Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Old and New Junk

've been thinking once again about obsoleted technologies as I was listening to an NPR radio program about the last remaining manual typewriter manufacturer, in India, having gone out of business. The story was via the Daily Mail newspaper in Britain. So I went to their website, read the story. It turns out that the article, which was widely distributed, ended up contradicting itself on the matter of whether the last manual typewriter manufacturer had in fact actually gone out of business, stating in a rather passing, almost off-hand, manner that there might in fact still be manufacturers in "China and Japan" who still produce manual typewriters. Which begs the question, so what was this story actually about, anyway? Just to remind the remaining Luddites in the crowd that they've been given notice, once again? Rubbing salt in our wounds?

The NPR story ended on a rather cutesy and frivolous note, with that classic typewriter music (violins being plucked, then the carriage return bell - does anyone know what that song is called?), reminding the audience that typewriters are so ancient that it's no wonder manufacturers have gone under (imagine, manual typewriters in this day and age, ha-ha-ha!), the piece leaving me disappointed, considering that manual typewriter usage in a digital age seems to be the kind of story that NPR would want to report on, is "right up their alley," so to speak, they having had a golden opportunity to do a much better job on this story. They could have done a side-piece on someone who still uses manuals, instead of mocking us. Heck, didn't they just cover the story of a recent type-in, just a few weeks ago, along with the NY Times, and about how manual typewriters are enjoying a kind of resurgence? I thought so. I suppose I shouldn't be so sensitive; it takes a lot of courage to remain out-of-date.

The once new, discarded

esterday I undertook the chore of moving my desktop computer into another room, onto a smaller desk. Now, desktop computers aren't laptops, with at most a charger cord plugged into the wall. No sir. We have a plug for the computer box itself, another plug for the monitor, yet another plug (and assorted wiring) for the speakers, another plug for the external hard-drive, another for the printer, yet another plug for the scanner, and another for the DSL modem. And also, all of the wiring (mainly USB cables) that connect various said devices to the computer's box. All done, there's a rat's nest of wiring under the desk that rivals that of the best mainframe computer. And assorted plug-strips, ganged together in serial fashion, like you're not supposed to do. Please, don't call the Fire Marshall on me.

I keep reminding myself that the desktop computer is supposed to be a dinosaur; certainly from the looks of my system it doesn't appear to be nearly as elegantly simple as, say, an iMac computer integrated into it's monitor with wireless keyboard and mouse. No, my PC system more resembles some failed mad scientist's experiment, like something out of Blade Runner or a Mad Max movie, cobbled together in the dust of the apocalypse.

I can't actually believe that companies still make these ugly boxes that have to be connected, like an astronaut's umbilical, to their life-support of external peripherals. In the wake of products designed from the ground up to represent a coherent life-style choice, like the iPad, my system in comparison seems like it wasn't so much the product of fine design and craftsmanship as it is a cobbled together assortment of parts from a computer warehouse. Which, if you understand the desktop PC market, is exactly that.

Imagine if other products were manufactured using that same business model, say cars. You'd buy a basic chassis, then have bolted onto it all manner of engine, transmission, wiring and plumbing options, kind of crudely cobbled together. Actually, it reminds me of our old mid-1980's GM car. Never mind.

So my desktop computer setup is now functional again, but the desktop itself still needs some organizing. For one, there's no room for my manual typewriter or dial telephone, which used to take prominence as a functional icon of classic mid-20th century technology. Now, when I want to bang out a missive on my Underwood or Olivetti, I have to purposely clear off some space, push back the PC's plastic keyboard, scoot the mouse over to one side, and make a concerted effort at processing words via ink on paper. I suppose that's not such a bad thing, this having to purposefully plan ahead to type, as long as the machines, they don't end up being relegated to the closet, because you know what happens then, don't you? The closet is like the Rest Home for old technology, one step away from the landfill or the grave.

