There was a time, many decades ago, when things worked. To be sure, they couldn’t let you talk to your daughter in Sydney for nothing, while looking at her live. Nor could they let us watch a soccer game in Brazil – in colour and digital sound on a screen four feet wide. There were no digital books, mobile phones,or personal computers. We didn’t have email, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Netbooks, Ipads, or multidimensional transponders. We still haven’t got the last one. But I live in hope.
But what transistor radios did was work. You turned a knob, and behold – Radio Luxembourg! Switch on the telly, small white dot, flashy thing, and bingo – ITV! If there was an electric storm, the telly carried on as if the bad weather might be on Mars. Not like Wussy satellite telly today: half a cloud on the horizon, and it crumbles into a million pointless pixcellations. In 2011, you need two remotes and an IQ of 155 to get the thing to function at all.
You might have hit the telly now and then to get the horizontal hold right, but you didn’t have to turn the set on its side to stop it overheating. Go into anyone’s living room these days, and every pc is on end, belting out enough heat to microwave a chicken.
The lavatory was a simple water-closet, its overhead flush unfailingly shipping the solids down into the sewer. It had just the one flush, but it flushed. Today’s duoflush loos break down within eighteen months. I’ve owned three of the buggers, and none of them worked beyond that period. The first Victorian house I bought in Brixton still had a working bog from 1870. For some reason after 2008, we all had to have oil-damped, slow-closing loo seats. They all slam shut like a mouth having a grand-mal fit after five months. Nobody knows how to fix them.
Long ago, everything worked in the same way. Every phone involved a dialling circle with numbers and letters in it. If you dialled three letters and four numbers, you got through. The voice said hello at the other end. It didn’t know who you might be, but it wasn’t a bordello in Saskatchewan. You didn’t have to press Finish or Confirm or Set or some sh*t just to get your alarm clock to function. The oven wasn’t a microwave, but if you turned it on, it cooked. Every last one of them cooked if you did that. They didn’t refuse to work because you’d set the temperature, time and rotisserie bollocks in an order out of alignment with the last piece of Korean crap you bought.
All those many years ago, we didn’t have dishwashers. On the other hand, we didn’t have cupboards full of cloudy glass marble towers that had once been tumblers either. OK, our tellies only broadcast two channels in black and white, but who wants 230 technicolor jewellery direct-sales pitches where the only thing to look at is necklaces and hands against a grey background? Even 1950s test cricket was better than that: at least then, we had Brian Johnson and Peter West giggling about cakes, and bowlers called Willie.
Above all, what things back then didn’t make you was dependent. Our landline phones are now almost all electrically driven. You can walk about using the bloody things, but soon after a power cut, you’ll be talking to yourself. A power cut these days cuts us off from the internet. The average £90 pc battery lasts nine months before it offers you 8 seconds of time off-mains. That leaves just the mobile android blackberry, and if there’s no signal, that’s yer lot. If you have a dongle thingy plugged into low altitude satellites, great. Otherwise, you might just as well be halfway up the Orinoco armed only with a cutting-edge App to protect you from that man-eating anaconda.
When we had a power-cut earlier this week, by 2.30 in the afternoon my wife was playing Patience like a woman possessed. I was reading the local Church magazine. The dogs were staring at blank screens wondering what it might all mean. The lady who runs our local newsagent cum convenience store tells me there was panic-buying of newspapers, including all the freesheets usually taken away as firelighters.
OK, call me Grumpy Old Man, but I have a point here. It seems to me there has been a victory of quantity over quality: fifty ways something might work triumphing over elegant, standard simplicity that always worked. The defeat of one knob to turn by the 150-page impenetrable user manual. Seven channels showing Come Dine With Me annihilating one channel featuring the roots of Nazism, something genuinely funny, and an expose of Sepp Blatter’s corrupt FIFA regime.
Technology today delivers less reliably, delivers more that is less, and often doesn’t deliver anything. Thinking like this isn’t grumpyism, it’s mature empiricism. If simplicity has been replaced by complexity, it’s retrogressive. And if variety has been replaced by all or nothing, then that too is a backward step. Ultimately, if we are all brought up to think that there is no alternative to the digital, the virtual, and the electronic, then boy, will we be easy to control.
It should be the duty of all parents from here on to show their kids how something involving no pictures, no games, no internet access and no electricity can be the most amazingly engaging, gripping and useful thing. Positive things emerging from that include imagining, writing, challenging the status quo, and thinking something at odds with what Media Studies master Des Platt asserted last week.
We are surrounded by gadgets that often don’t work in a technological sense, and usually add nothing socially. Fifty years ago, we knew what these things were for: to give us more leisure time, and lighten the load of a tough life. Today, they seem to be largely about being able to ask where people are, and send messages that could very probably wait until we get back to the office. Techno things now offer only instant reassurance, and what happened. They don’t question if that reassurance is justified, or why the events took place. And if that’s the case, then they do not represent any kind of progress at all.