Is older better?

Old sewing machines on display at the Santa Monica Place Mall
Old sewing machines on display at the Santa Monica Place Mall

I was at the Santa Monica Place Mall over the weekend and I saw an intriguing store window display. It was rows upon rows of old sewing machines stacked up floor to ceiling.

I’m not sure what the store was for. I think it was a clothing store. But the display stopped many shoppers, including myself, dead in our tracks. We were mesmerized by the beautiful designs and painted patterns on the old machines. The metal and wood, with which they were made, seemed to harken back to a simpler era before digital technology and plastics; an era that must have been better somehow.

I realized that we regularly venerate old things such as those sewing machines. New sewing machines can do a million more things, and more efficiently, than those old clunkers. But the new ones don’t have store displays dedicated to them.

Over the same weekend, I also took a trip to historic areas of town such as Placita Olvera, the historic birthplace of Los Angeles. It’s a small cluster of buildings over a city block in downtown L.A. Nothing really that special about it, except that the buildings have a different look to them and also harken back to a different time. People there seemed fascinated by the faded brick buildings.

I was also at the Griffith Park Observatory. It’s a beautiful old building, carefully restored. It comes from an era you’d imagine Batman would step out of. In fact, if you had to pick a structure that you could imagine Batman’s home would most likely look like, Griffith Park Observatory would be it. There were crowds of people there to see the Observatory. Understandably so, since it’s on top of a mountain overlooking much of Los Angeles and Southern California. But you have to wonder if as many people would have been there if the observatory was a modern one, nothing made special by the passing of time.

It must be human nature to look back and see the past with rose-colored glasses. The people who lived during the time of those old sewing machines, or when Olvera street was built, or when the observatory was first put to use, would all probably marvel and embrace modern-day life. They’d probably give up their wood-and-metal machines for fast, efficient, plastic ones. They’d swap their cold, brick buildings for insulated, central-air-conditioned ones. And they’d probably be just as happy, if not more so, in an observatory made of digital screens interpreting from a telescope that could see much more by virtue of orbiting the earth (not just hovering above Los Angeles).

So why do we look at these representations of the past and marvel? Are we looking at how far we’ve come? Are we wishing we had never come that far? Does it give us hope for what may come in the next 80 years?

The answers, I suspect, are: yes.

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