Tuesday, July 25, 2017

When is a fad not a fad?

When is a fad not a fad? When it’s a scientific and cultural breakthrough, that’s when.

I think I’ve always been a tad suspicious of passing trends. It’s a trait I learnt from my father, though it’s possible to miss some really good stuff by being over-cautious.

My dad was an electrician. He ran his own shop renting out televisions, radios (yes, radios) and all things electric. A stream of little old ladies would come into the shop each week to pay their three shillings or whatever it was for the weekly rental of their washing machine, their fridge or their electric iron. Some of the televisions had little slot machines on the back – the forefather of pay per view – and my dad would go round to his customers’ houses to empty the little money boxes from time to time. Those were days of sameness, of knowing what you wanted and needed in life, and it was my dad’s role to provide it.

It was not his job, as he saw it, to pander to passing fancies. Therefore, when colour television started rolling out of the factories and his customers muttered about maybe trying one of those new sets, just to see how the snooker looked, he wasn’t playing. “It’ll never catch on,“ he announced. “Too expensive. I shan’t be stocking any.”

Problem was, his competitors had a more flexible approach to customer satisfaction so it wasn’t long before my dad’s more adventurous clientele jumped ship. After a while he grudgingly accepted that perhaps colour was the way to go and he allowed the contraptions in his shop. For the most part, though, he and the little old ladies were happy with their slot machines and rented fridges and life trundled on.

Next came hi-fi. Another fad. Another flash in the pan. My dad was unimpressed. “Who listens to music anyway? Everyone watches the television, especially now it’s in colour.” So he ignored the advent of stereo speakers, ghetto blasters, music centres. Yet more customers with cash burning holes in their pockets drifted away to spend it elsewhere, though the little old ladies remained loyal. Mostly.

The age of home computing was upon us. Well, some of us. My dad’s customers, naturally, would not care for such nonsense. He was convinced of this so he turned his face away from the Sinclair ZX and its cronies. “Grown adults wasting their time on silly games. It’ll not last…”

My dad retired years ago. His business was sold off in bits, the stock to one competitor, the rental contracts, those that remained, to another. Some of his stuff was snapped up by the National Museum of Film and Television which just happened to be in the town where we lived. The shop premises themselves are now a hairdressers. My dad plied his trade through much of the twentieth century, a period which saw some of the most momentous advances in electronics as well as the cultural upheaval of the sixties and seventies yet he managed to benefit hardly at all from any of it. He was surrounded by people he went to college with who were making fortunes out of the passing fancies, the fads, the daft ideas that would never catch on. They saw opportunity where he saw only risk and unnecessary meddling with things that worked perfectly well as they were.

My dad was an entrepreneur, of sorts. He had to be to run his own business and make enough to bring up four children but I wonder if he might have been happier as the curator of a museum. Certainly he was never cut out to be at the forefront of a technological revolution.

Even as a child, I was convinced he was missing a trick. Colour television was wonderful. I loved to listen to music, to play computer games. I like change, thrive on newness and risk. I always have, which is probably just as well given the somewhat unpredictable fortunes of an author. I hope I have a healthy attitude to risk and opportunity because if I hadn’t been ready to stick my neck out, to try something new and unproven, I’d never have written my first book.


And then where would I be?

10 comments:

  1. Great post, Ashe!

    It *is* sometimes hard to distinguish true technological advances from fads. And it is all too easy to be blinded by one's preconceived notions.

    There's a famous quote from Ken Olson, founder of the ground-breaking minicomputer company Digital Equipment Corporation:

    "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home."

    Sitting at my desk at the moment, I have four of them in my view!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is an example of "build it and they will come." There may not have been much reason at first for individuals to have home computers, but the existence of computers inspired the proliferation of reasons to have them, with programs and applications and social media and even content-providers like--like us!

      Delete
    2. The CEO from IBM was quoted in the 40's as saying there'd be room in the world for maybe 1 or 2 computers...tops.

      Delete
  2. I was hauled into the 21st century a little early when the university where I taught English as a fairly marginal part-time instructor provided us all with office computers, whether we needed them or not. Then my sweetie thought we should have one at home, and she knew about a sale. It probably can't hurt, I said, though I'm a writer - why would I need a computer? Clearly, I couldn't see the next big thing when it stared me in the face. Ashe, I'm glad your father had a customer base if little old ladies to keep him from going bankrupt!

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  3. This is a great post! I've been watching a TV series about the coming of television to Denmark, and it's interesting/funny/understandable to see all these people in the radio business declaring that nothing will ever come of television. Your dad's skepticism is in many ways reasonable, though short-sighted, though I agree that I have my fingers crossed and am hoping I can do better in my life!

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  4. My dad used to tell stories about the people he'd met over the years in bars in downtown Chicago, where he worked and often stopped off for a couple of beers before he came home. He lived there for a while, until he married my mom. Then he lived in a Chicago apartment on the west side for 2 years, before they moved with baby me to a nearby suburb (Bensenville. When we moved there, O'Hare was a small army base, with no commercial traffic. When I was a teen, we used to joke there were skid marks on our roof from the low-flying jets.)

    He claimed to have met Louis Armstrong, who was bemoaning that no one listened to jazz in the US anymore. My dad, from Scotland, who had bought jazz/blues as import records for years, told him to go to Europe. He did, and he was treated as a major celebrity! Dad also claimed to have bought beer for B.B. King all night once, to keep "Lucille" talking.

    But his best story was about the night he was drinking with some "kyke" (a man of Jewish origin...Scottish slang, I think) and the man tried to talk him into investing in his burger joint. He only had one place, but he envisioned a whole chain of them. Dad told him that Wimpy's (from Popeye cartoons) and White Castle were already everywhere, so who needed another burger place? The guy was persistent, saying with a small investment, he'd guarantee you would make a lot of money. Dad pointed out that he was on a carpenter's salary and his two kids had the bad habit of liking to eat every day. So he'd take a pass. Who knows what our life could have been like, if he'd taken Ray Kroc up on his offer?

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    Replies
    1. Who knows if it's actually true? There were no witnesses. Still, it's fun to think that he had the chance to make a fortune, and was too pragmatic to grab for it. As many of us are...

      Dad had the gift of gab, as many Scottish/Irish folks do. He'd talk your ear off, and you'd enjoy every minute. Some tell me I take after my dad. I don't know whether to be complimented or insulted! ;-D

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  5. Roman Catholicism aint a fad, child;
    Roman Catholicism has been here for
    over 2,000 years, cooky...
    and mortal cookies crumble into NTHN.
    HintHint
    I'd strongly urge yoo to take a
    lookit this before it's too late, cooky:
    I love you, too.
    That's why...

    If you're not too concerned
    with WWIII and N. Korea
    (their ICBMs could hit you),
    you best follow us:

    Find-out what RCIA means and join.
    trustNjesus.
    ALWAYS.
    God bless your indelible soul.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Roman Catholicism aint a fad, child;
    Roman Catholicism has been here for
    over 2,000 years, cooky...
    and mortal cookies crumble into NTHN.
    HintHint
    I'd strongly urge yoo to take a
    lookit this before it's too late, cooky:
    I love you, too.
    That's why...

    If you're not too concerned
    with WWIII and N. Korea
    (their ICBMs could hit you),
    you best follow us:

    Find-out what RCIA means and join.
    trustNjesus.
    ALWAYS.
    God bless your indelible soul.

    ReplyDelete