Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Craving Retro Tech: Why We Still Want Our MTV

A few months ago, I ran across these retro-ads, which of course aren't real, though I wish they were. In my fantasy, they created by Don Draper, who knows about the power of technological nostalgia, but in fact they were done by an ad agency in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and were meant to be used at seminars by a company that wanted to let its employees know about the importance of social media. Let's agree that they're brilliant.

I thought of them recently when I was reading this essay. The writer, Claire Gordon, waxes on a bit about how good she felt when she learned that a friend was still collecting movies on VHS cassettes...not because VHS quality is superior to DVDs (no analogies to audiophiles who prefer vinyl, please), but because her misty memories of the old analog world made her feel...good. That leads her to a bigger point:

So it's no wonder that digital natives, born into the greatest social revolution since the invention of the printing press, would get nostalgic so prematurely. In the last three decades, change has been so quick that technology -- the agent of chaos -- has itself become an object of nostalgia, whether VHS or dial-up, brick cell phones or Casio keyboards, Walkmans or Tamagotchi.
New technologies make everything faster, more efficient -- and we get nostalgic faster and more efficiently too -- for Sim City or the first generation iPod or the Facebook interface of four years ago (it appeared briefly on screen in The Social Network and my heart swelled). It's a pattern: A new technology is introduced to the market, becomes the reservoir for all society's anxieties, and then gets domesticated, becomes obsolete and is transformed into the totem of a quainter time.
I'm a little older than the age group Gordon is talking about. I am old enough to remember going to work one day and being very excited to learn from my boss that I was being upgraded to an IBM Selectric typewriter, so I'm not a "digital native." But I did use my Selectric to work on a story about this new thing called the personal computer, and a decade or so later I was working on my own personal computer. After that, I seemed to get upgrades about every year.

I certainly don't miss my typewriting days--I could never figure out how to change a ribbon--but I do remember the day when I realized that it had been years since I'd seen a slide, and maybe it was time to move the light table out of my office. It felt...weird, but good. I hated slides, and the ever-present threat that I might lose some and get sued. (Luckily, photographers were and remain early adopters.) My daughter, who is 20, did however spend a great deal of her high school years glued to those VH1 nostalgia fests for the '90s. An old cell phone brings a lump to her throat.

Which digital gadgets are you already sentimental about? While considering that question, you might also want to look at this article, about current technologies doomed by smartphones. (Hint: digital point-and-shoot cameras.)

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