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Whither the phone booth? The fascination with media obsolescence

A new journalistic recipe is afoot: find once ubiquitous technology that is on the wane and write about its quirky history. The latest exhibit at the LA Review of Books: the phone booth.

Ah, the phone booth, haven of bacterial infestation, coin-operated dysfunctionality, and cinematic obsession. We’ll miss you.

Of course the more interesting question is not to treat media like cats (so cute, so sad), but to ask why it is that we need to rehearse these disappearances. Why are we so drawn to the mourning work of missing media?

I don’t really have an answer to that question, but I do think it is important to see these kinds of pieces for what they are. They’re just trading in nostalgia and they don’t really tell us anything about our present. The more interesting question, as media historians like Jonathan Sterne have shown us, is to ask how these historical technologies influence the way we communicate in new forms. What is the logic that endures from one machine or one format to another? That was what I was trying to do in Book Was There: not idolize a passing medium, but map out its legacy and possible transformation.

I called the opening chapter of my book, “Nothing is Ever New,” because I wanted to de-emphasize the way we fetishize novelty when it comes to reading and media. But as I mention in the conclusion, reading is itself a very nostalgic act. There is something about it that instills a sense of passing, a sense of an ending. Still, I wish the last chapter had been called, “Nothing Ever Dies.” The hard work of history is to try to understand how the past bears upon our present, not as some misty distant thing, but as that which leaves a legacy or sense of remainder. Wrestling with these remainders is the work of historical writing.

For a while in the humanities there was a vogue for thinking about models of historical “rupture” as opposed to continuity (the proto-revolutionary thinking that was all the rage in a post-68 academic environment). I think today we’re far more interested in models of asynchronicity, duration, and heterochrony — the multiple, overlapping histories of ideas and objects.

Of course, it’s not as cute as a phone booth nor as obvious.