Now that we don't need books...
December 5, 2010 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Now that we don't need books...objects or ideas that remain with us after their primary utilitarian function has passed.

I was at a book conference last month, where one of the speakers offhand mentioned "now that we don't need books..." This got me thinking, now that we don't need books, what does that mean for the book.

What I'm really asking though, what are other objects, ideas, etc. that remained with us even after they became outdated, but took on a different meaning or value, after their primary function was done with.

Examples that came to mind initially—vinyl records, candles, painting, the typewriter, bicycles, film, letterpress, newspapers. We don't necessarily need these, we've in theory come up with "better" technologies, but they remain part of our lives.

I hope this makes sense.

posted by Sreiny to Technology (33 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
CDs, DVDs, incandescent bulbs, ....
posted by dfriedman at 5:37 PM on December 5, 2010

Your premise is a functional one (i.e., you explain the presence of items by a putative need for them). This is accurate in some cases, not in others. Many, many items remain past their usefulness. See discussions of path dependence.
posted by proj at 5:42 PM on December 5, 2010

Garter belts, milk bottles, buggy whips.
posted by lhall at 5:46 PM on December 5, 2010

Letters generally, but especially personal correspondence. So nice to receive, so easily replaced by e-mail, facebook, et al.

I think you could think of a lot in the fashion world -- velcro and zippers and snaps are generally superior clothing fasteners to buttons (and hooks and eyes, and frogs and knots, etc.), but buttons just LOOK nice sometimes. I was just pondering this one while buttoning my 18-month-old into a Christmas dress shirt instead of snapping a usual onesie or zipping footie PJs. Lots of unnecessarily old-fashioned techniques in clothing construction, mostly because we like the look.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:48 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I for one still listen to the radio, use an air popper for my popcorn, and damnit if I don't prefer a real coffee maker to a Keurig.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:54 PM on December 5, 2010

I still use and add to my address book I bought sometime in the late 80s.
posted by JanetLand at 6:03 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Perhaps tangential, but I think it's interesting how it's not just supposedly outdated objects themselves that persist, but also the traces of obsolete (or semi-obsolete) objects that remain as symbols for the very objects/technology that have replaced them.

For example: the typical symbol for email is an envelope. Phones are often still symbolized by the handset of a land-line phone, even when its specifically a cell phone being signified. The sound cue for a sudden "WTF?" moment is often a needle scratching across a vinyl record.
posted by scody at 6:06 PM on December 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

Pretty much everyone still says they "dial a phone," even though there aren't rotary phone dials anymore. And you still hear audible clicks to indicate a phone hanging up on movies and TV (often followed by a dial tone), even though there is no sound when a cell phone disconnects.
posted by Mchelly at 6:12 PM on December 5, 2010

This question reminded me of something I witnessed a couple of years ago: A teenaged girl had just gotten out of her mother's (or other adult woman's) car, and was about to head off when she stopped and started to make this bizarre gesture at the driver - as if she was repeatedly pushing the air downwards. The mom looked at her blankly, and then - aha - opened the window.

I am afraid we have officially reached the point where the universal turning your wrist in a circle gesture to indicate rolling down a window is no more. And we are the poorer for it.
posted by Mchelly at 6:16 PM on December 5, 2010 [14 favorites]

The verb "dial" is still around, long after we've stopping manipulating circular disks to enter phone numbers.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:38 PM on December 5, 2010

Nipples on men.
Sex after fertility.
Wine corks.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:00 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

People used to keep gardens because they needed food to survive, and going to the market to buy food grown by others was both expensive and a lot more involved than just hopping in one's car. Nowadays, people keep gardens as a hobby—because they enjoy being outdoors, like the taste of garden-fresh vegetables, find a sense of accomplishment in it, etc.

Hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting—and all the accoutrements thereof—are similar. These activities used to be completely practical endeavors, done out of necessity. Nowadays, they're recreation. (One can argue that there's been an element of sport to them—especially hunting—for some time. The line isn't hard and absolute. But they're clearly much less practical, and much more purely recreational, than they used to be.)

Lots of things that fall under the general category of pseudoscience. People used to believe in earnest that fantastic creatures were real, the stars were angel-hung lanterns, etc. Nowadays, most people don't believe such things, but the ideas are still very much a part of our cultural vocabulary. They were once understood as literal explanations for things, and now they play a more symbolic role.

