Forward to the Past

March 1st, 2008 Features, Tech, Tech Features

If technology won’t slow down, at least we can make it look the part, writes Drew Turney.

In his recent book Future Files, (Scribe, 2007) author Richard Watson points to the proliferation of movements like slow food, vinyl albums and saving instead of debt as evidence of speed fatigue. With technology not just putting everything in reach but oversupplying it, many of us look dewy-eyed at the old notions of everything from eating to sex.

Along with the ubiquitous gadgetry, ready-made health solutions and movies on demand there’ll be a strong market for genuine, old-style experiences like Pianolas on stage at the movies and restaurants that take pride in the long delay in preparing your dinner.

Nothing will stop the tide of technology – we live in a wired society and all have a stake in keeping it that way regardless of our cultural fear of being overrun, Metropolis or Terminator-style.

But as one of our visibly futuristic institutions, technology itself won’t be left out of the trappings of nostalgia. The answer isn’t to leave technology behind but make it reflet our occasional yearning for simpler times.

At the Steampunk Workshop, Hieronymus Isambard ‘Jake’ von Slatt builds things that trade on a combination of nostalgia and imaginative geekery, everything from the clockwork guitar to iPod etchings.

Among them are the Steampunk keyboard and LCD monitor, each one painstakingly crafted by hand by laying old-looking stuff over new stuff. The keyboard contains the innards of a 1980 IBM model surrounded by a fabricated brass casing. The keys are sanded-down clothing buttons laminated with printed characters to look like they’ve come straight from an old typewriter, and the result is something that looks as if from an alternate universe where the computer was invented in the 1700s.

And where there’s cool, there’s money, commercial operators now flooding the Internet to capitalise on retro tech.

If you miss the days when you carried 18 and not 40,000 songs in your pocket, the music cassette has been reborn as a USB flash card courtesy of makeamixa.com, where you can custom design the label before you buy. Or there’s the Bluetooth mobile handset shaped like a 1970s office phone receiver, 1960s James Bond-inspired camera-watch or USB-powered phonograph player.

The modus operandi of retro tech is to resurrect a brand name, iconic technology or device that’s out of date enough to be a museum piece and incorporate it into our digital world, from the iPod voice recorder shaped like a Lego brick to Writer, an online-only word processor that emulates the old green text/black screen look of dumb terminals.

In fact, technology’s moving so fast, comparatively recent memory now qualifies as a retro period as well. Think you’re mobile’s daggy? Go to retrobrick.com to buy the Motorola DynaTac 8000. It’s the first ever commercial handheld phone, costing USD$4,000 in 1983, taking 10 hours to charge and with enough memory for — count ’em — 30 phone numbers.

Technology that barely replaces a scrap of paper, weighs a hundred times more and costs a fortune? Now that’s cool.


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