Cracker Barrel Ephemera

Things I can see on the wall at Cracker Barrel:

  • A trombone
  • A shotgun
  • A rusty woodworking plane
  • 2 wooden rolling pins, one with red stripes
  • An aqua-colored aluminum bundt cake pan
  • A stuffed largemouth bass
  • A framed Ray Charles album
  • A portrait of Etta James
  • A portrait of an unnamed middle-aged man in a double-breasted jacket
  • 4 cast iron skillets
  • 2 washing boards
  • 3 long-handled grill baskets
  • A large tin can labeled “Pure Lard”
  • 9 quart-sized cans of Orsi Pure Olive Oil
  • A tin advertisement for the Rio Grande Fence Company of Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Two wooden tennis rackets
  • A pair of water skis flanking a portrait of stunt skiers at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Florida
  • A group portrait of the 168 members of the Nathan L. Strong Class of the Coudersport (Pennsylvania) Consistory of June, 1927

Friction: MFA at Work

Technology is supposed to make things better. Lately it seems as though, almost day by day, the tools and systems that surround us are growing more complex and less useful. Here is an example.

The mobile phone on my desk at work flashes a notification about once a week. “Update Apple ID Settings,” the notification advises me, because “some account services will not be available until you sign in again.” I click continue and a new screen appears, entitled “Apple ID for your organization.” The screen instructs me to continue to a web address where I may sign in to my account. I tap the screen to activate a large blue button labeled “Continue,” and a browser page showing my workplace’s login screen appears. I enter my password–encrypted and saved on the phone, thankfully–and a new screen appears presenting me with the option to verify my identity through a phone call or a text message. I select phone call, because I am unable to receive text messages on this phone. If I did happen to select text verification, here is what would happen: the screen would change again, displaying a message over a set of floating periods indicating that the verification server is awaiting my confirmation text message. Nothing would happen, however, and I would need to begin the process again.

A moment after selecting phone verification, the phone rings. I answer and an automated voice speaks:

“This is the Microsoft sign-in verification system,” the voice says. “If you are trying to sign in, press the pound key.”

I tap the small window at the top of the screen representing the call in progress. This leads to another screen, where I must tap the “Handset” area to open a virtual representation of an old phone handset. I then tap the area of the glass screen corresponding to the pound key.

“Your sign-in was successfully verified,” the voice responds. “Good-bye.” The blazing red notification bubble will never disappear until I take this action.

The entire interaction takes less than thirty seconds. It is irritating in the moment, but the process is easy enough that I don’t have to think much about it once I get started. If I refused to do so, however, after a while the software on my phone would stop working. First, I would lose the features furthest from the core of the phone. Apps that change often–productivity apps like Excel or OneNote, for example–would be first to go, blocked by a verification server requiring the newest version to operate. Next, I might start to lose access to some of the manufacturer’s frequently-updated software, like Maps and Photos. Finally, given enough time and system updates, even the most basic features like mail and text messages, and then the phone itself, would stop working, rendering the $1,000 computer less useful than a concrete block until I completed the ritual of verification.

Hole-Punch Punctum

I just stumbled across a post on Instagram highlighting a series of photos printed from negatives rejected by the US Farm Security Administration. These photos were “killed” by agency leadership, who punched a hole in the negative to avoid printing the image.

Roland Barthes argued that photographs possess two qualities: “studium” and “punctum.” Studium is an observational quality, the way a photo exists in social, cultural, and aesthetic context. Punctum is a quality which “wounds” the viewer, transcending context and piercing their spirit. These holes–literally puncta on the negatives–pierce the viewer’s spirit by subverting their expectations of the photographs, which were commissioned for strictly “studious” purposes.

These would not be nearly as effective if they did not include the entire film strip in addition to the photograph. This underlines the materiality of the film, the hole-punch, and, by extension, the subjects captured by the image–the flesh and blood existing at a moment in time.

A Note on the Disappearing Internet

A while ago, I wrote that the future is local. File this quick note in the same folder.

Tonight I was trying to locate a handy graph showing trends in the construction of shopping malls in the twentieth century to supplement a travel essay I’m working on. I know I’ve seen charts, tables, timelines, and maps which show exactly what I needed, so I thought it would be trivial to find it on Google. Turns out it was easy to find secondary content describing what I wanted, but the primary sources were long gone from the internet. Here’s a great example.

In May 2014, The Washington Post ran a story about the death of American shopping malls. After the usual rambling wind-up to the ad break, the article got to the point: an animated map designed by an Arizona State grad student tracking the construction of malls across space and time in the twentieth century. “Over a century,” Post columnist Emily Badger wrote, “the animation gives a good sense of how malls crept across the map at first, then came to dominate it in the second half of the 20th century.” That is exactly what I wanted! I scrolled up and down the page, looking for a map with “dots… colored by the number of stores in each mall,” but it was nowhere to be found. I clicked a link to the source: nothing. MapStory.org appears to have gone offline sometime in the summer of 2020. Increasingly dismayed, I went back to Google and searched again. This Archinect article, published a few hours after the Post column, embedded the map directly. All that remains now is a blank box. Business Insider was a few days late to the party, but it was the same story there: a blank box where the map used to be.

As a last resort, I turned to the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive. An archived version of a web app like MapStory appears to have been is never ideal and only rarely works. Sure enough, the archived version of the mall map is just text gore. I’m afraid Sravani Vadlamani’s map is gone, and probably gone forever.

As corporations merge and downsize; as executives and product managers make changes to content retention strategies; as technical standards and fashions in code change over time; and as server upgrades, data loss, simple bit rot, and other forms of entropy accumulate; more and more of these primary sources are going to disappear. In the best-case scenario, dedicated archivists might be able to stay ahead of the chaos and preserve some majority of the information we see every day. Because the last ten years or more of the internet is largely hidden behind the walls of social media, however, the odds that this scenario will prevail are vanishingly small. We should be prepared for a much worse situation: if we don’t make a local copy of the things we see on the internet, they probably won’t be there when we come back.

As an historian, I am troubled by the potential consequences of this fragility. “Darkness” did not prevail in the so-called dark ages of the past because people were less intelligent, inventive, or ambitious than their ancestors. The “darkness” seems to have existed only in retrospect, when later generations recognized a rupture in information between one age and the next. Burning libraries is one way to cause such a rupture. Perhaps networked computers serving dynamically generated content is another. Let us hope not.

Old Friends: Payphones of Tallahassee

Maybe you remember what it felt like, what it sounded like, to use one of these. I remember the dusty plastic cover on the heavy phone book dangling beneath the box. I remember the slight delay between picking up the receiver and hearing the dial tone down the line. I remember the automated voice insisting on more coins in the machine. I remember the road noise, the ringing phone on the other end of the line, the throat clearing anticipation. Most of those sensations are gone, but a few of the old workhorses remain, including this battered old friend rotting away at a gas station just below the campus of Florida A&M University.

Inspired by 2600 Magazine’s longtime obsession with these beautiful, hackable old devices, I keep an eye open for them and try to grab pictures when I can.

There was no dial tone when I placed the dangling speaker to my ear and picked up the other end, but I did hear a strange clicking sound. That may have been the sound of wires striking metal, or the death rattle of the ancient and destroyed mechanism.