Lots of idioms. English is full of idioms whose origin and literal meaning have been long forgotten to everyone except linguists, which are nonetheless widely used and understood. There are even English words which survive solely as part of one specific idiom, and are never used outside of that context. I can't think of examples at the moment (sorry, I'm tired), but I'm sure you know the kind of thing I mean. Googling for "English idioms" and the like should turn up plenty.

The punt and the cork in a bottle of wine. No one's sure exactly what the punt was originally for, but the most plausible hypothesis I've heard is that it's supposed to catch the sediment that collects in the bottle. Nowadays, most wines don't contain significant amounts of sediment. As for the cork: synthetic materials are technically superior to real cork, because they're less likely to spoil the wine—and many winemakers have adopted synthetic corks, or even screw-tops. Still, the natural cork is so laden with cultural and ritual meaning that people just can't quite let go of it. It was once used for purely practical reasons (it was the best material available for the purpose), and now it's used for almost purely symbolic ones (better materials are available, but natural cork connects the wine with centuries of tradition and culture).

In the vein of scody's comment, an image of a floppy disk is still used to mean "save", even though most computers these days don't have floppies, and there are people alive today who may never have seen one.

Cooking and food preparation, even. In the dark mists of prehistory, everyone did it, and they did it of necessity. Later, the wealthy paid the poor to cook for them. Today, many of the wealthiest cook for fun—and the most labor-intensive, from-scratch procedures earn the best foodie bragging rights. (Compare to gardening/camping/etc., above.)

Lastly: this book is totally awesome. Radical, even.

Sorry if these are less concrete / more abstract than what you were looking for.
posted by ixohoxi at 7:07 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fax machines should not exist anymore, but they do.
posted by Mid at 7:08 PM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

People used to keep gardens because they needed food to survive, and going to the market to buy food grown by others was both expensive and a lot more involved than just hopping in one's car. Nowadays, people keep gardens as a hobby—because they enjoy being outdoors, like the taste of garden-fresh vegetables, find a sense of accomplishment in it, etc.

Sewing, knitting, soap- and- candlemaking, and some blacksmithing apply as well. I'm sure there are many crafts, but this is a little afield from the question.

Amateur radio is another like the fax.
posted by jgirl at 7:17 PM on December 5, 2010

Regarding idioms, I just now finished rereading A Night to Remember, which reminded me that "blowing off steam" is an idiom with an origin most people alive today -- not all -- are not aware of. And, dare I say it, "stand to measure" or "take his measure." ;-)

In general, horses are now more of a companion animal than a work animal. And even on ranches with one or two cowboys (plus the owners) riding cattle, the cows get trucked rather than ridden to new pasture.
posted by jgirl at 7:25 PM on December 5, 2010

Candles. Scented, non-scented.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:01 PM on December 5, 2010

Paper calendars and appointment books.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:27 PM on December 5, 2010

Human sexual size dimorphism.
Salt-curing, pickling, brining, smoking, drying, canning, making jellies and jams.
posted by gingerest at 8:59 PM on December 5, 2010

Riding horses, kayaks, xc skiing, fishing. Sundials. Knitting, crochet, spinning etc. Soap making, glassblowing. Pretty much anything that is a sport or craft/hobby now.
posted by BoscosMom at 11:22 PM on December 5, 2010

Clockwise and also counterclockwise?
posted by Fortnight Bender at 11:47 PM on December 5, 2010

The language used to describe objects often survives long after they are gone - eg the "dial" example above. A similar one is the use of Fleet Street to describe the English press, decades after the last newspaper left Fleet Street and moved out to other parts of London. I suspect tabloid and broadsheet will live on a similar way after they have stopped describing the size of an actual piece of paper.
posted by greycap at 4:02 AM on December 6, 2010

Looking around my home, I see:

* my favorite hand-crank eggbeater (used every few days)
* a handmade hooked rug (a hobby)
* analog clocks
* a wood stove
* an air popper for popcorn
* a knitting mushroom (homemade)
* home canned salsa/red sauce, jelly, pizza sauce; home raised/cured/smoked bacon; plus all of the canning, drying and smoking gear
* Scrabble board
* Books and books and books
* cast-iron pans
* magazines
* hand-crank grain grinder
*hand-crank pasta roller

...and so on. Lots of crank in there, no?

I have made an effort to purge my home of plastic and to surround myself with wood, metal, textiles and stone because that's what I connect with. My kids despair, and we have had a compromise on Legos, but I'm trying to show them that endurance, simplicity, connection to the human hand--to the natural world--to effort-- count for a great deal, still. The *things* are obsolete and uneconomical, but the values they convey still stand.

