Saturday, March 19, 2016

Technology nostalgia

The Lights of Other Days, by John F. Peto

     Glance at this painting at the Art Institute.  
     Not a famous work. Not "American Gothic" or "Nighthawks." Hung on a panel in a display of 19th century American design, perpendicular to the gallery, so I had to lean in to try to take a proper photo of it. 
     "The Lights of Other Days" by John F. Peto, a minor tromp l'oeil artist. 
     Still, the century-old work gave me pause, because he's doing something we like to do, and imagine is a modern emotion—rhapsodizing past technologies. In this case, the lightbulb, which had replaced the candles used for centuries, was about 25 years old and spreading rapidly. Peto gathered the dusty, tossed out candle holders and lanterns for one last group shot the way, for a decade or two, authors used to laud their typewriters, the whap-whap-whap of the keys, the thunk of the carriage return.
     Until they said, "Aw, the hell with it," and got a computer.
     You could see the nostalgia for a flame lit world. The soft glow. The romance.     
     But not so much that we still do it. We could. Candles are still around. You could light your house with them. But you don't, because it's bothersome and expensive and you'd end up burning the place down. That happened back then. 
     A reminder that nostalgia is a filter, a screen, that only lets the good part through. We remember the glow and not the burned down houses. 


  1. Very true and those who gripe about technology in general are often unfamiliar or threatened by what they don't understand or change in general.

  2. I agree that advances in technology are always good. I couldn't imagine life without tv, dishwashers or email (in that order). I believe the only thing that ever really changes in society is technology.


  3. Neil notices things most of us would overlook and has the gift of using them to remind us of what our lives are, or could be,like, a gift he shares with some famous historical practitioners of the personal essay. Beautifully done.

    Edward Arlington Robinson wrote a fine, funny poem about a chap enamored of what must have been a most uncomfortable past.

    "Miniver cursed the commonplace
    And eyed a khaki suit with loathing.
    He missed the medieval grace
    Of Iron clothing."

    Imagine life before toilet paper.

    Tom Evans

  4. Burning the house down with candles happens today as well. In fact, a neighbor some 30 years ago, lit his house with candles during a power outage and cost himself a pretty penny while providing the neighborhood with a exciting diversion, even though the house only burnt part way to the ground.


  5. A foot in each world, I enjoyed flipping through dictionaries and reading encyclopedias. Would sit and while away time. Loved rushing to the mailbox, hopefully tomorrow find birthday cards, letters from family, friends, and for a couple giddy years, boyfriends. But. Now enjoy emailing daily with out of state family, vacuums cleaners anyone can afford, the ability to immediately look up anything, Parts Warehouse, air conditioning that doesn't sound like an airplane, has to be sat in front of or needs the hay-like pad to be watered. And a phone I can use when the anything goes wrong with the car. Bar bets have lost the luster of days of discussion though, and I'm certainly at the age that candlelight would be most flattering.

  6. We can adore the past, yet the present is too convenient to do without. Both are (were) good.


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