Do You Remember Technology?: Geeks, Gadgets, and Gizmos

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When we confront our memories outside the well-ordered spaces of historical chronology, they can seem both fresher and stranger, like brief glimpses into a world to which we can't really return. Unfortunately, the book's authors give no indication that they gave their approach much thought.

Michael Gitter, Sylvie Anapol, and Erika Glazer

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Friday, September 15 2000, 8:37 AM


This is the sort of book I can't stop reading, even though I hate myself for doing so. Did I say "reading?" That's a generous interpretation." Do You Remember Technology? combines images of outdated mechanical devices frequently culled from advertisements with lists intended to jog your memory. Consider the page devoted to automobiles, which, as a childhood car nut, I found particularly compelling. Interspersed with photographs of such classic vehicles as the Chevrolet Chevette, Ford Pinto, and -- a personal favorite -- a late '60s Pontiac Le Mans are a series of phrases: "superhighways, the door is ajar, catalytic converters, no emissions testing, three on the tree, t tops, no fuel injection, before airbags, no headrests, Escort radar detectors, fiberglass construction, gas guzzlers, chokes, flooding at start-up, white walls, no seat belts, fine Corinthian leather, and Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed."

As this verb-free "poem" implies, Do You Remember Technology? is weighted heavily towards the 1960s and 1970s. We don't see any Packards or Hudsons, after all. And, although the book does reference the early history of computers with images of a punch card and one of the monstrous machines featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the book devotes an entire page to Apple lore, not to mention Radio Shack's TRS 80. In other words, Do You Remember Technology? is clearly targeted at Baby Boomers and those Gen-Xers like myself who have a nostalgia for the boons of Boomer culture which we were too young to experience ourselves: free love, free drugs, and nearly free gasoline. People in their teens and twenties are likely to find it annoyingly myopic, just like those histories of rock music that date the death of punk to the early 1980s.

The book looks decent enough. It's compact, colorful, and does a nice job of transforming facing pages into a mini-montage. But it's a look we know a little too well to find impressive. Not retro enough to be retro chic, nor daring enough to push the design envelope, Do You Remember Technology? reminds me of those books for sale at your local Starbucks, the ones that inevitably migrate to the clearance shelf in a month or two. Paging through those titles is a guilty pleasure of mine, like the Iced Venti Lattes I buy there. Because there are so few books on display, how they ended up there is always something of a mystery to me. Their presence there seems random.

And that's why Do You Remember Technology? belongs there. Beyond the fact that it is clearly targeted at the 30-50 age group, the book fails to exude a purpose. It makes no difference whether you start at the beginning or the end. Although facing pages usually seem to be matched for graphic, if not literary effect, their relation to the other pages of the book is difficult to discern. And Do You Remember Technology?'s linguistic content also seems to be randomly arrayed. Indeed, although the book enjoins us to remember, it goes out of its way to prevent us from perceiving technological innovations in chronological order. The pages devoted to the telephone are a perfect example. Opposite a photograph of a handset-dialed, slimline phone from the 1970s, a series of phrases radiate around the image of a pink "While You Were Out" note: (proceeding clockwise) "Having to redial because you caught your finger in the dial;" "Emergency break-ins;" "Dialing long distance through an operator;" "Busy signals;" "Before caller ID;" "Before 911;" "Phone books on chains at pay phones that work;" "Before answering machines;" "Party lines;" "One phone company;" "Glass-enclosed phone booths;" "Neighborhood exchanges;" and "Switchboards."

Perhaps this sort of randomness is the point of Do You Remember Technology? When we confront our memories outside the well-ordered spaces of historical chronology, they can seem both fresher and stranger, like brief glimpses into a world to which we can't really return. Unfortunately, the book's authors give no indication that they gave their approach much thought. Even as I found myself recalling technology from my early childhood, or from my parents' stories, I was left wondering what to do with the nostalgia that the book inspires. Yes, I remember. And I remember not only my own past, but one I experienced second-hand. Surely, there must be something interesting to say about such a paradoxical form of remembrance. Yet this book makes no effort to say it. That's why I find Do You Remember Technology? so unsatisfying in the end. It conjures the spirits of the dead. But it leaves it up to us to find those spirits a place to stay. Let's hope it isn't the clearance shelf at Starbucks.

Do You Remember Technology? is published by Chronicle Books 

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
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