Archive for December 6th, 2011

December 6, 2011

What do you see when you look through the pedascope?

This post was going to be about something else. I found out (via the Retronaut) about this fantastic contraption called the pedascope or shoe-fitting fluoroscope. It struck me as a good example of a our contemporary overreliance on what we think of as science.

Ok, one thing at a time. The pedascope was used from the 1920s until sometime in the 1960s, and was basically an X-ray machine that looked at your feet and issued shoe-fitting data. It strikes me that, more than a fad, there is an ideology behind this thinking. Since science has been terrifically successful in explaining, reinventing, reinterpreting our world from about the sixteenth century onwards, it has gradually pushed aside other criteria and ways of looking at the world in the popular imagination. If you ever want to win an argument at a dinner table, just claim that a study has been done proving whatever it is you claim. (Of course there probably has been a study proving that, just as there has been a study proving the opposite.) If ever you need to sell a product, just say that it was developed scientifically, or in a lab, or that scientists were consulted. This lends credibility.

If this were, however, just a case of human folly, things would be bad but forgivable. But the pedascope shows how this fad, while seemingly silly, is really quite dangerous. Overexposure to X-rays can, as we now know, lead to cancer. The pedascope is, in a sense, a mini version of the problem of eugenics. People thought (smart people!) that now that we have these scientific methods about what people and bodies should be like, we might as well use them and create a better human, or as the case may be, shoe.

And while I think this is a valid way of looking at the phenomenon of the pedascope, this post is about a different aspect of this device. It is about what Thomas Hayden over at The Last Word on Nothing lovingly calls crap technology. While hipsterishly retro in tone, the article did get me thinking about how quickly technology goes from cutting edge to crap. And it’s not just that better stuff replaces older stuff, the older stuff is also different. Vinyl records had the word ‘record’ in them, as in a record of an event, something that was lost on later music carriers. Making a mixed tape turned out to be quite different from making a mixed CD. iPods made music stores obsolete, we get our music off the internet. And mp3 music has to come with a video, because multimedia is here to stay.

Conversely, though, this means that if we were to look backwards, at technology that has long ago passed into the realm of ‘crap’, we would also catch glimpses of ways of living different than our own. Enter Maurice Collins, from this BBC article from back in 2006 (when Youtube was only a couple of years old and Facebook was still only for American colleges, lest we forget a world without those existed once upon a time). As an amateur collector, Collins collected enough gadgets from the end of the 19th and early 20th century to create three separate exhibits. From self-pouring tea pots to an automatic tennis ball cleaner, the man has over a thousand separate items. Self-pouring tea pots! Wait a minute, what does that mean? Why would people have self-pouring tea pots? Or, another piece from the collection, a mustache preserver. If we no longer have these, does that mean that men are simply not growing their mustaches anymore? Or that they care less about them being covered in beer? Are there men today who cover their mustaches the way Hercule Poirrot does in the 1974 movie incarnation of Agatha Cristie’s Murder on the Orient Express?

[I wish I had a screen shot of this. But if you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean.]

And what about the pedascope? Do our feet no longer hurt? Have we no need for better shoes? Is there no more a right and wrong way of wearing footwear? Perhaps sneakers carry some of this in them when they are advertized as worn by this athlete or that. It seems that our world finds it far more important what shoe allows you to jump high (to make the basket), rather than…well, I don’t know…