Technology, Then and Now

 Posted by on February 23, 2009 at 6:14 am  Characters, Retro
Feb 232009

screen shot by Marc Anole, as seen on
screen shot by Marc Opperman, as seen on

As is common, this post was inspired by a previous Lipp sister post.

Just this morning I was reading an article and came across a quote about the economic crisis that said that “the needle was stuck in the groove.” And for a second I thought, Hmm, like a hypodermic needle? That’s kinda… sick. And then I remembered, Oh, yeah, record player needles! Anyone under the age of 30 would be thrown by that (okay, I’m 39.) Technological changes have an impact on the way we experience life. Just for fun, here’s a list of 60s gadgets and their modern equivalents that influenced our perceptions.

Polaroid instant camera vs. digital camera – In Babylon, Don has an epiphany when he looks at a Polaroid of Madge and her beatnik boyfriend. Yes, the Polaroid instant camera was cutting edge in the early 60s. From what I remember ,the digital camera became affordable to the general public around the late 90s, early 00s. A key difference between the two is one of touchability. You took a Polaroid and you had to shake the resulting rectangle, peel the backing and then wait for the image to appear, magically, before your eyes. No matter how “instant,” there was still a process, so to speak, a series of steps that you had to take in order for the picture to emerge. Would the picture be any good? You had to wait and see. Doesn’t this seem like a commentary on the creative life? You have an idea, you take aim, shoot, and even after the project is finished, there’s still work to do while you wait patiently to see how things will develop. Botched the picture or the project? You had to take it again. You had to be more thoughtful about the angle, the composition, etc. Meanwhile, you can compose a digital image in-camera before you hit the button. How much care do we all take when composing a digital picture anyway? And this is truly instant technology. Goodbye, anticipation. It may take you ages to get prints of your pictures, though. Don might never had had that epiphany if he used digital because, like most of us, he would’ve gotten too lazy to develop the damn pics. Plus, that Polaroid was Madge’s anyway, Don might never had seen the resulting pictures. Also, looking at a tiny screen on the back of a camera doesn’t seem conducive to epiphanies. As a coda, the Polaroid Corporation discontinued production of instant film in February of last year.

Television vs. – Well, all right, TV really began making inroads in the 50s but we’re talking about its use in Mad Men, so I’m cutting myself some slack. While TV was always ad-driven, in the early days the shows were actually sponsored by the corporations. In fact, the shows were often named for them, ie, the Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Television Theater, Lux Video Theater, the Ford Theater, etc. Ads were the price you had to pay if you wanted to watch TV for free; regardless, you didn’t have any choice since there was no cable then. In The Benefactor, Harry Crane understands that this system gives the corporations a lot more say in the way stories are developed and presented. He has to use his powers of persuasion in order to get a sponsor for a episode of The Defenders that deals with abortion. Although this particular plot was based on an actual event, it wasn’t until the 70s that nervy Norman Lear dared to tackle equally controversial subjects in his sitcoms. Who would sponsor the dark and edgy TV shows of today? There’s a reason HBO pioneered the complex narrative structure and darker storylines that mark great TV shows nowadays. On the other hand, most of us have to pay a pretty penny for our cable bill. Television is no longer free. Except on which is — you guessed it — ad-driven. Another difference is that in the “old” days, TV was a family event. You gathered around the TV set much like Neanderthals might’ve gathered around a campfire and everyone was held captive by a narrative. Maybe in the Stone Age, the tribe would’ve listened to Guku’s exploits in escaping from the jaws of a saber-toothed tiger while in the 80s we were spellbound by the last episode of M*A*S*H but, either way, the experience was communal. When is the last time you and your friends gathered around your PC to watch you-tube? No matter how big your screen, online TV-viewing is mostly solitary.

