Archive for December 26th, 2008

The Pleasures of the Obsolete

Sharon December 26th, 2008

 Before you ask, no it isn’t quite done, but just about – now all that’s left is some editing and a final look over that I need to step away from it for a day or two to do effectively anyway.  So close, and I’m officially reopening the blog in the meantime. Expect light posting over the next week as I finish up, take a bit of time off, and enjoy the season.

Karl Denninger points out today that part of the reason we’re not shopping is that we’ve all got plenty.  He intersperses his call for a return to hugs and pumpkin pie with a discussion of the fact that most of what we’re being sold isn’t a radical leap forward in technology – that is, blu-ray isn’t that big an improvement on a dvd.

Can you name one product that is a “game changer” – that provides a quantum leap forward, and thus is truly a “must have”?

I can’t. 

That’s a problem, when you get down to it; all retailers are really catering to is “the quantum of more”.

Now look around your house.  Look at all the junk you have in your home.  Quantify “junk” as anything that doesn’t provide you with a place to sit (or lay down), a way to keep you warm, a means to prepare (or consume) food or drink and a way to keep your premises livable (you gotta wash your clothes somehow, right?)

All the trinkets, the 47 computers, the three iPODs and the cell phones.  The “new car” you bought over the last few years, for what – the “new car” smell?  Does a used car – or even a clunker – get you to work? 

Think about it – how much less would an inexpensive used car have cost you?  Liability insurance only as opposed to “full coverage”, because if you wreck it you could replace it for a couple of grand in cash – no need for collision coverage, and if the transmission falls out you could junk and replace it for less than the cost of the repair!  In a couple of years you’re way ahead, and even more so if you make a habit of smashing cars (since insurance gets verrry expensive for collision coverage if you wreck frequently!)

We as a nation have gotten used to deciding we want something and therefore we will have it, because the credit card hasn’t been declined (yet).  When it was, we then went to the bank and pulled out our home equity, paid off the card – and charged it up again.

Now I’m going to have to take Denninger’s word for it, you see, I don’t have a 60″ tv (the size at which he notes you can really see the difference between blu-ray and a dvd).  I’m trying to envision such a thing – that’s a tv as tall as my mother (and there’s a scary way to think about it - how many do you think they’d sell if that was used in the advertising campaign)!  In fact I don’t have a 36″ tv either, on which he says he can’t tell.  I’m not sure how big our tv screen is, actually, but it is pretty small – I can carry the whole thing, built in DVD player and all, under my arm. 

And even that is a pretty big shift in our lives – it was only about 3 years ago that we managed to get something that played DVDs – until then, we had a VCR.  We still have it, because when everyone else converted over to DVDs, videos got really, really cheap and it was a great opportunity to pick up the kind of favorite movies that you really want to watch more than once (as opposed to most movies) – so now we’ve got Butch and Sundance, Singing in the Rain,  The Wizard of Oz and Bladerunner whenever we want them.  Now according to Denninger, there’s a pretty big difference in the quality of picture between a video and a DVD, and I sort of see it, but then again, my tv screen is so small that I don’t notice it much.  I’m just happy that I can show the boys the dancing up the walls bit in “Make ‘Em Laugh.”  For that, we can see fine.

And then I think back to the tv we had when I was a kid – you see, I come from a family of late technology adopters.  We didn’t have a tv a lot of my childhood, but when we did get one, it was a teeny, tiny black and white tv, which was the only option into the middle 1980s.  But the thing I remember most from when we converted to color wasn’t this sudden revelation, a la the shift of Dorothy from Kansas to Oz.  It was the opposite – you see, when you watch black and white long enough you become adept in the ways of shades of grey – it wasn’t that different.  You could figure out roughly what the colors were supposed to be by the light and texture of the film.  What really struck me was that when our new color set broke down a few months later, and we brought out the black and white, that I’d lost the ability to translate black and white into color – sure, the color was nice, but it also cost me something.

