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There is no more to culture than the consumption of the obsolete

In November 1983, I bought an electronic typewriter for £1,100. It was an Olympia Supertype, a business machine the size of a desk, the latest in a long line of German typewriters built like guns and intended to last forever.

Of course, I knew about word processors but I needed a serious typewriter. Besides, the Supertype was not old technology. It was a transitional machine with a tiny airport destination-shaped screen over its keyboard showing the last 24 characters I had typed.

This was called a buffer. It enabled me to correct my errors before they reached the paper. No more correction fluid! The Supertype also had an 8K memory. It could remember 16 different business letters or a single document 1,000 words long.

Once I had learned to use it, I was very satisfied with this machine. Right through 1984, I thought it was great. By 1985 there was even a Supertype II, with a 48-character buffer and a 16K memory. But the truth was that these Jurassic machines - Olympias, Olivettis, Remingtons and IBMs - were not only the culmination of 100 years of typewriter history, they were the swansong of the typewriter.

Just before Christmas 1985 I bought my first word processor, also for £1,100. It was an Atari 520ST with a monochrome monitor and an Epson printer. For the same price as the Supertype, it could create and manipulate documents on a TV-size screen and store 32 times as much information. By 1988, the upgraded Atari ST-FM had 1MB of random access memory and a 1MB disk drive. It had improved so much that it had 1,024 times as much memory as the Olympia Supertype and yet it cost half the price. In that year, I traded in my Supertype for £100 against one.

Ten years after I bought the Supertype, I could process words 10 times as fast on a PC, with access to 20,000 times as much memory for not much more than £500. The truth is that something terrible happened to typewriters in the 1980s.They changed from serious office equipment to symbols of obsolescence. Today they are virtually extinct.

There is no use for them. Not even to access old data, which remains the principal use for old computers.

Obsolescence is an interesting subject, and not just where office machinery is concerned. The 1980s was a decade of slaughter in the world of machines. Hot metal printing went the way of typewriting, its huge ancient installations torn out and sold for scrap. Monochrome photography took a terrible pounding from colour, then computer-generated images began to threaten the whole future of film. In the media, videotape replaced film on TV. In business, hot desks replaced cellular offices, fax machines came back from the dead to eclipse letters, and emails counter-attacked and drove them out.

On the road, fuel injection replaced carburettors, and sundry accessories including laptops, telephones, tyre-inflators and cup-holders, clustered around cigar lighter sockets no longer used to light cigars. In entertainment, CDs wiped the floor with cassettes, and LPs disappeared. In recreation, sales of dinghies were swamped by sailboards, and speedboats by jetskis.

What can we learn from all this? That as technology continually evolves new species, leaving no recess in the market unfilled, it leaves behind it a trail of corpses - old machines and obsolete devices in their millions. Most find their way into landfill, but a few fall into the hands of interior decorators, curators of museums, private collectors and conservationists.

And what these scavengers do is transform this wreckage into culture. What obsolescence teaches us is that culture is no more than the consumption of the obsolete.

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