Remember when we always used to carry a dime in case we had to make a phone call?
It’s always a good idea to never lose your sense of perspective. Western culture today (by which, of course, I mean “America,”) is top heavy with people who seem to make their way through life with a perpetual case of mid-to-long-term amnesia.
NBC News has just published a list of 12 “obsolete technologies” that a significant number of Americans still employ in their daily lives. (The link is at the head of this column.) The list makes for amusing reading, but begs the larger question, “Who decides when something is obsolete and why?”
Naturally, this being the USA, economic considerations play a large role. When everything else appears murky, look to see who gains financially.
Am I suggesting we should abandon the benefits of progress? Certainly not! But by the same token, what’s our rush?
Here’s the list:
Dial-up access to the Internet
Alright, I admit it, dial-up WAS a pain and waiting for a page to load in your browser could tax your patience at times, but it was still faster than the old technology it replaced, namely, making a trip to the public library. And I can’t help wondering whether we REALLY need all these “rich media” websites? After all, would the world hacker community have quite so much leverage over us if it took longer to corrupt the files on one’s hard drive?
Okay, this is one I feel particularly strongly about. The late George Carlin used to say during the mid-to-late 80’s that early car phones were completely superfluous, “If they were invisible, these a$$@#13$ wouldn’t have them. The whole idea is for you to see he’s a ‘busy guy.'” George, you never lied!
Almost 15 years ago, I was working in Media Relations for a rising non-profit organization and they insisted I had to be equipped with a pager. For almost 2 whole years I was practically MARRIED to that thing and I don’t think it ever went off more than 6 times, and that was just to warn me that the batteries were getting low. The one or two occasions when its use would actually have been justified, they never called me. Which, by the way, they could have done by telephoning me directly at my home (more on THAT later…)
Dot Matrix Printers
Earlier this year, my wife and I were watching Mel Brooks’ hilarious spoof, “Spaceballs” with my 10-year-old stepdaughter and we somehow got onto the topic of the pun inherent in the name of the robot character voiced by Joan Rivers, Dot Matrix. We needed to take a little more time than we thought we would to explain the significance of the robot’s name and then, what a dot matrix printer actually was.
I remember seeing internal memoranda and even business correspondence generated in that format — even some cover letters and resumes — YIKES! Even then, “desktop publishing” was the phrase that paid the big dividends. I even remember taking a course specifically in that topic back in the early 80’s (3 or 4 class sessions over several weeks, as I recall.) Okay, this one, I’ll grant you, but many people still use them for INTERNAL purposes and why shouldn’t they? They work, they’re dependable and they’re thrifty!
In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!…
Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s)
If your ears prick up at the phrase “Palm Pilot,” then you’re old enough to remember when
the worst thing that could happen to a “yuppie” was losing his or her stylus.
Now this one, I kind of see: it was a great advance to be able to tote all your contact information in a moderately powerful portable device and several types could cope with handwritten entries. Sorta… If you practiced…
The ability to store things electronically on the Internet WAS a major step forward so I can see why PDA’s passed the torch to the so-called “smart phone.” How many years do you think it will be before we are putting the quotes around the phrase “smart phone” sarcastically?
Pay Telephones and/or Phone Booths
When I started working for AAA at the U. S. Steel Tower, one prominent feature in the Lower Lobby was an alcove of at least 16 pay telephone booths. This was in 1984. By the same token, there were also several pay phone booths on the 62nd floor just outside the “Top of the Triangle” Restaurant. There had to be: some powerful people worked there and frequented these areas and what were they supposed to do if they needed to call somebody?
By the time I returned to the U. S. Steel Tower to work for PNC in 2005, the alcove was the site of a newsstand and the Top of the Triangle was already closed and the floor leased to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (think George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth.”)
But by then, the pagers like the one that had been attached to me had become clam shell cellular telephones. And phone booths, or even open-air pay phones, were seen as an undesirable form of encouragement for pimps and drug dealers. Yes, we truly were a simple people back in those days…
Video and Audio Cassette Tapes
Within the past two years, we lost my collection of compact audio cassette mix tapes, some of which were more than 40 years old. Yes, audio cassettes had their drawbacks, but they were portable like almost nothing else.
