1924 Royal

UNITED STATES—I like weird little stores and shops that have eclectic collections of oddball stuff. I also like the convenience of going into a single huge store and finding most of the stuff I want with more efficiency, if less romance. I know the impact of the huge chains of enormous enterprises, epitomized by Wal-Mart, on what used to be the bread and butter of theUSeconomy: the Mom and Pop store. I regret the loss of all those good livelihoods. Those stores didn’t make many millionaires, but they did make a great many industrious, hard working citizens who raised legions of well-adjusted, productive children.

I don’t want to go back to a time where I have to travel to 17 different stores each week just to feed my family and do the laundry, any more than I want to go back to using carbon paper, but I think we sometimes undervalue the loss of much of the old ways. We also fail to recognize that homogenized sameness can have its advantages. There are a lot of really important things that all work the same way, for good reason, and this has a lasting impact on our lives.

If you are old enough, you will remember typewriters. By the time of my childhood, all typewriters were essentially the same. They pretty much all had QWERTY key layouts. They came in two flavors: manual and electric. That’s about it. Most of them had pretty much the same controls. If you could operate one, you could operate practically any typewriter without any more than 2 minutes of additional training. This was not always true. When my grandmother was a child, there were all kinds of strange typewriter designs out there and practically no standard operating instructions. Every manufacturer was different. If you learned one, you had to be completely retrained to do even simple things on some other make. Sound familiar?  See Mac and Windows.

Cars were the same way, too. In their infancy, no two car makers produced cars with similar controls. The completely universal set of controls we now have for cars came into being in the 1920s. Before that, it might be as many as five foot pedals (or none), controls on the steering wheel, brakes outside of the driver’s door… all manner of strange ways to make the car perform the same stunts as any other car. Sometimes the same maker put different controls on different models. Today a Chevy pickup has almost identical controls to a Ferrari, despite the fact that these two vehicles are being asked to do very different jobs.

Car radios have become a lot more standardized in the 21st century. In the later years of the 20th century, car stereos were a mystery to most folks. GM did it this way; Ford did it some other way. When car radios got clocks, it was a real adventure to figure out how to set the time on any given radio – they were all different.

One thing that started out on a MAC has gladly migrated across all computers that I am aware of: Copy/Paste behavior. If I am on a list of stuff and I want to select three things on it, I hold down the Ctrl key and click my three items. If I want all the items between x and y, I click x, hold down the shift key and click y. This may not seem like very much, but it is as important as always having the brake pedal being the first pedal to the left of the accelerator. It makes it so much easier to use the device if it works the same as other devices. One of the things that make tablets harder to use is that they have often dispensed with this common control structure and implemented something new and adventurous. This is NOT an improvement.

Of course, some things will never, ever change. For example, when I go into my refrigerator, I know that 4 out of 5 times my children will have left just enough in any container to be annoying. I can get a dribble of milk from the milk jug. There is some mayonnaise in there somewhere, down in the bottom of the jar. Doubtless, I would feel quite at home in the cave of any Neanderthal with children, knowing that every open container would be practically empty, if they had any containers to put things in.

Change is a double-edged sword. It almost always gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Old people, like I am rapidly becoming, dislike change, because they have a lifetime of investment in the things they are being forced to give up in order to get the new and, supposedly, improved version. Of course, if you want to go back in time, you can always go to the third world. Take yourself too rural almost anywhere in an undeveloped nation and you won’t find Wi-Fi or even a lending library, though they do still have mostly Mom and Pop stores. But you won’t find unions, flush toilets or many civil rights.

Yes, I am a fan of improvements. Cars are better than they used to be: they work better, longer and safer, as a general rule. Political Correctness is sometimes onerous and oppressive, and it is almost never what it pretends to be, but even with all its faults, it beats the heck out of universal xenophobia, Puritanism and bigotry. And although I love my 1924 Royal typewriter dearly, I like my tablet more.

By Henry Meyerding