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.

Form, functionality and tradition: why aren’t lightbulbs flat?

Paul Raven @ 09-04-2010

The snap answer is “because no one ever made a flat lightbulb“, but Wired UK now puts the lie to that one: someone displayed a flat lightbulb concept at a design show back in 2008, apparently, though it seems never to have made it to production.

The second (and more considered) answer would probably be “because when they were first being made, limited technology for glass manufacture meant that globular capsules were easier and cheaper to produce, and by the time the technology had improved the shape of a lightbulb was an established given that no one thought to alter“. (I’m not certain about the limitations of early manufacture, but it’s a self-educated guess; anyone who can enlighten me further?)

The paranoid answer might be “their frangibility appeals to the sort of corporate mindset that came up with the concept of planned obsolescence” – in other words, lightbulb makers make lightbulbs that are easy to break because they can then sell more lightbulbs. Pretty sure there’s a logical flaw in there somewhere, though…

But anyway, this tangential waffling is the result of that lightbulb story making me wonder how many other household objects are the shape they are, just because they’ve always been made that way. And from there, it’s a short step to thinking similar thoughts about intellectual and cultural institutions, political theories and so forth…

… yeah, so I’m having one of those Fridays where my mind wanders a lot. Lucky you, eh? 🙂