Telephone vs. cellphone — There are many instances in which Don goes on the lam, so to speak. He is unreachable, not only symbolically but in actuality. In The Marriage of Figaro, he runs away from Sally’s birthday party with the excuse that he’s picking up her cake. In The Jet Set, he even eludes his bosses for several weeks. (Mind you, I didn’t quite buy Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling’s lack of concern or anger about Don flouting his responsibilities.) He is literally incommunicado. In the days before cellphones became prevalent, it was understood that people were not always available. From what I remember, it was somewhat frustrating but if no one could reach you for whatever reason, it was a fact of life. And then came the cellphone. Instant availability was no longer a pipe dream of the needy, it became the norm. There’s only so many times you can turn off your cell and not return calls or texts before people become indignant or irate. People even take cellphones into bathroom stalls. And have you ever turned off your cellphone to take a break, only to find a barrage of messages demanding to know why you weren’t around? How would Don evade people nowadays? Knowing Don, he would use the cell as another tool to thwart connection. While Betty talked, he’d stop every so often to check his messages or to text his underlings (Don is too adept at secrecy to ever use the cell to communicate with his flings, imo). But still, someone like Don actually needs to get physically away from everyone and the cell eventually wouldn’t do. Plus the fact that cells are traceable would likely cause Don much anxiety (which he would mask fairly well). There IS something disempowering about constantly being on call. Can you imagine John Wayne with a cell? He’d send you straight to voicemail, if he bothered to set his cell off vibrate, that is. Hell, even Betty didn’t need a cell when her car broke down in For Those Who Think Young. She had to rely on her wits and her feminine wiles. That’s what happens when you’re cut off. The situations might be more dangerous but that also makes you more resourceful.


  14 Responses to “Technology, Then and Now”

  1. Great post, Marly K. And welcome back. We missed you!

    I remember growing up, one of the ways we had fun as teenagers (especially if we didn't have money), was to go over to someone's house and listen to records. Occasionally, dancing would break out, and there'd often be sing-a-longs, but mostly it was for the listening. We'd pass the album around, study the cover front and back, admire the artwork, read the little booklet that came inside, and just listen to the music — together. You can't do that with an iPod. Yes, you can plug it into a speaker system, but there's no playing DJ, no staring in wonder at the shiny, black vinyl disc, no trying to figure out the significance of the cover artwork. Don't get me wrong. I love my iPod, but I miss the communal nature of listening to music. That's something that doesn't seem to exist any more.

  2. Thanks, Hullaballoo! You're so sweet.

  3. That's why I've had to be dragged forcefully towards any new technology each and every time. I miss the way that things were slower and more comptemplative. Not in everything, mind you, but Hi-Def, Blue Ray, and micro-thin cellphones kinda freak me out.

  4. Pagers were available in 1962. Sure, not many people had them, but if I was Bert Cooper I'd be looking into one for Mr. Draper!

  5. Nicely said, MarlyK.

    Your point about cell phones and the end of unreachability is the reason I was so resistant to getting one in the first place. Like Don, I need to have some guaranteed solitary/anonymous time on a regular basis. It wasn't until my grandfather became really ill a few years ago that I would even have it turned on during the workday, let alone consider answering it in the office. Of course, it's now my only phone, since a land line would just be an unnecessary expense in the age of cable internet service.

    Hulu is a largely solitary experience, but I'm okay with that. I have a group of local friends who gather a couple times a week (schedules permitting) to watch certain shows on my housemates' nigh-cinematic entertainment center, which is akin to the Neanderthal/80s family dynamic you mentioned. But having the fallback of Hulu for shows we might miss in favor of other social activities or because the networks all program good shows in the same time (I'm looking at you, 8pm Monday.) is really convenient. It's also nice for me because I'm more prone to rewatching than most of my gang, and it doesn't fill up my DVR hard drive.

  6. Jon Hamm and his gf were looking gorgeous at the vanity fair oscar party!

  7. Something tells me if Don had a cellphone, he'd find out where the dead spots where, and go there. When anyone tried to reach him, he could use the excuse he was in a dead spot.

  8. My son once referred to an LP vinyl record as "you know, one of those really big CDs".

  9. Meanwhile, don't let this post fool you. When my internet went down, I sobbed like a little girl. Seriously. It was weird. I myself wondered why I reacted that way; probably bc the techie kept saying it was a problem with my Mac. I can't bear anything going wrong with my computer. Also, I love my new Centro. LOVE.

    I do admit that I turn off my cell quite regularly, though, and that I'm often incommunicado for days. It's so… blissful. Like no one can reach me and no one can hurt me. Which, now that I think about it, is probably EXACTLY why Don is unreachable.

  10. Something tells me if Don had a cellphone, he’d find out where the dead spots where, and go there. When anyone tried to reach him, he could use the excuse he was in a dead spot.

