By Leon Neyfakh
Apple enthusiast Jeff Porten has an interesting post at the TidBITS blog, in which he discusses the difference between technology that seems “cool” when it first comes out and technology that stays cool for years to come even after it's rendered obsolete. The post distills a talk given by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at a recent security conference, in which Tyson discussed a bunch of different aircraft from the past 60 years – including the Saturn V, a massive rocket; the Blackbird SR-71, the fastest plane ever made; and the Bell X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier – and asked himself why some of them seem dated and clunky while others retain their ineffable allure. There's some crackle to this question, primarily stemming from the fact that so much of the time coolness is nothing but novelty in disguise. A cool old thing is special, and it forces us to think more precisely about what "cool" really means.
According to Porten, Tyson’s theory is that “technology retains its coolness factor so long as it remains best-in-class,” which is to say: we stay delighted by stuff as long as no better version of it comes along. As Porten puts it, “If we had ever invented bigger rockets or faster aircraft, then we’d consider the Saturn V and Blackbird to be historical artifacts, much like the Wright Flyer.”
I like Tyson’s theory. It explains why old guitars still seem cool. Also pneumatic tubes, and arguably guns, though you have to be a certain kind of person to think those are cool in the first place. Other old things that are still really cool:
- player pianos
- egg beaters
- hot air balloons
- diving bells
- magnifying glasses
- water beds
The obvious question is what of today’s technology will still seem cool 50 years from now. This is hard to predict, at least if you believe Tyson. One thing that comes to mind is 3D Printers, which will become faster, certainly, but seem unlikely to be completely overhauled.
Leave your suggestions in the comments!
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.