Technological Amnesia

A first step in changing my life is changing my surroundings, organizing my belongings, environment, and habits to make the most of what I have and expand upon that foundation. All that makes “dig through a bunch of old boxes” sound almost noble. Excavating my own history has gone, in one way, much as anyone would expect: old comics, toys, and games; old musical instruments and recordings; old technology of all varieties. What I didn’t expect was a different way of looking at these artifacts and forebears, and an examination of why they are actually important to me.

I started feeling the discomfort with comics… and it actually happened years ago. Collecting comics had been the great passion in my life for decades, but a change in my financial situation first left no budget to collect, and eventually led to a massive liquidation of the heart of my collection. Complete runs of Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-man, The Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, basically every Marvel Silver Age first appearance and key issue… it was necessary at the time, but the experience took a toll on my love of collecting comics. Although I hear the call of old comics, the thought of starting over on a collection just isn’t appealing. I did miss a lot of the stories and characters, though.

A few years ago, I discovered a thing called Marvel Unlimited. Long story short, for a pretty reasonable yearly subscription, I get access to thousands of issues of Marvel history… even through my iPhone, wherever I am. I like this service. I get to re-read all my favorite stories whenever I want, and even try a lot of new-to-me comics that I wouldn’t have gotten interested in, back when reading the story meant tracking down back issues in comic stores and conventions scattered across this great land of ours. In many ways, technology has left the physical comic book behind; paper comics aren’t well-suited to modern methods of distribution and consumption. Comic books are still what they always were, but the essence of the stories and characters are traveling so much faster and more widely through digital means. The books weren’t able to keep up with things changing around them… almost like an anterograde amnesia, comic books couldn’t process or adapt to the inevitable future.

But there was another part to my comic collecting. Yes, I liked reading the stories and spending time with the characters, but in the days before instant global full-video communication, there was much more of a thrill of the chase to it. I finally found my last Fantastic Four, issue #15, when I was set up at a small local convention, and a guest was looking to sell this and some other books, and another dealer who knew I was looking for it pointed me out to the guy. I had been looking for it for years… it wasn’t because I couldn’t afford it, I didn’t have the book in my collection because I had simply never come across one in all that time of looking. That was part of comic collecting, and comic dealing, knowing about who wants what and making connections. Knowing your business. You can now buy and sell pre-graded, plastic-sealed comics that you can never actually touch or open, without leaving your chair. Completing a collection is less about archeological detective work, and more about having a credit card without a limit. Modern comic collecting, actually buying old comic books, has become less about knowing the comics than about picking the right lottery ticket. In our zeal to make the transfer and sale of comics easier and faster, we lost a certain amount of institutional knowledge: collectors at the highest levels are often investors or speculators in a stock, and not necessarily a fan, advocate, or expert on the actual comics. The modern methods of both casual consumption and high-end collecting have forgotten important aspects of their history… they suffer from retrograde amnesia.

All that had been floating around in my head for awhile, and I’d thought about it in different directions trying to make sense of it; trying to figure out the essence of what drew me to comic collecting. It was only more recently, as I’ve been curating various old computers, tvs, stereos, and music instruments, that I started thinking about tech in those same terms. For instance, I have paid for at least five different copies of one of my favorite songs, Man Out of Time, by Elvis Costello: vinyl album, cassette tape, CD, and digital download. At several junctures, I realized that I was paying for something I already “owned,” in principle: when I bought that first vinyl album, I bought the right to listen to that song as many times as I wanted for perpetuity; but I rationalized the purchase as a fair trade of dollars to avoid the time, hassle, and expense of acquiring and operating the equipment necessary to do a quality conversion. The formats of their time had anterograde amnesia, and couldn’t continue to function with excellence as time and tech went on. The next greatest formats always had retrograde amnesia, and my tape player forgot about all the music my record player knew, as the CD would in turn forget about my institutional knowledge from the tape.

Everything came neatly together for me when I got to the computers. I got my first computer in 1981, an Atari 800… and I still have it and it still works. Everything about it is just as amazing to me as it was almost forty years ago: the games are still fun, the applications still perform their assigned functions… but that fun and those functions have not stood the test of time, were not adaptable enough to stay relevant, to keep up with the current and move ahead. Anterograde amnesia. I got my second computer in 1987, an Atari ST… and I still have it and it still works, too. That was an interesting time for me, because I “needed” to have two computers running: I depended on software on the 800 to do things in life, and that software would not run on the ST. The ST had retrograde amnesia, and forgot the institutional knowledge that came before it. I had to buy new programs for the ST to serve the same function… often enough ┬ácalled the same title and written by the company or individual who wrote the one for the 800.

Computers are particularly gifted at battling retrograde amnesia. The ST wasn’t too old before a clever programmer wrote a program that could pretend it was an 800. You could actually run those old programs written for different hardware on this newer machine through this emulation program. By overcoming the amnesia, the ST gained the 800’s institutional knowledge.

Emulators are now a part of our everyday lives; computer evolution favors those who are able to retain or regain that institutional knowledge. One of my favorite emulators makes my MacBook Pro think it’s an Atari 800. It’s amazing to be able to play the best games of my youth here on my regular computer anytime. But I still have an 800 (several from the line, in fact) and I still use it sometimes. Emulators are cool… but there are differences in the way a wireless PS4 joystick interacts with an emulator than the way an old-school 9-pin joystick interacts with an 800, not to mention the differences in the way a modern computer interacts with its monitor compared to the way old computers interacted with analog tv sets. Long story short, although the emulators are amazing, there is something tangible lost in the translation.

I like to think that I am becoming more self-aware; that I am considering my tendencies and motives to improve in every way I can. So when something like this spends so much time in my headspace, I try to figure out the lesson. There’s a primary layer to this, which reflects a certain bitterness about things that were once important to you losing their meaning: perhaps my best songs includes the line “Your passions turn to clutter there in front of your eyes;” I’ve felt this disconnect between what I thought I was and who I actually am for some time. I’m realizing how relatable the amnesias are to this thought: it’s not so much that I’ve lost interest in an activity, it’s that some kind of amnesia has gotten in the way of my connecting to my past, or in the way of learning more capabilities for the future… and that frustration, that miss, that lack of connection… is what leads to the activity becoming less important to me.

So I’m going to try to be more like a computer. I am going to confront my retrograde amnesia, and build whatever emulators I need to process the value of my past. I am going to expect my anterograde amnesia, and remain open to whatever adapters I can use to process new value the future offers.

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