Thursday, January 19, 2006


I will read the New York Press occasionally on subway trips, despite the rapid decline of the quality of the newspaper over the past several years, especially after its sale by the original founders. Still, free is free – can’t argue with that – and occasionally the paper is worthy of something more than birdcage lining.

Other than the film reviews, most of the other cultural reporting reads as pretentious crap, reminding one of the ‘overeducated and unemployed’ meme of the early 1990s. Glancing back down to the paper after looking out of the window as the Q train goes over the Manhattan bridge this morning, I started reading a review of Chris Ware’s latest book, The Acme Novelty Library. I have a passing familiarity with Ware’s work, mostly very favorable, although after reading this review, (‘the best fiction of the season’) I have ordered a copy of it. Graphic novels and comics are both over rated and under rated at the same time, but I have always have had a soft spot for them.

I was struck by an unrelated quote in the review: “His ideas are all about the way technology is alienating us not only from our own potential but from our ability to imagine it. It’s a clever concept – technology debilitating our imagination, specifically our ability to think imaginatively about technology. I have no idea if Tim Marchman came up with that on his own, but it’s a clever turn of phrase. And like all clever bits, it’s essentially meaningless, but simultaneously gets the mind to wander.

In my case about the inherent lack of imagination in technology design, hence the story of the Philco Predicta. Every new invention requires a new type of design, but initially the design behind the invention succumbs to metaphor. The car is the classic example. For decades, cars looked like carriages and had no design identity of their own. Car as carriage. Television is another classic example. The first televisions looked like radio consoles, and in fact often were radio consoles with the radio tuner removed and replaced by a small 4” TV screen. TV design remained like this until the mid to late 1950s.

The Philco company, during the recession of the late 1950s saw it’s bottom line suffering as TV sales fell, so they came up with new designs, unlike anything seen before. Several models of the Predicta were developed, starting in 1958 with the Holiday Model (I have two of them), and ending in 1961. They became (and still are) the most famous TV design created, a unique object to themselves without referring to any other type of technology. They became an icon.

As well, they drove Philco into bankruptcy. Sales didn’t take off, and most of the TVs ended up being sold to hotel chains and other institutional buyers. So much for the role of imagination in the marketplace. Obvious cynical points could be made here about the blandness of culture and the insipid nature of Americans, but that’s tired ground.

What’s clear is the value of comfort food. Yum.