And finally, a favorite quotation from Bruce Sterling's "Tomorrow Now": "Anywhere that shopping looks like art and philosophy, there the lonely ghost of John Ruskin moves among us, giving his aching heart to the rough-hewn beams, the weathered slates--the lumpy wooden kid toys, the Guatemalan jackets, the bamboo wind chimes--to all things organic, warm, rustic, honest, sincere, and, above all, to things that are committed and faithful."

Yes. That.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:52 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

First: thanks Sreiny, what a great question! I've been thinking about this in relation to the romantic notion of traditional /artisanal / old-timey production of food and products that seems to be in fashion these days. High end furniture designers who like to have their products produced by crafts people using materials produced the traditional way. Just to be 'authentic'. Small farm setups that produce their crops the same way it happened generations ago. I just wondered why I kept being attracted to this, while it can be produced on a larger, industrial scale for substantially less money. (I know, I know...) Not that this happens very often, it's just possible. I guess I'm a traditional romantic.

The other thing I'm thinking of was: some knowledge can become redundant, but later it can become useful again. The clearest example for me: Romans were able to build domes. In the Middle Ages they lost the knowledge to actually build domes, because they had no use for it. During the Renaissance, they either rediscovered the original knowledge or they reconstructed the technology. [I learned this from my high school history teacher, never found a source for this story and I can't find it on renaissance Snopes.]

Another angle: knowledge that become redundant but become useful in another field. I once heard a lecture by typographer Gerard Unger. He did one of the first big projects designing type for computer screens at the time you only had the choice between black and white, green and amber. He couldn't find out the right formulas to calculate the angles and slopes etc. for the screens that were basically a very crude grid.
His wife is a renowned historian in the field of textiles. One day he went through her library and found a volume on the designing of type for tapestries that dated from the 18th century, containing examples and formulas. Because this embroidery was also grid based, he could apply the same calculations to design his type for the screen.
posted by ouke at 5:17 AM on December 6, 2010

I thought of a few more idioms as I was dozing off, though now I can't remember half of them ... it's not physically possible to "cut and paste" on a computer, of course. "Scrolling" on a computer screen is another one. I read a book ages and ages ago about the remarkable plasticity of English metaphorical language to describe new and changing functions; computer language is a great example of that.

Also on the technology front, I think what Apple and Star Trek have in common is that both understand a computer has to APPEAR to be doing something, even when that's not necessary for function (or there is no function and it's just Hollywood magic!). So you've got blinky lights and the computer voice on Star Trek; Apple's iPods have the "click wheel" that doesn't need to click. Lots of digital cameras "click" when they snap. Haptic feedback too. These sounds (and other things) are clearly not necessary but improve the user experience by providing feedback to actions or the comfort of the familiar. It's not EXACTLY the same thing, but I think it's in the same vein.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:57 AM on December 6, 2010

To generalize, lots of sports and hobbies are obsolete but formerly useful skills that linger as entertainment. Sports examples: archery, sailing, horseback riding. Hobby examples: hand knitting, calligraphy, woodworking (who needs wooden bowls and spoons in the Age of Plastics?), quilting (go buy a blanket already).
posted by Quietgal at 9:28 AM on December 6, 2010

I'm not convinced that we no longer need books. Many studies of how the brain reads on different formats suggests that we may need books more than ever.
posted by ikahime at 11:39 AM on December 6, 2010

Fax machines should not exist anymore, but they do.

Fax machines still have a function - instantaneous document transfer with confirmation of reciept. Email is les reliable. That's why people in my industry (legal/government) still use them.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:37 PM on December 6, 2010

Fountain pens.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:40 PM on December 6, 2010

Wood stoves anf fireplaces.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:41 PM on December 6, 2010

Sorry, 'and' fireplaces.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:41 PM on December 6, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks all, this is such a great list that I would not have thought of. Male nipples, fireplaces, horses, most hobbies and sport, gardens, all of those idioms, among others, so many great examples in here.

I'm glad this didn't turn into a debate on the need for books, because, as this collection of examples show, objects that have a deeper cultural significance retain value to us, and will not go away. Books have a pretty good record, and will stick around in one form or another. It's all going to work out in the end, folks! Thanks again.
posted by Sreiny at 7:51 PM on December 6, 2010

They don't need to blow smoke at the Vatican during a papal election, but they still do.
posted by jgirl at 1:14 PM on December 11, 2010

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