- Dear Future Lover, and: The Uses Of Biography
—Recreation and Special Populations, Thomas A. Stein and H. Douglas Sessoms, GV 171 .S78 C.02, University of Arizona Science-Engineering Library
Here’s a relic for the reliquary. Another artifact of the past. Go ahead, take it, collect it, chuck it: it no longer serves its former function. I find them still with regularity in academic libraries, in the science and engineering sections, in books that may themselves be obsolete or just past their sell-by date (like the above, from 1977). Still, for nearly two centuries cards like this have served! I put them in a box with the gears I found in the wreckage of the burned-down barn when I was young.
Printed, punched cards seem an odd choice for a technology designed to be computer-read. These days we think of one as the other’s foe: electronic book and printed book; electronic journal and printed journal; digital image and photograph; the eighteenth century’s chess-playing fake automaton, the Mechanical Turk (which defeated both Napoleon and Ben Franklin in games of chess) and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a “marketplace for work.” But it wasn’t always so: before magnetic storage, the punch card was the preferred medium for the digital.
Now a card functions only as a screen: use your fingers to place it over text to [End Page 62] see which letters its holes reveal—a few lit rooms in a building at night, seen from the street, featuring an indifferent woman removing clothes, draping them across a chair. All technologies are just screens: you look through them at what the screens reveal, their edited results, the product of their search, or you illuminate the surfaces you are looking through and give their mechanisms and histories your attention.
As far back as 1804, Jacquard looms used punched cards to control the weaving pattern, and these looms—these cards—are still used by a few today, in Amana, Iowa, for instance, though the cards didn’t become instructions for machines we call computers until the 1950s.
Still, this card’s rhetoric is shrill: do not lose. How close we are to losing it, neck-sunk in now and the urge for more of it: new gadgetry, technology, efficiency. I like all these, of course, but the edge advances. Soon what we cherished a decade back may be unreadable: try to find a drive to read your floppy disks. Burned CDs might last a decade, maybe less. Then there’s the glory of the cloud—until it storms and lightning spikes the server or the user.
Sad half an iPhone I found on the curb while walking with my wife: once you too were new and promised much. Now you’re metallic mulch.
We notice that our new machines—ultra light laptops reading and uploading data to our servers—work like our old machines—big, dumb terminals reading and uploading data to our servers. In between we had a little burst of self-sufficiency.
Savor the technologies we have. Thumb their ergonomic surfaces, their lovely screens, the paper grain as you turn a page. Take pleasure in how they operate. The smooth dials of the stereos I grew up with. The craggy surfaces of the essay, a technology for thinking, an artificial intelligence. The hush of a good pencil along a white sheet. My stenographer’s pad, acknowledging its anagram, reads Steno | Notes. My book still reads fine in bath, in sun, not plugged in.
Consider the aperture card, a punch card with a sheet of microfilm inset, a fuse of analog and digital. Created in 1943 by Film ’n’ File, it still persists: a 2004 white paper reports, “35mm Aperture Cards — Very much alive!” It goes on to note that they continue “to have a storage shelf life of over 100 years where magnetic, CD-ROM, and other digital storage media’s [sic] have a maximum shelf life of 7–25 years.” Since we’re so poor at reckoning with what comes next, it might be best to hedge our bets (a phrase is a technology, too: this persists from the...