Odes to vanishing thrones, laughs and phones

Things come and things go. But nowadays things seem to come and go in a blur. Journalist and social commentator Anna Jane Grossman contemplates this phenomenon in "Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By," published by Abrams in September. The book contains a series of short essays on the objects, ideas and behaviors that are slipping away. Here, Grossman describes three vanishing bits of our culture.

GUEST BLOGGER: Anna Jane Grossman

Executive chairs

What they were: big, padded chairs used by Important People. Small, harder chairs were set aside for plebian toilers who had not yet reached the acme of success at which they could have the privilege of picking out their own office furniture; most of these lower level toilers had to type a lot, too, and firmer chairs, or "task" chairs were more conducive to that kind of work.

However, there was something fundamentally illogical about this system of seat stratification: the padded, high-backed "executive" chairs looked impressive and were cozy for slouching, but they actually weren't that comfortable for anyone who had to sit for long periods. Hello, sciatica! What's more, these chairs were for the higher earners, but they were actually cheaper to produce than the seats used by the hoi polloi.

Chances for rebirth: slim. The more we become dependent on our computers, the more we will likely continue to think about ergonomic ways of sitting at desks.

In the mid-nineties, the Aeron chair by Herman Miller changed people's perception of office chairs: a king may do well in a throne, but the modern chief executive is at his computer more than ever -- and typing more than ever. Give the poor soul a firm chair for god's sake! If computers become completely hand held, perhaps we won't need desk chairs of any kind at all. Or brains.

Laugh tracks

What they were: recorded laughs that were pumped into shows, usually sitcoms, to give the impression that the viewer was watching a show with a convivial group of humor-starved hyenas. As the laugh track is getting ready for its big exit, it is locking arms with the classic multi-camera sitcoms that had only two or three main sets - "Full House" or "Growing Pains," for example. These are increasingly taking a backseat to single camera shows like "30 Rock" or "The Office" or "Weeds," which offer up complex characters and serial plots.

Traditional sitcom producers argued that people would have trouble watching things alone at home because things seem less funny when there's too much quiet: we were used to watching comedy in groups and needed to hear our neighbors in order to know when to laugh. But the further we get from sitcoms with stage-like setups, the more producers are refraining from mandating the use of laugh tracks.

Chances for rebirth: almost nil. We are increasingly content watching movies alone on our laptops. In rooms filled with other people watching movies on their laptops -- movies about people on laptops. The more we become accustomed to enjoying performance media on our owns, the less chance that producers and editors will fight to add in laughs in order to make us feel like we are experiencing the moment in a crowd.

In this era of endless information, we also seem to enjoy finding things that other people haven't discovered yet: we like to think that we've discovered a clip or sound bite that is still fresh and funny and hasn't been widely disseminated yet. If you can hear a chorus of invisible "others" laughing along with you, it might subconsciously have the effect of making you devalue the comedy's worth.


Colin Farrell's character in "Phone Booth" probably wishes the disappearance of the booths came a bit sooner.(Christine Loss/Twentieth Century Fox)

Pay Phones

What they were:public coin-operated telephones, often with cords wrapped in metal in order to deter vandals. To the chagrin of many a drug dealer, AT&T disconnected all of their pay phones in 2008. But some phone booths remain -- you know them as time-travel apparatuses used by Bill and Ted in their excellent adventure, and as a changing room for Clark Kent (he eventually started using a revolving door). By most calculations, New York City has only a handful of booths remaining. Their demise can be pinned almost entirely to the rampant use of cell phones.

Chances for rebirth: stable. Most pay phones currently act as billboards; they are kept in working order only because they provide a reason for a large, backlit signs to live at eye-level on sidewalks and rest-stops. The fact that there are phones in these ad-huts is, at this point, rather anachronistic -- almost a quaint throwback to simpler times. Next thing you know, they're going to have rickshaws decorated in ads. Wait a second...

-- Grossman will discuss her book Thursday Dec. 3, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Books-A-Million, 11 Dupont Circle, NW Washington, DC 20036

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 2, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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