Perhaps that’s the origin of my taste for obsolete technologies.  My husband and I chronic late adopters of technology – my guess is that we’re ten years from our first blu-ray acquisition, if ever.  I still don’t have an Ipod, and we just broke down and bought our first cell phone in years – a tracphone with no camera, no internet.  I recently replaced our cracked glass topped electric stove with an old style electric burner one, because you can’t can on the glass top stoves.  Our one car is nearly twice as old as my oldest child, and even my bicycle can claim the same.

That’s not to say that I can’t see the virtue of some technological improvements – the big revelation this year was that the Chanukah fairy brought me wireless internet, something that until now has been impossible in my little rural hollow, away from any tower.  And in many ways that is a huge improvement – I can listen to youtube music while I type and surfing runs a lot faster.  On the other hand, I can already tell there’s a price too – I used to surf the web with a book on my lap, reading poetry or essays while I waited for pages to load.  I have the odd feeling that I’m going to miss the justaposition of Frank O’Hara and the Oil Drum or John Donne with The Automatic Earth.

Of course, I’m famous for my claiming of even more obsolete technologies – I sew with a treadle machine, cook on a wood cookstove, grind my grain with a hand turned grinder, knead bread with my hands, not a bread machine, chop vegetables with a knife rather than a food processor.  This might be just a kind of precious Little House on the Prairie Nostalgia, or so I’ve been accused.

But I have an electric sewing machine.  I’ve used a bread machine.  I have a food processor, and of course, and electric stove.  I don’t use these things because it makes me feel cute and period – in a family with four kids, a farm, the writing, feeling cute falls to the realities.  The truth is that in every case, I’ve decided that the older technology has advantages – or the modern one a price I don’t want to pay.  I don’t like the bread machine because I don’t like the texture of the bread I get out of it – and because when I add in the time to clean all the parts, I don’t feel I’ve saved any time.  The same is true with the food processor – I can cut more uniformly myself, and when you add in the time to clean it, I often can do the chopping faster.  The cookstove warms my house while I cook.  The treadle sewing machine is more fun to use and never goes through my fingers.

All of which for me, raises the question that Denninger doesn’t ask – he talks about how we’re pretty saturated on stuff, and that’s true.  But when wasn’t that true for most of us.  I can remember my Christmases in the 1970s, as a child, in a house with no VCR, no DVD player, no CD player.  I remember sitting with my parents around a record player, singing along, watching the Wizard of Oz on its annual appearance on our staticky black and white tv.  Did the static matter?  Were the records in some way inferior?  I didn’t think so then – is there a way to go back, to forget the monotone clarity of the CD, the perfect picture of the DVD, and accept what we had then?

No technological leap goes just one way – every gain has its price.  Some of them are worth it, no question.  The front-loader washing machine is in every way an improvement over my old top loader, and the price – its hefty price tag – is one I’m willing to pay to use less water, energy, detergent.  But of the technological innovations I’ve had a taste of, few offer that big a step, and when they do, they often come with surprising costs.  The most surprising one, is that they make our past uninhabitable to us.  What I learned for the first time in my early teens going from black and white to color turns out to be true for most things.  Once we accustom ourselves to the new level of technology, it gets harder and harder to go back to the past.  If we do, we must accept the accusation that we are failing in some way, to live in the present.  And there’s a truth in that – because in our society, the present is never “now” it is “what’s new” – and the only way to ever live there is to keep rushing forward, keep unfitting yourself for the now in favor of the future, to always be waiting for the next step.

I’m hopeless, I know.  I’ll never get the full appreciation of the sound and visual quality available to me while the boys and I are watching Donald O’Conner on our tiny little screen.  There are nuances that they may never know about.  On the other hand, the 400 bucks that the blu-ray machine and the dvd would cost are still in our pockets.  And if this is costing us so much, how come we’re all giggling so hard anyway?

 BTW, since I now have decent internet, I can include a link to the scene on youtube – the feat of athleticism I mentioned above is at the very end of the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tp7LwQYT8U 

Sharon