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 museumofeverdaylife.org

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.

Slow Netters

Slow internet movement favors old-fashioned dial-up over hi-speed wireless

I’m a bit behind (like 7 weeks!) on this story, which aired on “All Things Considered” at the beginning of April. Reporter Melissa Block visited Drip, a coffee house in Washington, D.C. that caters to so-called slow netters, as devotees of the new slow internet movement call themselves.  The trend-setting cafe eschews high-speed internet for basic dial-up.

Late though I am, Obsolescing had to alert its readers to this surprising trend:

Dial-up Internet is enjoying a huge comeback as the slow-net wave (partly inspired by the slow food movement) crashes onto hipster shores nationwide.

OK Go frontman Damian Kulash has written the trend’s anthem. The song is called “Love Me Longtime.”

“It’s about the Internet when it was a more tactile experience — when it took something to be on the Internet,” Kulash says.

Kulash used dial-up’s classic series of tones as supplemental percussion in his ode. “That sound is kind of like The Beatles to my parents, it calls back out all the rage and lust and hormones of my youth,” Kulash tells All Things Considered. “Really powerful sound.”

Listen to the entire report here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2011/04/01/135041848/ok-gos-damian-kulash-crafts-pro-dial-up-anthem. You’ll find all the familiar tropes for talking about a now obsolete technology. Kulash revels in the sensory details, the “tactile experience,” while others interviewed celebrate the noisy scritch and beep of attempted connection as a nearly Proustian trigger of fond memories. Throughout the report devotees insist that slowness, clunkiness, unreliability are somehow more authentic or, even, more human.

Before you listen to the report, though, you might want to check out the dateline.

April 1, 2011

Yes, this report was one of NPR’s elaborate April Fool’s jokes. It worked brilliantly because the reporters knew the lingo of obsolescing. Yet, in the letters aired a few days later, one listener (inevitably?) wrote:

Am I the only one who was disappointed when they realized it was the gag story? He continues: I live a somewhat conflicted life. I am at the same time nostalgic for technology of days gone by, yet I work in the IT industry with current technology. But I resist new technology as much as possible. No smartphone, no Bluetooth, and yes, still dial-up at home. Others make fun of me, of course, and I was excited to be able to share news of this anti-bandwidth revolt with them.

P.s.I still have my original Commodore 64 somewhere in the attic.

Hope this is a joke that works no matter what the date. Belated April Fool’s!

A Dance We Cannot Imagine

I came across this Billy Collins’ poem in a book I plucked off my shelf, Best American Poetry 1992. No commentary (at least not on my part) is necessary. Read and/or scroll down to listen.


Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.

Where has the summer of 1572 gone? Brocade and sonnet
marathons were the rage. We used to dress up in the flags
of rival baronies and conquer one another in cold rooms of stone.
Out on the dance floor we were all doing the Struggle
while your sister practiced the Daphne all alone in her room.
We borrowed the jargon of farriers for our slang.
These days language seems transparent, a badly broken code.

The 1790s will never come again. Childhood was big.
People would take walks to the very tops of hills
and write down what they saw in their journals without speaking.
Our collars were high and our hats were extremely soft.
We would surprise each other with alphabets made of twigs.
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead.

I am very fond of the period between 1815 and 1821.
Europe trembled while we sat still for our portraits.
And I would love to return to 1901 if only for a moment,
time enough to wind up a music box and do a few dance steps,
or shoot me back to 1922 or 1941, or at least let me
recapture the serenity of last month when we picked
berries and glided through afternoons in a canoe.

Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.
I was in the garden then, surrounded by the hum of bees
and the Latin names of flowers, watching the early light
flash off the slanted windows of the greenhouse
and silver the limbs on the rows of dark hemlocks.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.

Billy Collins, “Nostalgia” from Questions About Angels.
Copyright © 1991 by Billy Collins.