The sad thing about this just-recently obsoleted technology is that it will never achieve the patina of an antique, through which we admire old mechanical devices from long ago. No, you wander through a thrift store, come across discarded video game consoles from the 1980s, cheap plastic boxes, snarled with a tangle of old cables, in some dusty cardboard box, and think it should just be tossed out. Even old 8-track tapes have a certain functional elegance, as do old LP records. But aging beige PC boxes? As icons to memorialize the halcyon days of Microsoft they may serve a certain purpose, like fixtures in a museum serve some purpose of informing us how lucky we are that we no longer have to put up with such outdated tools. But as cute decor that reminds us of an earlier era (like manual typewriters or old dial telephones), old computers fail to impart any sense of reverence or nostalgia; rather, they seem more likely to induce a sense of relief, like "whew, good riddance."

And yet, as a functional (but ugly) tool, my desktop computer is lightning fast and does things that I can't do on an iPad or laptop. The thing about desktop PCs, they really are tools of business, and like any other aspect of business require the business-like support of an IT department in order to remain in good working order. It's like owning an old British sports car, you'd better be handy with a wrench if you expect to keep the old girl on the road. In the case of my desktop machine, it's only several years old, but was designed like that old British road car, still requiring periodic fiddling in order to remain in good working order. But when it runs, boy can it run.

Having used technology both classic and modern, people like me end up with a desire for hybrid tools, that employ the best of both eras. That's why I think we tend to like simply elegant writing tools like AlphaSmart keyboards, and adapting classic manual focus lenses onto digital camera bodies. It's the physical tangibility of our hands upon a tool that's built to be fondled, of having dedicated physical knobs to turn. There's something reassuringly predictable about being able to press the "V" key on a typewriter and have it print, each and every time, the letter "V", whereas on a computer the same letter has a multiplicity of meanings, depending on its context with other key strokes. There's something reassuring about turning the mode dial on my camera one click to the right and knowing, without even looking, that I'm now in aperture priority mode, or turning a nicely knurled focus ring and be able to see the image change focus with immediate feedback. We desire this sort of physicality to our tools that honors our bodies, respects the fact that we have prehensile thumbs and finely nimble fingers, more elegantly functional than that of any other species. In this regard, the prospect of humanity becoming some sort of hybrid cyborg, like sci-fi writers and futurists are constantly prognosticating, indelibly fused with some artificial technology, seems crude by comparison.

Manual focus lens on Lumix G1

n the way back home from this morning's outing I stopped in at a local camera repair shop, that had recently relocated to a building of their own, coincidentally almost directly next door to my favorite typewriter repair shop. I had with me my Lumix G1 digital camera, with an old 28mm manual focus lens in Minolta MD mount. I was hoping to find a wider angle lens in MD mount, since on the G1 the 28mm ends up with an angle of view equivalent to that of a 56mm, but there were none to be had. My name's on a watch list, however (no, not THAT watch list), so perhaps one will show up soon. I like manual focus lenses but don't want to pay the one-grand price tag for a new Cosina Voigtlander 25mm lens in micro-4/3 mount. This represents one of the central issues with why I like older technology, which is that old junk is often less expensive than new junk. So I have that going for me.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)


Blogger MTCoalhopper said...

I. "The Typewriter" was written by Leroy Anderson, and maybe most famously performed by Jerry Lewis. YouTube "Typewriter Song" and be prepared for many variations.

II. I've recently done some cable re-routing on my computer, as well as my entertainment system. Score another hundred points for manual typewriters with no electrical cords!

3:12 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Nice analysis of that pathetic NPR story. I'm in sympathy with the rest of your post, too. With the additional observation that the older stuff is better made, too.

7:13 PM  
Blogger deek said...

Interesting. I just moved my "main" computer from my desk at home downstairs to my TV (we are disconnecting our cable TV and going for a cheaper, streaming only TV/movie viewing solution). My mouse, keyboard and internet are all wireless, so I only have four cords coming out of my computer (power, video, audio, USB hub), but before all that wireless stuff, yeah, underneath my desk was a mess!

12:53 PM  

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