November 18, 2008

Dying electronic metaphors


Matt Springer observed in a recent post that the famous first line of William Gibson's Neuromancer has gone the way of the buggy whip:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

I spent a good part of my teenager years repairing ancient B&W tube televisions, so Gibson's metaphor still resonates strongly with me. But you can't tune a modern television set to an "empty" channel. When no signal is detected, it simply displays a blue screen.

In the comments, Chad Orzel points out that Neil Gaiman homages Gibson in his novel Neverwhere (chapter 20, second paragraph):

The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen tuned to a dead channel.

I'm also reminded of an On the Media story from January 2005 about the (mostly) dead technology represented by the "record scratch" sound effect.

The intrepid reporter had no problem finding kids who couldn't identify the needle-on-vinyl source of the sound. But like a colloquial expression whose etymology has been lost in the mists of time, everybody still knows what the record scratch "means."

And for good measure, the story before that one documents the decline and fall of reel-to-reel analog recording tape.

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