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What's Cooler Than Being Cool? Being Cool and Old

Posted by Amanda Katz  October 17, 2012 05:52 PM

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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
- rollercoasters
- egg beaters
- hot air balloons
- diving bells
- dumbwaiters
- Velcro
- 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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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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