Form and function

Paul Raven @ 08-04-2011

As I progress into my thirties, I’m becoming more aware of my status as a demographic that is targeted with nostalgia-based marketing. In terms of pop culture ephemera, I’ve remained relatively immune – the mainstream music and fashion of the eighties repelled me at the time, and has not lost its power to do so – but there is no escape; the technology industry has matured to an extent which allows it to mine its own past for aesthetic triggers that hit us lifelong early adopters like a punch to the gut, even when the product itself is quite obviously pointless in practical terms.

Point in case: Commodore returning to the computer hardware market with Linux-powered PCs dolled up in the form factors of their classic consumer-level home computers. This is the C64x:

Commodore C64x

Hi-ho, atemporality; there’s no point whatsoever in buying one of those unless you’re jonesing for the “authenticity” of the near past (which is itself pretty close to mythological anyway). Though we’re not quite at the point where ubicomp is a reality, Commodore’s “new” products represent an interesting point in the commodification curve of computing. Function is so cheap and easy to produce that form no longer has to play second fiddle; there’s more computing juice in your smartphone than was used to run the entire Apollo moon landings program, and you can shoehorn a useable computer into pretty much any container you desire. (Worth noting that this was an enthusiast’s hobby long before the manufacturers jumped the bandwagon; casemodding has transcended its initial geeks-only cachet thanks to economies of scale.)

When computers first arrived, they looked like the vast, complex and aesthetically sterile engineering devices that they were. Now computing is sufficiently ubiquitous that they can look like whatever we want them to look like (which means that making them look like older and significantly less powerful machines is a momentary fillip of aesthetic irony; expect an imminent rash of computers that don’t look anything like what folk of my age-bracket think of when we hear the word “computer” – remember the Sandbenders custom computer from Bill Gibson’s Idoru?). The end-point of the curve will be the point where computers become effectively invisible; I hesitate to predict a solid time-scale for that, but I’d be surprised if it takes more than another decade.

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