I think there is a misunderstanding about cutting edge technology of the past: we assume that the people back then didn’t notice the flaws that are so obvious to us now. We look at old photographs, television programmes and magazines and our reaction is to laugh at how naive everyone looks as they ooh and aah over some primitive gadget as though it is technology from another planet. But the thing is, I am now approaching an age where it is the years of my childhood (the 1970s) that are receiving this scrutiny, and I can tell you that we really weren’t as naive as we looked!
Technology has always aspired to be like science fiction, but the exterior casing has often been just a thin veneer barely concealing the workings within. The whole has almost always been let down by the most mundane of practical details. Sometimes these were unavoidable limitations of the technology at the time, but as often as not they were manufacturers’ attempts to make the product as cheap as possible – and going too far. In some cases, manufacturers identified a component that they thought was too expensive and substituted a ‘token’ replacement that sort-of looked like the original but simply didn’t work. They might just as well have not bothered, and instructed the customer to turn their calculator on and off by removing and replacing the batteries – it would sure as hell have worked better than the bit of springy oxidised metal attached to the calculator case with a splodge of molten plastic ‘rivet’ which invariably lost contact mid-calculation.
Looking back, I can remember the following gadgets that revealed glimpses behind the ‘magic’ which rather spoiled the whole thing.
Hacker FM valve radio in the 1960s – FM was a better replacement for AM: much higher quality and less affected by interference from 1960s vacuum cleaners (see later!). What a shame that so much as breathing on the volume control triggered a veritable thunderstorm of rumbling and crackling from its large internal speaker.
TV – our common or garden television of the time was black and white and despite a stylish appearance, you could not miss the smell of hot dust (probably asbestos!) that emanated from the vents in the pressed fibre rear cover. The worst part was a vicious rotary channel selector that took great effort to operate and hurt your fingers with sharp corners. Like the valve radio, it needed ‘burnishing’ upon every operation to avoid a noisy picture, and the ‘set’ required frequent banging on the sides with a clenched fist.
Vacuum cleaner – at this time the housewives of Britain were probably still in the first bloom of romance with gadgets such as this. But to a child the vacuum cleaner was terrifying: unbelievably noisy, with a strange cloth bag that inflated as though alive. And the worst thing of all: when in operation anywhere in the house, the TV picture was obliterated under a blizzard of noise. Also, ‘the belt’ needed frequent replacement, so everyone was familiar with the mechanism that coupled the motor to the rotary brush, no matter how slick the styling on the outside.
Cassette recorder – into the 1970s, technology became smaller and cheaper. But still the user was forced to confront what lay behind the attractive (or not) exterior. Readers of a certain age are bound to be familiar with those devices that featured wafer thin ‘brushed aluminium’ fascias and foul slider controls. The sliders were particularly nasty, and were cheap plastic substitutes for the slider controls found on professional products. To make them feel better, they were liberally gunked with grease that migrated onto the fascia, attracted dust and grit and caused the knob to loosen and fall off. The fascia, a substitute for a brushed aluminium panel was not much thicker than foil and was glued down onto the flimsy plastic chassis. Inevitably at some point, the aluminium began to peel off at the corners. The screen printing on the surface wore off easily. This form of exterior styling was a ‘box ticking exercise’ and nothing more. The manufacturer knew it was an abomination, and they knew that the customer knew it was an abomination.
In many cases, the exterior casing was just a slight, symbolic smartening up of a primitive technology that was plainly still on display. The little digital counters in tape recorders comprised cylinders with digits printed on them that engaged with a worm gear, and a button was provided to zero the counter in a rather abrupt fashion. Despite hiding them behind the front panel with a small window to see the digits through, it was always completely obvious what was going on, so although it was symbolic of a ‘digital display’ the user was burdened with knowing exactly how it worked. The heater controls in cars were in a similar vein: sliders that could sophisticatedly blend hot and cold air, and adjust airflow, but unfortunately connected the user directly with the mechanism beneath. You felt and heard the friction of flaps opening and closing, and the clicking of the three position switch that purported to give you infinitely variable control.
It wasn’t just consumer gadgetry that revealed its inner workings. Viewers of classic films will be familiar with the way you always knew when a fade was coming: there was maybe a click on the the soundtrack, and then the image became grainier and dustier just before the fade. It was as though the fade itself was symbolic, and the practical details of how it looked were secondary. The 1970s were also the heyday of ‘chromakey’ the miraculous television technology that enabled an actor or presenter to sit in front of a blue background and find themself flying, or about to be eaten by a giant ant. But even as a sub-10 year old, it never ‘fooled’ me. It was, again, a symbolic technological miracle where the actor/presenter had a rough blue halo around them that always gave the game away, even if the lighting and colours were matched reasonably well (which they most often weren’t).
Computers came onto the scene, and in terms of concealing their innner workings, nothing changed! In fact they were almost comical in the way the user was connected directly with the underlying gubbins – ‘clunky’ doesn’t begin to describe it. Operating systems became more sophisticated, the hardware became less ugly, and so on, but for a long time this looked like the same symbolic tarting up of pretty raw technology.
But maybe, just maybe, technology is now finally delivering what it always promised.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick gave us a vision of technology that actually did conceal its inner workings. We had video screens and displays that were flat and had rounded corners, were flicker-free, and had ‘perfect’ text and graphics. In contrast in Alien ten years later, the highest tech of the future comprised evacuated glass tubes with screens that weren’t even flat, and raster scanned displays. The Kubrick vision is, without doubt, here, and Alien now looks out of date. But we are beyond the 2001 vision, because we have mobile devices with those same perfect displays, which are finally realising the idea of completely seamless technology.
Who, just a few years ago, would have predicted that the average person would be able to carry around a device that could not only direct them to their nearest fast food outlet, but could do it without an external antenna and high-capacity battery pack? Sure the basic technology existed for many years but, like RDS radio, when engineers are in charge of developing a technology, the results are often clunky and ‘arcane’. The obvious people to credit for overcoming this are Apple, but I think they were accelerating a trend in ‘design’ that had started already.
… to be continued