Saturday, August 27, 2011

Living the Incandescent Life


I enjoy the march of technology as much as the next person.  That doesn't mean, however, that when some treasured object is obsoleted, I don’t experience a pang of regret or nostalgia.

For example, I love my scheduling software, but I also miss the New Year’s Day ritual of sitting down with my old Day-Timer and manually moving lists, birthdays and important phone numbers from the old beat-up book to the pristine new.  It was a right-of-passage into the new year.  Now, everything I do follows me magically, whether I ask it to or not.

I love my iPhone, too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss the clunky, black rotary phone from Ma Bell that was a fixture of my youth.  Maybe it was because it never dropped a call, or because it only took five numbers to reach a friend.  (You could skip the “Pennsylvania” and just dial the “six five oh oh oh.”)  Maybe, too, it helped build community, the old-fashioned kind where we family members had to negotiate for its use—a single point of electronic entry into our home--and certainly not tie-up the line if my sister’s boyfriend was trying to call.  (It was also possible for younger  brothers to eavesdrop from the upstairs phone in my parent’s room, which we never, ever did, of course.)

In fact, the very presence of a traditional black Bell phone—Model 500, placed in virtually every North American home from 1949 to 1984--is one way to positively date movies and old TV shows.  Another is the existence of a computer on a desk, or the click-clack of a typing pool.  And, to the extent a hat is technology, if gents are wearing those in movies or on TV ("Just the facts, m'am"), that’s a quick dating technique as well.

All of these items are immediately and powerfully evocative of the past if you are, as they say, of a certain age.

I’ve been reminded recently that one of the cherished technologies of the last 130 years, the incandescent bulb, is on the way out.  New regulations governing lightbulb efficiency take effect in the United State this January.  100-watt bulbs are effectively banned in 2012, with lesser lights to follow.  LED lighting appears to have the pole position in the race to replace incandescence.  

This, my friends, is the untimely death of one of the great technologies of all time.  To this day—remembering Edison invented it in 1879--there are still people at my work (and yours) who bring incandescent lamps for their desks, just so they never have to suffer under florescent lights.

Have you seen a home decorated at Christmas with LEDs?  Ouch.

I know scientists are working on LED replacement lights designed to look the same as incandescents, but I already know I’m going to be able to tell the difference.  A world that has been framed in a particular light for five generations, and certainly all of my life, will soon disappear. 

Like the black rotary Bell, we will be able to immediately place a movie or TV show by the quality of light that’s cast over an actor's face.  There will never be anything like the incandescent bulb. 

You might be able to get a fish to swim in lemonade for a while, but don’t add insult to injury by telling him it’s the same as a mountain stream.

Effective this weekend, then, I’m becoming a hoarder.  I’ve cleaned out a spot in the basement. The guy at the TrueValue hardware story is going to get to know me as Mr.-buys-four-packs-of-100-watt-bulbs-every-time-he-visits.

I may be able to adapt to the way I schedule my calendar and “dial” my phone, but I’m not losing my sense of the way the world looks.   You’ll be feeling the same way, too, when you’re searching for a real 100-watt bulb in 2019.  I’ll be the guy on ebay selling them. Think Fisk and Gould and the gold market.  De Beers and diamonds.  The Hunt brothers and silver.

But, since I like you, I’ll give you a deal.  Promise.