EDITORIAL: Why are people driven to save old tech?

There’s a recent article at The Verge that talks about one person’s fight to preserve old tube monitors, and why that is important. I think that it’s pretty easy to agree that the old-school CRT is vastly inferior to today’s TVs, full of hazardous materials and insanely heavy. The article’s subject even admits that his new 40″ TV blows his beloved CRTs away. So why is he obsessed with saving the CRT?

In the recent documentary California Typewriter, typing enthusiasts band together to save a small store that may be the last source for repair and salvage of typewriters. For 100 years the typewriter was the way businesses communicated, but they are heavy, low on features, and expensive to repair due to their mechanical components.

Recent articles like this one at Marketplace say even cassette tapes are making a modest comeback thanks to their prominence in recent movies. The cassette tape, in case you don’t recall, was a piece of technology that held about 15 songs in a package the size of a cell phone, and required a heavy and unintuitive playback device. They were prone to breaking and sometimes required the use of a pencil for simple repairs.

Today we have super-lifelike TVs, instant communication devices, and the ability to listen to millions of songs with almost total fidelity. So why should we care about these old technologies? What’s next, carbon paper?

Look, I get having a passion for antiques, even antique tech. Antiques take us back in time to when we were simpler people, and give us a feeling of comfort and familiarity that we crave when the world threatens to become too confusing. Looking at mechanical things, especially things without any sort of computerization, gives us an appreciation for the engineers who designed them, and helps us feel a visceral connection with a time when personal craftsmanship was the most important part of manufacturing.

I also get that there’s something to experiencing pictures and sound the way they would have been experienced when they were new. A cassette tape’s limitations dictated some of the decisions made by 1980s audio engineers. The effort and time of typewriting made many office communications very brief. And certainly the limitations of old standard-definition TVs, from their size to their (relatively) poor quality was the major factor in the way TV shows were shot in the 20th century. Using those old technologies gives you an idea how those things were meant to be experienced.

Let’s just not pretend that old tech makes things better.

Apologies to my millennial friends (of which I have very few) but using old technology does not necessarily make things more authentic. At most it’s an artifice that lets you think you are somehow capable of infusing a song, movie or letter with the same feelings that your older comrades have spent 50 years slowly gaining. It doesn’t make you a connoisseur if you listen to vinyl.

A lot is made of the “intention” of the creator when you’re talking about old tech, but rest assured that if the cinematographer on the Dynasty set could have framed all his shots for a 50″ widescreen TV, he would have. If John Lennon could have created a sound so deep that only 21st century playback equipment could register it, he would have. These artists were hamstrung by the tech of their day. They did not revel in it. At most, experiencing old media using old technologies gives you an appreciation for how hard those auteurs worked to create art despite the working conditions that those technologies created.

On the other hand, I do applaud the efforts of preservationists like Chi-Tien Lui (the guy who obsesses about tube TVs) because it is important that technologies like this are still available. There is a trove of material on old video tapes, for example, that will be lost if we completely lose the ability to view them. Because most information in the 20th century was stored on some form of magnetic media, we are racing against time to preserve it before it crumbles altogether. Preservation efforts are critical to making sure all this material stays available for future generations — sometimes even unimportant and nearly forgotten content can have value. I also applaud those who restore or reverse-engineer old computers so that old software is still accessible.

I even see the novelty of occasionally popping a VHS tape into a VCR and watching an old episode of Star Trek just to see it the way it was seen in the ’60s. Hey, I could even be convinced to turn the color knob all the way down so I could see it in black and while. But, this sort of thing is a novelty and I don’t ever pretend things are actually better that way, or that I am gaining some special relationship with the source material just because I do it that way.

In the end, this drive to restore and use nostalgic technologies, whether it’s vinyl, TRS-80s, or typewriters, boils down to two conceits. If you were there back then, it’s a self-serving trip to a time when your phone wasn’t buzzing every five seconds. If you weren’t, it’s a vain attempt to somehow gain the wisdom of decades of life you haven’t lived yet. Either way, it’s a pretense, a feel-good exercise. As long as you remember that, it’s all good.