ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

New and Old —

Yesterday’s mention of Super Paper Mario reminds me of a little low-rumbling theme I’ve encountered in the past decade or so, with regards to people hearing I do things like buy the Nintendo Wii or dump cash into an iPod or fuck around with Twitter and the like. Apparently it can be jarring to think of a “historian” jumping into the melee of the newest of the new, the Current Hotness, the Bleeding Edge, or the latest bits of fashion that spray through the internet and popular culture. Not jarring to everyone, mind you, or even a lot of people, but a vocal tad.

It actually works in two vectors: people who are surprised I like “new” stuff when they normally hear of my speeches on “old” stuff, and people who really dig “old” stuff who consider me a touchstone for disparaging “new” stuff, unaware that the “new” stuff is three feet away from me in my office.

I don’t dislike new things. In fact, I really like them a lot. I only have issues or raise complaints when new things act like they’re the first of their kind, or when I see people with agendas, either money or power, totally ignore what has come before in an attempt to sway opinions to a recent controversy. This isn’t to say that everything old did it right… But by acting like nothing ever happened before, you throw out a chance to learn why something was done the way it was, and later obsoleted or brought back into use under a new name.

I don’t have a desire to “go back” to a previous time, to eschew the way things currently are and get into some sort of time machine. That said, I appreciate good solid retroactive design – if I see someone take a 1970s design and work it into a modern piece of software, I get warm and happy. it just doesn’t mean I wish I was 5 again.

I have had to sit in a lot of locations and events, in person, and have the very nice, very cool person explain to me how every single thing in the modern world is fucked up, and things should be as it used to be. I am nodded to because I am of the brotherhood of people who acknowledge there even was a past. It wouldn’t help the conversation for me to praise the present and its many superior aspects to the past being aggrandized in retrospect. I now do stuff in 5 minutes that used to be a week-long drudgery, leaving me to do more stuff in a single day than I ever could have dreamed I’d find time for in a teenage summer.

I appreciate the compliment by being talked to this way; I just don’t think we’re always on the same page about where this history stands in context and relevance to one’s daily routine.

On the flip side, I have gotten my retrotechnology interests used against me in debate. I recall one particularly juicy episode where I insulted a weblogging librarian about her self-aggrandization of spreading the breaking news about the existence of RSS and weblogs, and got back a faceful of “go back to your textfiles”. Take that, Jason! (Luckily, the textfiles are absorbent and have dried my tears.) Along that line of thinking, I do see the occasional reference to the information on being “old” and “out of date”; charges I will happily cop to! The articles on crossbar telephone switching systems are struggling quite mightily to stay relevant.

But the core fact is this: when I collected a lot of my stuff, especially the information, it was brand new, right off the keyboard of a kid down the block or across the state. I was keeping on top of the latest working BBS numbers, the coolest software I could get my hands on, and the advertising for the hottest new computer products. I was right there in the body press of the best and the newest; I just couldn’t afford a lot of it, and had to settle for playing with it down at the local store. The difference is that I kept the stuff, just like I keep a lot of modern stuff, and I held onto it until people missed it. Or had forgotten about it. Or even had the good sense to be born since it happened. History is someone else’s present, after all.

But I’m still not switching to Vista.

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  1. Lee Begg says:

    Everything was new once…

  2. mgroves says:

    For the longest time, I was convinced that Windows was the worst thing to happen to computers, and that DOS was where it was at. I think I finally figured out how silly that was somewhere around Windows 98.

    I’m not sure why I was so stubborn, but I think that like the curmudgeons you mentioned, I wanted to hold on to the past.

  3. Shii says:

    Vista is the epitome of “new = flashy and useless”. The box even comes with fins.