Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Birth of the Uncool

I happened to be sitting near a radio tonight that was tuned to NPR's Marketplace, and caught an interview with Thomas Hayden, a blogger whose essay "Ixnay on the iPod: In Praise of Crap Technology" has been getting some attention. Appearing on the radio will probably help! The interviewer seemed a little baffled by Hayden's attitude: I mean, who wouldn't want all of the blessings that St. Steven Jobs brought to us, may he rest in peace and ascend to the right hand of Power?

The word "crap" is not well chosen, to the tell the truth. To me (and to judge by some of his commenters, I'm not alone), "crap" connotes stuff that doesn't work. But Hayden is celebrating low-end, dull- (as opposed to cutting-) edge technology that works just fine even if it doesn't have all the latest, greatest, and often non-functional features. He mentions his Coby MP3 player, the 1980 off-brand bike that he eventually passed along to his younger sister, and "the old pasta sauce jar with a fail-proof lid and the decency to let the coffee cool enough to be drinkable by the time I’m ready for it." This all sounds fine to me; not crap, just not cool. Coolness, I gathered from the eulogies for Steve Jobs, is the primary appeal of Apple products; not reliability, not features that actually work when you need them to, but slick design that marks the owner out as a person of taste.

What mainly got my attention in the interview, as opposed to the post, was Hayden's stress on another advantage to his cheap, uncool toys: he doesn't worry about breaking them as he would if they had cost him hundreds of dollars instead of twenty; he doesn't worry about someone stealing them; he doesn't worry about losing them.

This reminded me of a story from Armistead Maupin's More Tales of the City (Harper Perennial, 1994). The character Michael, nicknamed Mouse, shows his friend Mary Ann the cashmere sweater he got for $15 at a second-hand shop.
"A steal!" She fingered a sleeve. "It's almost new, Mouse."

"Not so fast." Michael lifted his arm to reveal a dime-sized hole in the sweater's elbow.

"You could patch it," Mary Ann suggested.

"Not on your life. That's what I'm talking about. I like that hole, Babycakes. It keeps me from worrying about my new cashmere sweater. I have the style, the feel, the luxury of cashmere without any fussing and fretting. It's already flawed, see, so I can relax and enjoy it. ... " [190].
I don't have a smartphone, but the no-contract cellphone I have gives me mobility and text messages; I'll think about upgrading when I actually want more. I don't have an iPod, but I'm thinking about getting a Coby. My bicycle cost less than $100, and I don't have a car. I still use an Amiga 2500 that must be twenty years old by now, though I did break down and buy a laptop five years ago when I realized that the Amiga would never be able to do the Internet stuff I wanted to do; but the laptop I bought was about five years old even then. I bought my TV in 2006, and I haven't gotten a digital converter for it; I use it almost exclusively for watching DVDs; I won't get a HD television until this one gives out. I love technology, I'm not a Luddite, but I also don't feel that it's my duty to keep Apple's profits high.

Another little story: one day I stopped by an acquaintance's stall in a local antique mall. She was eating Chinese takeout; I don't remember what food I had with me, but she teased me about it, saying that her food was cooler than mine. I teased her back haughtily: I don't worry about coolness, I just eat what I like. Her twenty-year-old son, who'd been watching our exchange, piped up then. "That's cool," he said.