Although the “Boom-a-ring” isn’t the first plug-in telephone receiver for mobile use, its advertising certainly is the most festive. But there’s another theme I’m picking up here playing behind the happy, bikini-clad talkers and the ho-ho-hos: the jingle says that the Boom-a-ring “improves” your cell phone—by turning it into an old-fashioned phone redux.
The same sort of thing is going on in this much-shared advertisement for Vivitar film cameras, in which film’s obsolescent qualities are touted as advancements over the digital camera technology:
Unlike the Vivitar film camera, the Boom-a-ring (its awful name notwithstanding) has some real, potentially hot-button use-value, although the advertisement never mentions it: given ongoing concerns about the long-term health effects of mobile transmission signals on the brain, a plug-in handset limits potential harm by getting the phone away from your brainpan. But the ad instead focuses on the features of old Bell-style phone receivers: they’re comfortable to use, easy to hold in the crook of your shoulder. And evidently, they’re great fun to talk into. Maybe that’s because they evoke simpler times (which didn’t seem all that simple at the time, of course).
So the Boom-a-ring and the Vivitar 35mm camera are like nostalgia prostheses for an anxious age. But I don’t think they’re about vulgar nostalgia, about standing athwart history and shouting, “stop!” Perhaps these gadgets have a way of helping us glimpse futures we thought we were going to get, rather than the one we ended up with—a future where everyone’s laughing all the time. In a way, the marketers of these gadgets are like the high-modernist poets of the early twentieth century. They don’t want a return to the past; instead, the want to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound said, to burnish nuggets of remembered excellence and use them to brighten the shady present. When it’s applied to gadgets, I want to call that effect “retronovation”—an impulse not to revisit history, but to redeem the present by way of technologies past.
So, Gearfusers: can you think of other retronovative gadgets? I’d be pleased to have other examples.
UPDATE: Great minds think alike… although the greatest gets there first. Hat-tip to Jason Kottke, who posted the coinage “Retronovation” last year. Jason’s definition: “The conscious process of mining the past to produce methods, ideas, or products which seem novel to the modern mind.” His examples came from the world of processed food, including retro packaging and the real-sugar-sweetening of Pepsi Throwback. (A tip: google your neologisms!)