What Traditional Creative Mediums Can Teach Us About Modern Technology- A Ramble

2016 Artwork Traditional Art Mediums And Technology Article

Although this is an article about things like print books, traditional (non-digital) drawing and painting, handwriting etc… which will probably make me sound about two or three decades older than I actually am, I’m going to have to start by talking about the internet for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will hopefully become clear after a while.

Earlier this year, I had a couple of moments that gleefully confirmed some of my cynicism about technology from this decade. I’d opened up Google Chrome to look at a badly-designed Chrome-optimised site (that refused to load a video in my usual browser), when Google Chrome flashed up an ominous warning message claiming that it will soon stop updating itself for anyone who doesn’t use the absolute latest operating systems. Unless Google has since come to it’s senses, this will have already happened a couple of months before this article is posted here.

My initial reaction to this was “Ha! I’m glad that I don’t use Google Chrome regularly!” and then, a few seconds later, I was filled with a strange mixture of creeping horror and ridiculing laughter. My mind was filled with stylised images of “hip” people of my own age, constantly upgrading their technology and constantly changing every digital thing that they surround themselves with. Their lives a never ending flux of shiny new devices, trendy social media websites and incrementally crappier new operating systems.

Somehow, this part of their lives seemed both eerily and laughably superficial to me – like they could never find a digital “home” or a constant in their lives. Like they’d never get to really know the technology they use, before it’s replaced with the latest flashy new thing. Like nothing that they use would ever become truly familiar to them.

Then, a day or two later, I read a slightly old article that claimed that Twitter was in financial trouble. Given my long-running cynicism about that site, this initially filled me with more schadenfreude than is probably healthy. However, the more I thought about it, the creepier it seemed. Twitter, as much as I despise it, has had a major impact on the world. It’s a thing that, for good or ill, has become part of our culture.

And, yet, this extremely annoying – but important- part of our history probably won’t be preserved if it loses mainstream popularity. It’ll probably just disappear. Twenty or thirty years later, most people will have probably forgotten all about it. Just like how many modern computers apparently don’t include floppy drives as standard any more.

Now compare this to the invention of the printing press. Although the technology for mass-producing books has advanced significantly over the years, you can still theoretically use an old-fashioned printing press and, more importantly, you can still read the books that were made using it. The surrounding technology has advanced, but the products of that technology are still as functional, timeless and accessible as they have always been.

Compare it to the invention of the pen. Whilst we don’t use quills any more, a quill is still a perfectly functional writing implement that anyone with the proper training can make. Likewise, whilst fountain pens are less common, you can still buy them. Not only that, the skills needed to use a modern ballpoint or (even better) rollerball pen aren’t too different to those needed to use a quill or a fountain pen.

We have more reliable pens, we have pens that don’t leak and we have pens which don’t need to be refilled regularly. And, yet, they’re still pens. A time traveller from the 19th century could probably work out how to use a modern rollerball pen fairly quickly, for the simple reason that it’s still a pen. It’s functionality, method of use and basic principles are still the same, even if the technology has advanced.

Now look at something like drawing and/or painting. The technology may have advanced significantly (I mean, I make all of my paintings with a waterbrush and watercolour pencils), but the basic actions of using something to create images on paper or canvas hasn’t changed that much in centuries. We might have pre-made paints, paintbrushes with water reservoirs, mechanical pencils, pencils made out of pigment etc… but the basics are still the same.

Modern technology, unfortunately, doesn’t have any of this timelessness. Sure, it has a lot of “progress”, but this progress often comes at the cost of erasing it’s own history. If a time traveller from fifty years in the future appeared today, they probably wouldn’t know how to use a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone. They’ll probably still know what the internet itself is, but they wouldn’t know how to access it using current technology.

However, they would probably still know how to use a pen, how to read a print book and, if they’re an artist, how to paint a picture.

So, in my opinion, these traditional mediums provide a good guide to what new mediums should strive towards. They should obviously keep advancing and upgrading, but they should do so in a way that both preserves their own history and remains accessible to everyone, regardless of their technology level.

However, it’s probably going to take everyone a long time to work this out. Why? Because, unlike pens, books etc.. There’s slightly more of a profit motive inherent in new technology. Whilst old printing press companies might have tried to sell the latest presses to publishers, the books that people read were still books that any literate person could read.

However, with new technology, these companies have the ability to sell both the technology for making stuff and the technology for accessing it. So, out of sheer short-sighted greed, they constantly change both the underlying technology itself and the things that ordinary people use to access it. In other words, they use planned obsolescence regularly.

To them, history doesn’t matter. To them, the sharing of information between the widest number of people isn’t an inherent good. To them, becoming familiar with a piece of technology (and getting to know and love it over the years) is something to be mocked, feared and scorned, because it doesn’t generate profit.

In the grand scheme of things, these are probably short term issues that will be resolved eventually. But, if modern technology wants to truly become part of both everyday life and modern history, the people who make it might want to take a look at everything that came before.

Because, it’s 2016 and I still write things with a pen, I still have a large collection of print books and I still make watercolour paintings – but I can’t update my copy of Google Chrome…..


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂


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