Time, Memory, And 39,000 Objects
The memories of punch card sorters and huge of reels of magnetic tape storage come flooding back, as well as the dizzying arms race of bytes, kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes, and terabytes of our own day. The promise of a brighter future was a numinous nimbus around each in their time, a world of exciting novelty and possibility gradually merging into the commonplace and mundane and, eventually, into the old-fashioned and technologically obsolete. They have all left us as bored and as puzzled as before, the novelty gone, the possibility circumscribed by reality: cookies, Trojan horses, viruses, spam, worms and gradually slowing running times on overloaded sections of the World Wide Wait.
But the machines themselves are still amazing, if you think long enough to let yourself be amazed by them again. Somewhere deep in the kinesthetic memory of my fingers is the feeling of pounding the keys of an old Royal Standard Manual Typewriter (you had to have a touch like a jackhammer), somewhere deep in my olfactory memory is the slightly sour and rancid smell of typewriter white out, and somewhere deep in my visual and tactile memories are the smeary letters and furry texture of blurred carbon copies of important documents.
They are all washed away like last year's silt in the river, headed slowly into the past to be eventually deposited in the growing Mississippi Delta beyond living memory of any one of us. The solid and comforting eye high wooden cases, drawers to the ready, curved brass pulls gleaming or soft with the patina of the fingers of thousands of patrons, full of neatly typed file cards punched with single holes in the bottom edge, and threaded on sturdy brass rods--all gone.
The library card catalogs even had their own distinctive smell, an amalgam of tarnishing brass, drying unvarnished wood on the inside of the case, and the faint sour, musty odor of foxing and sulfideing of the aging cardstock.
All of these are now sopped up into the anonymous oblong boxes with the slots in front. They are manipulated by the slightly unlevel and aggravatingly spongy plastic keyboards, rocking diagonally with each letter typed, not enough to interfere with your typing speed, but just enough to be a faintly irritating nuisance under your finger tips, like a subthreshold itch, and the equally irritating drag of the mouse. (What a wonder the mouse was when Apple first invented it and the words "user friendly" to go along with it!)
And they are, finally, displayed on the equally ubiquitous and anonymous color videcon tube in the automobile engine compartment with the single big round foot and the warm air rising from the vent holes--the same basic tube, amazingly, on which I saw my first gaudy Pasadena Rose Parade, on the first color television on my block, owned by the TV repairman who lived down the street, back in the middle of the 20th Century.
Some technologies reach a plateau of functionality that requires a complete revolution to dislodge. The old manual typewriters, with real hard rubber feet and enough mass never to rock when placed on a good level surface, were that way from the days of Theodore Roosevelt to slightly beyond my high school years.
But we should perhaps think about our boxes with slots a little more closely. They do so much, yet are so anonymous, ubiquitous, and surrounded these days with a faint feeling of technological obsolescence before we can even get the Styrofoam out of the cardboard box and the machines out of the Styrofoam and plugged in.
Plugged in. That's what we all are, wired to each other on the Web, on the company intranet, or on the fileserver. But the truly reflective person, I think, might just ask what it really is we're plugged into.
The reflective person just might ask that. After all, what does your PC smell like?