Everything new is old again

I was wondering why I got a bunch of Retropod mail today. Turns out I made the Make blog today, courtesy of Philip Torrone. What’s up, PT?

Also on the Make blog, I saw that Fortune had published an article titled “The Amazing Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Economy“, in which Daniel Roth talks about all the hobbyist hardware hackers and just simple putter-ers out there who are putting stuff together for fun. He mentioned one of my favorite essays, EB White’s 1936 New Yorker article “Farewell, My Lovely”, about the shiny new Model T Ford, its mysteries and deficiencies, its quirks and the community of, well… hackers and putter-ers that would bolt on accessories, frown at the wiring, and generally try to own and inhabit this cool new technology.

I love these articles — the (for want of a better term) “Everything new is old again” genre — in which ideas and issues we think of as contemporary reveal themselves as reincarnations of something else. Which is not meant to trivialize them. Or explain them, or anything. Though I was in a socialist mood, I guess, when I blogged in 2001 about the 1910 Tom Swift books:

“…It also goes to show you how “coolness” changes depending on what is new and unfamiliar — and what can only be afforded by the upper classes. Cars, motor-cycles, and motorboats are new and rare in Tom’s time. So new, in fact, that gasoline is stil spelled “gasolene.” His mastery of these expensive gasolene-powered toys wins him respect, adoration, and (believe it or not) lucrative government submarine contracts! Tom is worshipped as a hero in these books because he can unstick a floater valve in the carburetor of his motorboat, because he can jury-rig an ignition wire from a bit of cattle fencing, and because he can replace a cracked cylinder head in less than two hours. Where would this get him today? A mullet and a front-row seat at the WWF smackdown, that’s where!”

Anyhow, here are my favorites from the “everything new is old again” genre:

  • Ancient Greece: The semi-famous “These damn kids today!” quote commonly attributed to Socrates turns out to be spurious, though there’s a nice one by Hesiod at the end to use instead.
  • 1882: Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain. The history of the riverboat pilot — an occupation requiring plenty of special skills that then vanished almost overnight in a crippling recesssion — was pretty damn relevant reading in 2000.
  • 1890s: Mavis Beacon used to have a really wonderful economic history of the typewriter, when this new machine promised to let one person do the work of ten printers’ devils, when they cost about ten grand in adjusted dollars, and when people who had mastered the black art of “touch typing” could command the equivalent of a princely ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS AN HOUR. This article was an eerie read in 1999, when HTML coders were carried around in sedan chairs and brushed their chin beards with golden combs (still looking for the link).
  • 1901: A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls, by G.K. Chesterton: Chesterton, a wonderful populist philosopher, responds to the Victorian criticism that “you’ll rot your brain with that reading stuff!” Very apropos of Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book Everything Bad is Good For You.
  • 1910: Plenty more metalshop-worship by Tom Swift authorVictor Appleton. The days when jumping a battery was a dashing act, requiring special clothes!
  • 1936: Farewell, My Lovely, by E.B. White: when casemodding meant dropping a camphor ball in the gas tank and overclocking the under-seat ignition coil. Also, listening to E.B. White lament the old-style clutch is like reading a Jakob Nielsen website usability screed: “Letting in a clutch is a negative, hesitant motion, depending on delicate nervous control; pushing down the Ford pedal was a simple, country motion – an expansive act, which came as natural as kicking an old door to make it budge.” Ha!

I’m sure that there are many more, and I’d love to hear about them!


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