Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By
(Harry N. Abrams)
US: Sep 2009
Technology and its constant modification fully transforms our everyday life every few years. Our new phones, iPods, iPads, and Kindles, not to mention social websites like Facebook, change how we relate to one another, the rhythms of our work, and our sense of play. While some technologies endure perennially—the pencil comes to mind as something relatively unchanged since the 16th century—chalkboards are fast disappearing. Manual typewriters now appear antique, but so do the earliest Macintosh computers. In her recent book Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By, Anna Jane Grossman details an entire life-world of 20th century objects, services, and practices that have passed away. Her entries include easy-to-open packaging, girdles, cash, likable stamps, push-buttons and rolodexes—technologies that defined lives, practices, and hopes for the future.
The book is playfully illustrated, written with verve, and makes plain just how much has changed since the recent millennium. Grossman documents superseded technologies, explains how these obsolete technologies once organized social relationships, and reflects on how their passing marks profound changes in our lives. She notes, for instance, that privacy is no longer an expectation at all, but that security is. In itself, this is hardly news, but since she adduces her evidence from often unremarked changes like the demise of diving boards and deep-ends in swimming pools, her book’s peculiar perspective makes the points newly forceful.
In the introduction, Grossman recounts a series of conversations with her octogenarian neighbor, Beatrice. She writes, “I think I was a kind of enigma to Beatrice—a visitor from a world that had changed a great deal since she’d played an active part in it. The idea that I was able to work from home via computer after college was something she never could grasp. She was flummoxed by the way I carried a tiny phone, but often didn’t pick it up when it rang.” Grossman writes movingly of how she helped Beatrice cope with technological change in the ‘90s, but it is not Beatrice’s 1940s world-view and expectations that most surprised her. Ironically, Grossman was helping her friend just as our networked world was taking off. It is this more recent kind of acceleration that becomes palpable. When Beatrice died just after the millennium, Grossman helped sort through her apartment.
She writes, “The objects that most interested me were actually the ones I’d bought for Beatrice in the late ‘90s: The touchtone phone already looked clunky, with its thick antenna and built in cassette-tape answering machine. The address book that I’d helped her fill out, its pages now yellowing, reminded me that it had been years since I’d added a new name to my Rolodex.” She reminds us that the speed of change is unprecedented, and she finds that “it’s imbued me with a kind of odd nostalgia for right now.”
Grossman turns to futurist Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller Future Shock to understand her nostalgia for the present. Toffler defines this psychic shock as “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.” In such pronouncements, Toffler has the air of a postmodern magus like Brian Oblivion from Videodrome or an American Jean Baudrillard. Certainly Grossman’s feeling of nostalgia for the present is a form of future shock. For me, her turn to Toffler raises a different kind of nostalgia, one that Surrealists like Louis Aragon or the critic Walter Benjamin more fully understood: the nostalgia for another time’s sense of the future. So, while Grossman interviews an aged Toffler on the phone in our shared present, my own impulse is to return to Toffler’s time and to that period’s sense of the future. This cannot be accomplished effectively through his book, which is much too sane and still so relevant. His time’s sense of the future is far more effectively revealed in the eponymous 1972 film.
Future Shock the film was distributed by the text-book publisher McGraw-Hill and screened in high schools throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Amazingly, Orson Wells stars and narrates Future Shock, himself the bemused traveler from a simpler time confronting the world most persuasively described by William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard. Frantic montages of grocery store aisles, traffic, advertising, mainframe computers, airports, suburban developments, medical labs, and robots are accompanied by dissonant Moog synthesizers and the smooth horn sections of 70s soundtracks. The film unabashedly works with a kind of lurid and exploitative alarmism, as Welles sententiously intones the end of everything: the destruction of family, religion, race, and ultimately the cyborgization and genetic engineering of everyone. Indeed, it seems rather like a film that could have been made by The Dharma Initiative from Lost, a show that itself hinges on a profound nostalgia for postmodernism.
Steampunk cell phone. Artist unknown.
Toffler’s book and most of his pronouncements seem quite reasonable, and it is no more a work of kitsch or object of nostalgia than Marshall McLuhan’s 1961 book, Understanding Media. The film, however, creates a far different feeling, in part because it is played for shock value, but more so because its images of obsolete technologies stand for the future. Montages show us walls of cathode ray televisions, microfiche readers, reels of magnetic tape and mainframes. Its visualizations of cyborgs look like the death of glitter rock. The nostalgia it produces, however, is not the longing to return to the early ‘70s, but rather a feeling for the potential futures all these technologies represent. It’s a particularly a postmodern nostalgia. These possible futures are not found only in a kitschy futurist films, but are in fact deeply intertwined with all our technologies – television being a prime example.
William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace” in 1982 as he pounded out the story “Burning Chrome” on a manual typewriter. In 1984 with the publication of Neuromancer, Gibson’s hugely popular cyberpunk novel, the word entered our everyday vocabulary. At the time of its publication, Gibson’s work envisioned a future of networked connectivity and virtual spaces. Indeed, the opening lines of the novel attempt to conjure up a world completely overwritten by technologies of communication: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” The metaphor is effective, haunting, and profoundly melancholy as the transcendent, limitless sky becomes a screen—the static of an empty channel flickering behind the rest of the book’s action. It suggests a world where the horizon of human interaction is a network of communication.
Gibson was not alone in turning to television static to mark a postmodern sensibility. Similar images of televisual anxiety, futures, and melancholy can be found in most postmodern art. To name just a few, Steven Spielberg and Toby Hooper’s film Poltergiest , Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Ant Farm Collective’s performance and subsequent video MediaBurn, and a number of early music videos, not least the Plasmatics homage to Ant Farm, “The Damned”. Yet the image of television itself, even the in early ‘80s, was not quite the future, and this became increasingly clear with the actual development and commercialization of the internet and the cell phone. Writing on the 20th anniversary of Neuromancer, Gibson returned to the famous opening lines:
“It took at least a decade for me realize that many of my readers, even in 1984, could never have experienced Neuromancer’s opening line as I’d intended them to. I’d actually composed that first image with the black-and-white video static of my childhood in mind, sodium-silvery and almost painful—a whopping anachronism ... the reader never stopped to think that I might have been thinking, however unconsciously, of the texture and color of a signal-free channel on a wooden-cabinet Motorola with fabric-covered speakers.”
Gibson lovingly evokes his own past here in brilliantly concrete detail. His nostalgia is paradoxical, and its paradox is, I think, typical of our nostalgia for many recently outmoded technologies. This is quite different from the desire to return to a past time, our own youth, or indeed our fascination with more distant eras. The difference is that we do not imagine that these technologies represent a kind of golden-age. Gibson doesn’t invoke black-and-white static as a yearning to return to the late-‘40s. Instead, the meaning of this static seems just as Gibson sensed it, an image of a future defined by the connective potential of networked technologies. That the image was produced by early Motorola television shows not how we long to return to a time when televisions were substantial pieces of furniture, but rather how TV technology was oriented towards the future, so much so that its static-filled screen could plausibly become the launching point of a revered cyberpunk novel.