Keller  (as I do): “…innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves.” What Egan gets and Keller doesn’t is that we’re always paying that price. We are all prisoners of the zeitgeist. We accept and absorb the tools and toys and various means our culture gives us and use them to distract ourselves, to wound each other, to seek quick fixes, gratification, acclaim. And we use them too, to connect, create, and delve deeply. Our souls (and our lives) are always in danger,  Egan tells us, and always open to unexpected grace.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to pit a novelist against a journalist. We expect novels to be deeper and more subtle than newspaper essays have the luxury to be. But Keller, in quoting Wolitzer, neglects to mention that back when novels were, well, novel, they too were decried as corrupters of souls (see Bovary, Madame). As for journalism, wasn’t it once the most ephemeral of media?

As to Keller’s assertion that Twitter makes smart people sound stupid, I can only answer that as a writer I’m kind of proud of the Tweet I composed to summarize A Visit from the Goon Squad:

What Egan gets: We’re all prisoners of the zeitgeist. There will be casualties & survivors, corruption & transcendence in = measure.

In under 140 characters, I think I say it all.