History and Appliances: I Love the Gilded Age

Tags: Turkelectronics, a worry-free histo-tainment experience, that episode of The A-Team where Boy George played himself.

If you’re reading my colleague Bill Turkel’s routinely brilliant Digital History Hacks, you’ve already seen his recent posts on Luddism and history appliances . (And if you aren’t, why aren’t you? He won an award, you know.) Bill’s “history appliances” series starts like this:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. The stereo adjusts automatically, streaming Bob Marley, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce. LCD panels hanging on the wall switch to display Roberto Matta’s Jazz Bande and Elizabeth Murray’s Wave Painting. If you check your TV listings, you’ll find Mean Streets, Paper Moon, American Graffiti, The Sting, Last Tango in Paris … even Are You Being Served? In your newspaper you find stories about the cease-fire in Vietnam, about Watergate, about Skylab, about worldwide recession and OPEC and hostilities in the Middle East. If you want to read a novel instead, you might try Gravity’s Rainbow or Breakfast of Champions.

Sounds pretty swell, doesn’t it? And he and I have had some fun conversations about history appliances we might actually get constructed. But allow me to offer an alternate scenario:

Imagine wandering into your living room after a day of work. You sit down in your chair and turn a dial to 1973. Nothing happens.

You get up and fish around the couch for your remote controls. Once you find the nine individual remotes for your TV, PVR, set-top cable box, cable modem, stereo (no battery in that one, so you’ll have to turn it on manually), LCD wall panels, Turkelectronics “history hub,” and the two “universal” remotes that maintain a shaky peace among the other seven, you are eventually able to press their nine power buttons in the one correct sequence (out of 362,880 possible permutations) that will activate all of your interlinked appliances. Of course, none of these devices are ever actually “off”–just in “standby” mode, generating a soothing blanket of white noise and drawing 1,000 kilowatt hours per year.

Once the television finishes booting, you scroll through several convoluted menu screens past features you don’t want in order to set the date to 1973. The television gives you a 1-800 number you may call to order an upgrade. You forgot: everything before 1977 is bundled in the Platinum Package, and odd-numbered years are only available from the telephone broadband history content provider that competes (sort of) with your cable broadband history content provider. So be it: you set the date to 1986. You are asked for your credit card number in order to prevent identity theft and assure you and your family “a worry-free histo-tainment experience.” You provide it. Kenny Loggins begins streaming on the stereo.

You try to download a cool Keith Haring mural for your walls; you can get a lo-res version to appear on the LCD panels in your kitchen, but not in your living room. The DRM controls embedded in the image files don’t permit you to transfer visual images from room to room, and the micropayments for living room art can really add up. After all, you might invite more than six guests into that room, and according to the newly revised Digital Millenium Copyright Act, letting nonsubscribers view those images would be stealing. Not from Haring–he died in 1990–but from Disney, who (let’s say) bought up the digital rights to his work in 2012. Your friend Bill says he knows a Malaysian website where you can download pirated visual art, but you don’t want Disney to sue you like they did that kindergarten on your block, and besides, ABC News is reporting that copyright-infringing visuals can trigger massive seisures.

In your news reader, you find headlines about the Space Shuttle Challenger, National Hugging Day, and Geraldo’s plan to open Al Capone’s vault. Some of those don’t sound very significant, historically speaking, but your histo-content provider has an exclusive arrangement with USA Today. Clicking through on one of the headlines takes you to a site where you can buy 80s fashions, except that you cannot have them shipped to a non-U.S. address. Pop-up ads on your walls inform you that “Customers who enjoyed branded histo-product from 1986 also enjoyed Harry Potter and the Alchemist’s Eel.” Seven hundred miles away, a consumer data index logs your apparent fascination with Harry Potter and puts your address on the mailing list, twice, for a glossy 200-page catalog from Abercrombie and Fitch. You and your heirs receive eight such catalogs every year hereafter until the final extinction of Earth’s forests, twelve years after your death.

But that lies in the future, and your mind is on the past. Doing your best to ignore Kenny Loggins, you settle in to enjoy that episode of The A-Team where Boy George played himself. In accordance with current Canadian content legislation, one-third of the screen is obscured by a red maple leaf. Vive la difference! For all of these services you pay a billion-dollar corporation (one sheltered from the market and granted extraordinary privileges by the government) $138 a month.

It could be worse, you think. At least you know how to work all this stuff. Your parents don’t know how to program their history hub, so they’re stuck listening to John Philip Sousa marches and watching VH1’s I Love The Gilded Age as their digital display flashes “1900! 1900! 1900!”

Part Two: Why this isn’t (just) crotchety stick-in-muddery. When Luddism is necessary. Why, despite all this, I actually agree with Bill.


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  5. This is an interesting article. History within the palm of your hands is an idea that promises a lot of things. However, I believe that the subjective nature of history could put a halt into all of this since it will cause further complexity.

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