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What is really modern? How do we decide? My life is littered with dead or dying technologies which once seemed to me to be thrillingly pioneering and clever. Who bothers now with a short-wave radio? Mine was for years one of my most carefully-tended possessions, carried everywhere from Mogadishu to Moscow. Once I had discovered its mysteries, I could conjure the B.B.C. World Service out of the night air almost anywhere, invariably relieved and heartened to hear an educated, grown-up voice proclaim: “This is London,” and the old call-sign, that subversive, haunting tune, “Lilliburlero.” All gone now. The World Service is on the Internet, calls itself “The World’s Radio Station”, and is even more stuffed with cultural revolutionary sentiments than its domestic sibling stations.
What was modern is now obsolete. I experience this a lot. Several of the shabby rented homes we lived in during my father’s last years in the Navy had these strange boxes in the kitchen, high on the wall. They were shiny and very dark brown in color and had several little round windows behind which there were red and white discs. Under each window was the name of a room in the house. In one of these houses, the box still worked. When my brother pushed a button in his bedroom, a bell would ring and one of the discs (marked “Bedroom 3” in this case) would start to swing and carry on doing so for several seconds. The maid, if she had existed, would in this way have known where she was required, for some time after the shrilling of the bell.