As for videocassettes, I remember seeing Sony’s early ancestor of the Betamax format in a video tape recording system when I was in college in the early 70’s. Within 3 years, my Dad got us a massively huge and heavy Betamax home unit.
I distinctly remember taping “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” from an ABC Sunday Night movie broadcast, conscientiously pausing the recording to eradicate the commercial breaks as completely as possible. For months afterwards I would sit and watch the movie in its entirety because I just couldn’t believe what the technology was now capable of. Then we figured out how to record off coaxial cable pay TV and taped “The Who: The Final Concert,” which wasn’t, actually…
I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “This changes EVERYTHING!”
Landline Telephones (wired to the wall or floor)
Wireless phones still don’t impress me. I had just as much liberty with my landline phones, the trick was just to run down to Radio Shack and buy sufficient lengths of modular extension cord and handset cord and, voila! you’re a free spirit!
Besides, working with police band scanners as I did when I was at AAA, I understood that “wireless” phones were a lot less secure. If my wife didn’t absolutely insist on it, I wouldn’t carry a cell today. Beastly things, don’t trust them…
CRT (“Picture Tube”) TV’s
Half a century ago, you had to make a point of turning on the TV at least 45-60 seconds before the program was scheduled to start. Why? Because it took that long for the appliance to “warm up” and display a decent picture and accompanying sound.
And it wasn’t enough to select the channel, you had to play with the antenna and adjust the “fine tuning.” And many hardware and drug stores commonly included a display that allowed customers to test and replace many of the component vacuum tubes that made the TV work. In those days, the family TV set was regarded as an investment, even a piece of furniture, and was treasured accordingly. We’re much more of an expedient and disposable culture now.
My first camera was a Kodak Brownie that took size 127 film and size AG1 flashbulbs. You had to learn how to load and unload the camera and if you were using the flash, you had to be alert to dispose of the used bulbs properly: those little suckers were HOT! And once you had exposed the film and unloaded the camera, you went to a local merchant (usually a drug store) to have the film processed and prints made from the negative. It took at least 4 working days to get them back and those were always the longest 4 days ever.
Later, I inherited a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera my uncle had brought back from Germany. It took size 120 film and flashbulbs the size of plums. It made me feel like one of the press photographers in “The Front Page.”
No question: digital cameras are smaller, lighter, more versatile and gratifying as you see the shot IMMEDIATELY. I’m trying to imagine how I would have looked trying to take a “selfie” with the huge Rolleiflex, complete with flash gun. They would have had me committed as a nutcase and thrown away the key!
Windows 98 or 2000
What makes this so incredible is the way Microsoft so imperiously withdraws any kind of technical support for these products in order to compel customers to upgrade to more modern software. In Detroit, they used to call it “planned obsolescence.” Hey Redmond, you guys taken a good hard look at Detroit lately? Once upon a time, they thought it could never happen to them, either…
This one puzzles me, because I didn’t think fax machines had ever really gone away. A goodly number of my network contacts still include fax numbers in their contact information.
Once again, we go back to the early 1980’s and the KDKA Traffic Tower where a day wasn’t a day unless the fax machine was pushing out at least a few pages of heat sensitive paper, not to mention blind solicitations. Remember them? The ancient ancestors of e-mail spam? Travel agency come-ons and attempts to bill people for un-ordered and undelivered goods and services? Yes, it was a slower, gentler, simpler time…
Vinyl LP Records (“Record Albums”)
Like the fax machines discussed above, these never really went anywhere, although the boom in digital audio and video recording formats certainly made a strong effort. It’s a lot harder to shop-lift an LP than a Compact Disc or DVD!
And back in the 70’s and 80’s it was a lot easier to roll your, um, recreational refreshments on an album cover. I suppose it COULD have been done on a jewel box case, but I imagine our arms and hands might have cramped up. If I remember correctly, I believed I began using a rolling machine about the time I started collecting CDs…
I’m sorry, what were we talking about?
SO, is it just me? Am I becoming a cranky old coot? Or is there “method in’t?”
Extra credit bonus if you can tell me who wrote that last quote!…
- 12 Obsolete Technologies Americans Still Use (livescience.com)
- Phone Booths Are Terrible Places To Be In Movies (And Real Life) (gizmodo.com.au)
- Technology’s Foes: Romantics Or Luddites? (forbes.com)