In an age when many of the analogue technologies are considered obsolete, I am still wedded to the idea of vinyl records, pocket watches, vacuum tubes, and typewriters. I have written the first draft of this essay with a 1967 Parker 45 fountain pen.
What does an attachment to old things say about my temperament? The immediate supposition may be that I am victim to nostalgia, but many of the objects in my environs – for instance aerometric pen converters, flip-number clocks, Zippo lighters, and valve radios – were not part of my personal past. The more appropriate general principle underlying my choices seems to me to be a rejection of mere efficiency. For efficiency and economy are the chief advantages of, say, a dollar-store stick ballpoint pen over a fountain pen.
Beyond this is the subjective, but no less important, matter of aesthetics. I am well aware that the surfaces of things matter a good deal to me: the feel of paper, the cut of a serif font, the material heft of a pen, the smell of old books, the crackle of a record, the clicks of a typewriter. These things matter to me because they are tactile in a way I would describe as “human.” Bound up in old objects is the way in which I apprehend them through my animal senses.
It isn’t the case that objects made today lack appeal. However, in the age of planned obsolescence it is difficult fully to trick the human senses on the point of material construction. Things made to last only until the next scheduled technical improvement as a matter of course bear the impression of this choice. The cheaply-made, compromised goods give themselves away. They may dissemble up to a point, but rarely is the seduction fully accomplished.
I might well argue that somewhere, someone is possibly using my 1934 Royal typewriter, and that nothing made today could boast of such longevity. The Smith Corona I now own is fifty-seven years old, but my cell phone is three years old and already suggesting the manners in which it will succumb. According to the argument thusly delineated, to choose the archaic is to choose objects with a greater likelihood of being with you in the years ahead. If this is nostalgia, it is a nostalgia with a bright future.
There is no use in arguing categorically that nothing made today is made to last, counter examples to this position being readily had. Looking critically at my own tendency toward anachronism, I discern the following preferences as concerns objects: that they may be made with minimal effort fully to disclose their constituent parts, that they appeal to the senses, that they show a concern with the principles of design, and that their operations can be understood by a person of at least average or slightly above average intelligence.
For example: a point-to-point hand-soldered guitar amplifier is a physical thing of evident solidity, fixable by a human being. A modern guitar amp with a mechanically-manufactured circuit board is not. Or take a typewriter, whose operations are readily manifest. Compare this to the mysterious workings of the personal computer. Even if you were to bother taking one apart, it would probably do you no good — at least some (if not all) of its inner workings being mysterious and in any case unmodifiable.
The question which arises is as follows. Does a predilection for the objects and aesthetics of the past indicate an ideological commitment? What might be the psychological and political character linked to such a disposition? Consider, for example, the Steampunk movement, which integrates Victorian aesthetics and craft with contemporary technologies. Such a movement seems to me implicitly a rejection of planned obsolecence and the alienation of technology from human scale and intervention. In other words, a rejection of technology that is produced not by human beings (craftpersons) but rather by other technologies, such as assembly-line robots. Steampunk appears to me related to the broader movement in favour of “organic” products.
The irony of course is that any technology involves a manipulation of and departure from nature. Typewriters do not grow on trees. Technological development is a matter of degree. A quill pen is less “technological” in this sense than is a ballpoint, and since the fountain pen alludes to the feather it falls in-between. Or such seems to be the intuitive kernel of the matter. Technology is analogue in the sense that it is analagous to something in nature, at least until the point at which we have gotten so far along that we are no longer able to say quite what, in nature, “it” is “like.”
Today we live in a world of objects whose primary claim to relevance is that they are new. Ceaseless novelty: such is the promise which attracts the masses. They follow with little interest in bringing the old world along. Their reward is the always-heightened anticipation of what they have never had, never having known about it prior to the moment at which they learned to desire it. The ideological character of this is innovation for its own sake, or “innovationism,” against which we may place the anachronist and the progressive-conservative, both of whom look sceptically on the idea of change simply for the sake of changing.
The integration of old and new can be conducted in great earnestness or in the ironic mode known as kitsch. Indeed, Steampunk is only one expression of this integrationist enterprise, others being postmodernism, retro, and posthistoricism, to cite only a few of the examples. These share in common an awareness that the notions of “era” and “period” are themselves historically relative – the constructs of an age which seems almost to have left the rails of history.
It is impossible however to say for certain what the accelerating pace of change means, especially as this concerns the world of objects. Those of us who endeavour to integrate the old and the new perhaps constitute a small and dying race. But at least we have the advantages of a challenge, as well as of irony, on our side.