Boston Globe Online:

Olden glow

By John Yemma, 4/8/2001

Back in the Era of Big Buzz - and I mean way back, about a year ago - it wasn't good enough just to be new and trendy. Whether you were surfing a craze wave like Razor scooters or MP3 or betting on a scorching IPO like Red Hat or Kozmo, you had to be associated with something far beyond cutting edge. The thing had to be super pumped up, hyperbolically promising, insanely great.

In the words of Internet entrepreneur Jim Clark (as quoted by Michael Lewis in a musty old 1999 book of the same name), to be a player you had to be hatching nothing less than the "new new thing." Lewis wrote: "The business of creating and foisting new technology upon others that goes on in Silicon Valley is near the core of the American experience."

Lewis scribbled that consumer-society truth before the high-tech bubble burst, before the Internet reverted to its place as a mildly efficient messaging service with spotty entertainment value, before venture capitalists and day traders sobered up and former dot-com millionaires resumed wearing ties and driving Hyundais.

It's still true. But it's not quite as in-the-moment as when high-tech fever was raging last year.

Any boom in consumer spending - the 1990s binge on Aeron chairs, CD burners, and SUVs, for example - depends on growing incomes and/or growing debt. Slow down the economy, deflate the stock market, bump into the MasterCard credit limit, and the boom dies.

No need to get depressed about that. This new state of affairs just means we will be shifting our focus away from shiny plastic things that we can no longer afford. I for one am betting that the next big thing in the American experience will, however reluctantly, be old old things. I'm betting a culture hung over on newness will learn the value of vintage, durability, and patina - especially patina, the merit badge of age. I know I've been learning it.

Patina is usually associated with art, artifacts, and furnishings. Yes, it can be faked: There are fine products in the Home Depot paint department that do a credible job of it, and museums throughout the world house unacknowledged fakes of such exquisite quality and workmanship that they themselves are classics. But close examination usually reveals what is ersatz and what is real. Real patina is a thin tarnish, an acceptable layer of grime. It contributes to the mellow look of having been around.

Patina is a refreshing antidote to all the virginal freshness associated with, say, consumer electronics. In a digital age, when experience is endlessly emulated and replicated, the look and feel of the real thing must become more and more precious. Newness had its run in the roaring '90s. Newness, as everybody who bought a Palm Pilot or Nokia cellphone last year knows, doesn't last. But then comes the puzzler: Will today's technology ever achieve patina?

Economists call such products consumer durables, to distinguish them from nondurables like wrinkle cream and batteries. But their durability is short-lived. Every time you buy something new, you begin the process of building a pedigree for it. If a product doesn't last more than a few years, the pedigree never amounts to anything.

A few weeks ago, my five-year-old Toshiba laptop computer (original price, $1,500) went on the fritz. Because the cost of repairing it exceeds its resale value, I retired it. Any patina potential it has certainly won't be seen in my lifetime. It has barely a scratch on its gray plastic surface.

My wife and I have a whole box of these too-old-to-live, too-young-to-be-retro "durables" moldering away: a shortwave radio, a fax machine, printers, tape players, telephones. If you are from one of those dynasties that hand down treasures through the generations, a member of your clan may well end up on Antiques Roadshow 2050 with an objet that was carefully salted away and is beginning to experience a revival. But you need foresight, continuity, and a large basement for this strategy to work. Most of us lack one of those requirements. We end up hoping to find an overlooked treasure at a flea market or garage sale. Or we just walk appreciatively through museums.

Last year, a 1954 Philco TV came into my life. My wife and I bought it on a lark at an antiques auction. With high-tech buzz almost deafening at the time (remember the NASDAQ at 5,000?), we figured old tech would be increasingly valuable. We paid $70. Half a century ago, it retailed for more than $300. Thirty years ago, the owner probably couldn't give it away. By the time we acquired it, its wooden cabinet was attractive in a retro way.

The Philco sat around in our crowded basement. Like most aging yuppies, I don't have the patience to build patina. Eventually, the TV became a white elephant, so we posted it on eBay and sold it for $100 to a Canadian businessman who wanted an old-tech piece for a high-tech presentation he was making. I stripped its guts - the beautifully rounded vacuum tubes and clever mechanical switches - and sent him the case, which is all he wanted.

But I had seen it. I had seen the incipient patina taking hold in the Philco. Someday, perhaps this will occur with my Toshiba laptop. Surely a hipster 50 years from now will want to revive the look of the early Internet era. (A floppy disk! A phone jack! Crazy!) In the meantime, I'll continue to fall for the new new technologies that Jim Clark and his ilk market to consumers like me, since lapping up inventions that are foisted on us is also at the core of the American experience.

But one lifespan is too little to benefit from the mellowing of today's consumer durables. Someone else will have to salt these technologies away for a distant time. I don't have room in my basement.

This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 4/8/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.