Old tech fulfils three needs we are denied of in a digital world.
A few weeks back, I stopped by at a thrift store. An inexplicable gravitational force pulled towards the vinyl album section. Vinyl! The technology that was birthed soon after the invention of the light bulb. It’s fans seem to be on the rise. (I am fully aware that my vinyl album taste puts a date-stamp on my age: Engelbert Humperdinck for instance, and Olivia Newton John.)
This imperfect, scratchy sound of music has found its way back into our lives — like the Polaroid cameras. Or the music of Queen. When I was a teenager we sang along to the anthem-like lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody. Today my 12- and 13- year old’s know every word of it. So my question is: why are old media formats so indestructible? Why, for example, hasn’t vinyl gone the way of, say, fax machines? Why do Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish release albums on records even while everything else is drawn to streaming platforms? I’m really, really perplexed about this.
I am looking for answers because in my writing and publishing class, a discussion of platforms and formats comes up a lot — something writers must keep their eye on because their audience preferences will always change, sometimes faster than they can keep up with. How might the content be consumed? Songwriters and poets, authors and podcasters, videographers, script writers, and web designers have to be one step ahead of the game. Remember how Prince wrestled with not just copyright, but distribution of his music?
My appetite for vinyl was whetted after I picked up a old record player at Bookman’s. It’s one of those suitcase-type players with a built-in speaker that can fill a room quite well no matter how squirrelly the track is. The Humperdinck double album was a steal!
Humperdinck has an interesting backstory that I refer to in my podcast below, if you’re interested. (You can also listen to a few tracks from Grease and Queen!)
This pull toward older technologies is larger than the music industry. I wanted to dig a bit deeper into this so I asked some of my colleagues about the ‘ancient’ technologies they use in that classroom and elsewhere. Don Meyer, my colleague who teaches British lit, said that he recently found cassette tapes of Macbeth were indispensable. Cassettes, for goodness sakes! Mrs. Walters, reminded me of one of the technologies that will probably never become extinct: The textbook. Duh!
So, here are three reasons old tech doesn’t have an expiry date? It is reliable. It is often fixable. And it’s available despite it being relegated to the old school. To the last point, fortunately it’s possible to find almost anything out of circulation on eBay. Including typewriter ribbons, film rolls, and those cassette tapes of Macbeth, starring Sir Alec Guinness. But I’d first go to the thrift store, because you never know what might show up in the vinyl section.
Here’s a fun fact: I’ve got a Corona typewriter in my class — a computer lab with 39 PCs. You should see students line up to use it!