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Will 'Worn-In' Gadgets Ever Be Cool?

Posted by Josh Rothman  August 17, 2011 06:30 AM

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Look around any hip coffeeshop in Boston or Cambridge, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that a time warp had brought two eras together. Today's style is all about wear-and-tear -- the cool kids in their faded jeans, scuffed boots, and chambray shirts look like they've walked straight out of the Dust Bowl. At the same time, though, everyone is clutching smartphones and hovering over laptops straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Consumer culture, it seems, is torn between two aesthetic extremes: It's rough-hewn authenticity versus precision-machined futurism.

Writing at Design Observer, Rob Walker meditates upon this aesthetic contradiction. When, he asks, will we come to favor wear-and-tear on our gadgets? Will it ever be cool to have a "broken-in" iPhone?

The Tom Swift aesthetic was surprisingly prescient.

The different aesthetic sensibilities we bring to our clothes and our gadgets, Walker argues, aren't arbitrary; instead, they originate in the different conceptions we have about the things we own. An item of clothing is "something to be lived with"; a cool gadget is "something to be replaced." We're proud to own a worn-in leather jacket, in part because we attribute its qualities to ourselves -- the broken-in leather suggests our own authenticity. But we don't transfer gadget-based wear-and-tear onto ourselves. When it comes to gadgets, "visible traces of long and heavy use," Walker writes, merely suggest that it's "time for a new one." In fact, by taking pride in the look of wear-and-tear on your gadgets, you undermine the ideology of "shiny-newness." In some ways, it's that ideology which helps power the endless acquisition of new gizmos.

My guess: Someday, when gadgets are physically tougher, and when 'newness' is more about software than hardware, people will be carving their initials into their mobile phones. In the meantime, there's more -- including images! -- at Design Observer.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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