Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Past

Nostalgia is not my usual state of mind. And yet the other night I was pondering over some icons that are vanishing in our new digital world. Take the telephone box. I was born in the UK and grew up with the classic red phone box. To me they will always be Dr Who’s mysterious gateway to the past, the present and the future. In the US, Clark Kent of course used a phone box for his transformation to Superman. Then there are the more personal experiences. The intimacy of being shut inside a telephone box talking to someone you love - the weather and other phone users beating on the door.

Today the phone box is battling with irrelevance. Contemporary Dr Who’s and Supermen make other arrangements and all lovers have cell phones. Yes, cell phones are pushing phone boxes into history. In the UK, there are apparently still 64,000 of them but no one uses them much and most are unprofitable.

A few years ago, there was a flurry of interest in payphones that did more. You know the kind of stuff – go on the Web, get tourist information, etc. The problem? Cell phones can do all this and sit in your pocket. So the phone box as a symbol of connection is being hollowed out and icons without substance don’t survive.

The same digital transformation is ushering the postcard to the same fate. Still with us but their vitality is slipping away. Sending your own personal images by email or cell phone is so much more intimate. How can a picture printed on cardboard compete with a sisomo sound clip via YouTube? It can’t. And so it goes. I’m also told that on February 17, 2009 those icons of the television age, the roof top aerial and the v-shaped rabbit’s ears will become victims of the digital age, at least in the United States.

My point is not to bewail the past, but to make sure our future holds the best of the past. We need past, present and future. My digital icons of today are more about attitude and motion than physical objects. Cell phone styles change with the seasons, so what’s iconic to me is people head-down smiling into the palms of their hands; people talking to themselves with energy and confidence; people rocking in their own iPod world.