High-tech could use more romance

This will probably seem quaint and a little strange (and perhaps even the tiniest bit silly) in this world of technologically slick and savvy computing devices, but I came very close to buying a typewriter the other day. No kidding.

I was browsing through a cavernous antique store in an obscure part of the Greater Toronto Area. This particular place was having a bankruptcy sale – and it was stocked to the rafters with Victorian-type tables, Edwardian chairs and various other treasures of dubious distinction and pedigree.

I came upon the object of my affection by nearly stubbing my toe on it – there it was, sitting forgotten in the corner on the floor. A steal at $100, the Underwood was a elegant sculpture of jet black iron and gracefully rusted metal obscured under an impressive layer of dust.

The markings on the keys were worn away to mere suggestions of letters. The keys, when I tried them, quickly became stuck in a jumble of metal at the top that took a few minutes of careful prodding to dislodge, which in turn disturbed the dust and triggered a sneezing fit. The ink tape was twisted and had long ago dried up. It was beautiful.

“This is silly,” I told myself. “This thing doesn’t serve any function. It doesn’t work, probably hasn’t in decades.” I decided there were a lot of other things I needed more, and reluctantly turned away. But tempted, I was.

What is it about our fascination with the past? Why is it I would rather spend $100 on a dusty chunk of old metal than spend it on much-needed RAM for my computer? I guess it’s because RAM, though functional, is also unromantic.

How many of us would be as compelled to make such a purchase if the item in question happened to be a 286 computer or a Commodore Pet? These “antiques” were both, at one time, considered top-of-the line technologies, like the Underwood typewriter was. But somewhere along the line, the design factor became, well, uninspired. Just a glimpse of a typewriter like that was enough to conjure images of everyone from Proust to Hemmingway churning out masterpieces through tumultuous rain-soaked evenings. Whereas a glimpse of a Commodore 64 is more likely to make us think of, well, the eighties.

The good news is, however, the functional-yet-unromantic image of the modern computing device is starting to change. When Apple introduced the iMac, it knew what it was doing. Transparent computers in colour – what a great idea. Its latest offering even has a flower-power retro look. It’s certainly not for everyone, but at least you have that choice. Palm handheld devices now come in fashion colours. New PC prototypes are also being showcased by Intel and IBM that push the traditional ideas of beige rectangular boxes to a distant memory. Even Sun Microsystems has purple servers now. Who says something has to be boring in order for it to work?

Perhaps there will come a time, maybe in 25 or 50 years, where we will enter an antiques store and walk out with an iMac. Not because it’s functional, but because it’s an artistic reminder of a bygone era. And just maybe, that raspberry-coloured conversation piece will help remind us of simpler times.