I’ve been thinking a lot about permanence lately.
Not by any measurement do I consider myself to be a retrogrouch. In fact, I’m usually thought of as a “first adopter” when it comes to technology. My darkroom was one of the first to be replaced by a “digital darkroom” and I was one of the earliest users of a Macintosh for graphic design, well before it was efficient to – or even of a quality – to do so. I follow blogs and make effective use of Web 2.0 technologies for a variety of purposes. I jumped over to the cloud before the term had made it into common coinage. And before that it was jump drives, ZIP cartridges, Syquest, and HD floppy diskettes, along with all of the various forms of connectivity. Change is not, and has not, been a source of fear for me in any way at all.
But still, I think about permanence. Technology changed over the last hundred fifty years, but not so fundamentally that I couldn’t take an antique glass plate negative and still make a print from it decades later. I have books in my collection that are hundreds of years old. In some cases they are very fragile indeed – but still very readable. And it’s this last thing that has me thinking about permanence because I worry about how easy it could be to lose all of the accumulated wealth of knowledge that we are digitizing. We’ve converted so much into a digital format and my students seem to forget that much of it originated from an actual thing – a book or magazine or photograph or certificate. What happens when formats change – .jpg or Word gets replaced by some newer format, some newer software? Sure, the most “important” documents will get translated into the new format, but what happens to those things that seem unimportant?
When we cleaned out my wife’s grandmother’s home there were albums and boxes of photographs which were lovingly perused and distributed amongst family members. Would those images still exist if we’d come across a box of Zip disks instead of prints? Floppy disks? How about a couple of SD cards?
A friend of mine was killed a year or two ago. I notice that her Facebook page is still up and I wonder if her information will eventually just disappear into the internet, existing but unretrievable at some date.
Back in the 80’s I conducted research with my graphic design students. The question we pondered was with regard to the printed book: What would happen to it? Would it be replaced by “e-paper?” At that time, we determined that reading was too much of a tactile experience. People had a connection to the printed page; they enjoyed touching the paper and holding the book. And as one of my students succinctly put it, “No one wants to curl up in a corner with a good computer.”
But that was then. Now I read journals and magazines – such as they are, and have become – and books on my iPad. In fact I do curl up in a corner with a good computer. Where I used to paint and draw and keep volumes of notes and drawings in sketchbooks, I now use the computer to store my thoughts. I journal in a blog. (How ironic that those journals, which were once a place for private thought, have become documents anyone in the world can easily access?) I create graphic design using a computer, and edit and manipulate images using incredibly advanced software. My digital camera gear seems to be constantly replaced by newer, higher resolution technological marvels. The Leica IIIf rangefinder that I used for decades was built in 1950 or so and had seen decades of use before I acquired it. It sits on a shelf, a memory of a time when photographs were made 24 or 36 images at a time, when there was no such thing as instantaneous feedback: you couldn’t view the image on the back window of the camera to determine if the exposure was correct. Hell, you could barely see the image at all through the tiny viewfinder… making the exposure was as much intuition as anything else!
I suspect ideas of permanence may be at the heart of what it is I love about steel frame bicycles. I have no beef whatsoever with carbon fiber construction; I simply hate the aesthetics of the current wave of designs, the lack of elegance and overstated/overt commerciality.
I love that, like my Leica or like a glass plate negative, there are bicycles in my collection that with some moderate degree of care will be ridable for many decades to come.
And clearly that thinking comes into play with the Boulder I am currently building up. I enjoy the act of building up a bike, experimenting with different configurations and adapting them to fit my personal riding needs. But I also am very attracted to the idea that if this bike meets those needs well, it could be the last bike I ever build. It could be a bike that I ride for many years – and which could ultimately outlast me. Some of the components I am considering using are themselves already “vintage.” Certainly nearly everything I have installed on my other bikes is twenty, thirty, forty, or more years old. Certainly there is a feeling of comfort in my mind when it comes to the day-to-day consistency; that regardless of whatever technological advances come to the bikes of tomorrow, these bikes will still continue to function as they have done.