The Zen of old technologies

Every now and then, I’m reminded about some sort of old way of doing things. Often I am surprised to realize that the old way was both efficient and elegant. Maybe the elegance is there in the new way, but it will take another, later generation to see it.

Take writing, for instance. Almost everything I write is done on computer, and it has been for years. But a month or so ago I happened across one of my favorite old fountain pens. I cleaned the dried ink out of it and refilled it, after finding an old bottle of ink. Something about the nearly forgotten scratch of the nib moving across paper revived some little spring of creativity that had nearly dried up in me, and I found myself waxing poetic in the pages of my old journal. I thought of things that would never occurred to me sitting in front of my laptop.

The same thing happened with photography. On a whim, I dug out my old 35mm camera and bought batteries and film for it. Something about the feel of that old friend – along with the memory that I had a limited number of pictures on the roll of film, slowed me down and made me think about each picture I took. Even though the camera has automatic exposure controls, I switched to “manual” and took my time setting up and taking each shot. Having no ability to preview and retake the picture forced me to concentrate on how what I saw in the viewfinder would translate to film.

In both cases, the old technologies are not as fast as the new ones, but in retrospect I can see efficiency in how they work. Digital photography lets the photographer click off shot after shot without much thought, especially with automatic exposure control. But the quality of each shot, because each shot is less important, tends to suffer. You can always delete nine of ten photos and fix the tenth in Photoshop.

Writing is much the same. It takes more effort to drag a pen across the paper, and changes are more difficult, at least if you want a perfect draft. And the self-correcting pen was a concept that never really caught on.

Our “more efficient” technologies allow us to make mistakes faster than we could before, and they make the mistakes less bothersome. As a result, we tend to click away with barely a thought about the results. We easily become promiscuous writers and photographers, rather than dedicated, thoughtful ones.

It’s always been so, I guess. Recall that when Samuel Morse first connected Baltimore and Washington with telegraph wires, a wag wondered whether the ability to send instantaneous messages at long distances would yield anything worth communicating.

Now I certainly don’t advocate rejecting new technologies, nor do I expect to return full time to pen and film myself. For one thing, digital media are much easier and cheaper to communicate to others. If I want to share a photo I shot on my 35 mm camera, for instance, I have to scan it to create a digital file. It’s another step and an additional level of complexity. Not to mention that film and development costs can mount up quickly.

But it is valuable to remind yourself once in awhile that the old technologies had–and still have–merits of their own. I, for one, have discovered my digital photography has improved since I dug out my old equipment and relearned to slow down and think before clicking the shutter.


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