    Or, as Marly noted, simply shut it off. In fact, if one were to leap-forward MM to the modern day, the analogous moment to Don leaving Pete at the hotel would be a modern Don shutting off his cell.

  11. That's so interesting, CPT_Doom, because Don literally abandoned Pete. Left him high and dry.

    Whereas shutting off a cell is not necessarily abandonment–but it's definitely perceived as such. For such a modern, high tech gadget, people have a lot of very emotional responses. Sometimes you can hear it in people's voices when you call them back (even if only five minutes have elapsed since the time they left you a message and the time you call them back): Where were you?! I've even heard and seen people use cells in the bathroom — it happened today, as a matter of fact and the funny thing is that I kept hearing this woman say, Hello? Hello? And I thought she was trying to get my attention whereas she just wanted to talk and tinkle. Silly me. And that's the thing that ultimately bothers me the most about cellphones: That they're so portable that the presumption is that you SHOULD be available no matter what. Even in the bathroom. And, let's face it, while we're not all as non-committal as Don, surely we can all appreciate wanting (no, needing) to get away once in a while. Even if most of us would do it by turning off a cell instead of skipping town and skinny dipping with a young hottie.

  12. What a great post, MarlyK. Technology is a double-edged sword, isn't it? On one hand, you don't want to be branded a Luddite, but as a bonafide Boomer, I can't help but think the incusion of the digital age has made deep inroads into how we relate to each other, and not always for the better–in fact, I'd venture to say, mostly not. As a nation, we seem to be in love with speed and instant gratification; I think it's part of our birthright. Like you, I'd go bonkers if I lost my internet connection; it does so many things, I've come to depend on, puts a whole world literally at my fingertips, and provides an immediate connection (like responding instantaneously to your posting, for instance πŸ™‚ ). I held out getting a cell phone, until the bitter end, but when I was teaching school, it became an absolute necessity for things like field trips.

    Nevertheless, I think there definitely is a downside, and it's what I think goes to the heart of your posting; that technology plays a crucial role in how we relate to each other both as individuals and society, and in the hyped-up early sixties of MM, it's a crucial plot device. Mostly what I don't like about the technology of our era is that , while it's been touted for its potential at creating a global community, the unanswered question is what is the quality of that community? I mean, like Hullabaloo, I'd rather be with the gang in the basement after school for a record listening party, than listening in solitude on an I-pod. One of the things that resonates so strongly about watching MM, is that in a pre-internet age, conversation, and social interaction required much more fiinesse–for all the backbiting and backstabbing, people by and large still had manners. You had to, because the technology hadn't gotten to the point of isolating everyone so effectively; you couldn't dodge people so easily, you had to interact. I think that that's one of the era's greatest charms and why we lap it up watching MM-"La Politesse" and the social code that surrounded it, quaint as it now appears, is something that seems to be missing today. Maybe in the New Depression, we're all going to have to get back to depending upon our own inner and communal resources once again. I mean, even when we sat around in the sixties getting stoned, we were at least by and large doing it communally.

    A final irony to me about our technological era versus the one of MM, is that in one sense we're more isolated than ever before, and yet there is no privacy whatsoever. We've talked about Don, but what about someone like Peggy's potato chip guy? Remember how proud he was of having his own territory and being master of his own fiefdom? These days even truckers and delivery people are monitored by devices that track their every move.

  13. "Mind you, I didn’t quite buy Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling’s lack of concern or anger about Don flouting his responsibilities."

    I don't know. Cooper seems to give Draper a carte blanche pretty much, and only really gets personally involved about specific things. He was obviously irritated (maybe even unsure to move forward without Don's "savvy" two cents) when he had to note Don as absent from the SC board meeting. But he is, like he says to Don earlier, "unsentimental." He went ahead with business.

    As for Roger, he takes things more personally but I think he doesn't mess with Don. He respects that they're "close" but that there are boundaries, and Don's whole mysterious guy thing. Plus, when Don does come back, doesn't Roger say "you can't just disappear like that." (Remember, it was Roger who mentioned marital troubles in the meeting, only because he knew what was happening with Don, not because that's really why.) He seems angry, like Don wasn't there to work through his Jane crisis with him and encourage it.

    Wonderful post, though. πŸ™‚

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