Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Cybernetics of Antiquated Technology

I like using mechanical cameras. For that matter, most any well designed, hand operated mechanical device or tool I find interesting. Although it may be simply enough to accept my personal likes and dislikes on face value (since, after all, I’m the one who has to live with myself), it interests me enough to warrant further thinking on the subject.

Aside from the uses put to such mechanical devices for the purposes of creative expression – here I’m referring to devices such as the mechanical typewriter and the manual 35mm rangefinder camera – the tactile feel of a well designed and sturdily constructed machine lends a carnal sense of satisfaction that borders on the sensuous.

The experience of pounding away on a mechanical typewriter, whose staccato rhythm is periodically interrupted by the decisive act of the carriage return, is a classically sensuous interaction between man and machine. The force required to make a definite imprint of ink upon paper is not the slight, delicate snickings of the computer keyboard; rather, it is forceful enough so as to resemble the stern-minded absoluteness of a well-made decision, yet not so extreme as to tax the physical limits of the operator.

A series of words or whole sentences or entire paragraphs thus rendered represent a sequence of forceful, decisive acts of creative expression. The machine requires that degree of forceful intent; in turn, the act of forcefully hammering away with fingertips upon keys places a requirement on the operator that there also be an equivalent degree of forceful intent put into the thoughts that those words represent.

It is an act of severity, this business of typing on a manual. With it comes an historic sense of urgency, knowing, perhaps not consciously, that this is a noble act, in a long line that threads its way back to when Guttenberg was first printing with movable type. How easy it is now – too easy, it seems – to put endless chains of words together on the computer screen and, with a few clicks of the mouse, make them available to anyone; and everyone; and no one. This business of blogging and posting and blogging and posting seems to flow as effortlessly as do the constant drizzle of thoughts that make up one’s internal dialog, the mind’s inner voice. The problem is that no one should be permitted exposed to the never-ending eruption of one’s inner dialog.

Fortunately, the Internet is a voluntary activity.

We require a mechanical contrivance that purposely places limits on the ability to record printed words, to allow the mind the time necessary to clean it all up, as it were, to edit and pare down, to make it succinct. We need the severity of the mechanical typewriter.

The mechanical rangefinder camera, rather than being a severe but noble enabler of succinctness, resembles more a spring-driven clockwork, coupled to a gun sight. The end result of one’s careful machinations and adjustments is the delightful ‘snick’ of the shutter. The sensuousness of the shutter release is the reward given for the careful analysis of the scene’s light, and the thoughtful adjustment made to the F-stop, shutter speed and focus ring. And, as if the strained release of the shutter curtain weren’t reward enough, there is the additional treat of the resulting photographs themselves, whether picked up from the corner store, or developed and printed, by hand, in one’s home studio.

Stalking images, armed only with an all-mechanical rangefinder camera, is a quick succession of compositional assessments, constant adjustments to the camera’s controls to compensate for the scene’s changing light, and creative control of the critical plane of focus, all culminated by the delightful ‘snick’ of the shutter, followed by a quick wind of the shutter; and the cycle is repeated.

The rangefinder photographer is a hunter armed with, not a cannon but, a far more elegant weapon; a solidly built, precise, intricate instrument that appears to be the pinnacle of a previous era’s ability to design a tool that conforms ideally to the hand and the eye; the gateway to the soul.

Futurists have repeatedly predicted that the evolution of the human species will be in the direction of the cybernetic, a hybrid conjoinment of tissue and electro-mechanics. Many have already made the assumption that in the computer will we see the fulfillment of this cybernetic vision. I would like to propose that the best example yet seen of a cyborg-like relationship between man and machine are in the finely engineered, mechanical marvels that we call the manual typewriter and the rangefinder camera. These are tools meant to be fondled, designed for one’s hands to grip and hold and press and turn, whose operation is intuitive, and gives back to the user immediate physical feedback. We like these tools because they seem engineered to the human scale; they seem docile and compliant, ever-willing to obey our command, never demanding of us more than our minds and fingers and feeble eyes can easily see and handle and control. As any faithful servant would, they make us feel in charge of things, in control, even when, down deep, we known that isn’t quite so.


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