Turn the tables on old gadgets

Turntables sporting vintage designs but modern technology on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.
Turntables sporting vintage designs but modern technology on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Old technology such as camera film is still widely used today, contrary to the belief that it will become obsolete

NEW YORK • For a glimpse of what teenagers are into these days, all you have to do is visit Abbot Kinney Boulevard in the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles.

On weekend nights, the 800m shopping drag is packed with style-conscious kids who traipse past coffee shops, ice cream parlours and boutiques, often while taking selfies.

Yet one of the most popular destinations for these teenagers is a white, single-storey building with big pink letters on the roof that spell "Vnyl." The store sells vinyl records and the kids who gather there are often in awe.

"I'd say half of the teens who hang out in my store have never seen a record player before," said Mr Nick Alt, founder of Vnyl. "They will walk up to the turntable and they have no concept where to put the needle."

But once they figure out that the needle goes into the outermost groove, those smartphone-toting teenagers are hooked.

Whenever a new technology comes out, people often believe it will make an older technology obsolete.

But what I've come to realise is that, while the new thing gets people excited, the old thing often does not go away. And if it does, it takes a very long time to meet its demise.

Just look at film cameras. You would think they have been vanquished from the planet, but millions of people still use them. In 2012, more than 35 million rolls of camera film were sold, compared with 20 million the year before.

And while Polaroid has filed for bankruptcy (twice) in the age of digital cameras, the company is making a resurgence (again). One of Polaroid's largest growing demographics, surprisingly, is teenagers who want a tangible photo but also do not want to wait.

Other types of physical media have also held on.

More than 571 million print books were sold in the United States in 2014. About 55 million newspapers still land on doorsteps every morning. As for those vinyl records, 13 million LPs were sold in 2014, the highest count in 25 years, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

So why does old tech survive and, in some cases, undergo a revival?

For some consumers, it is about familiarity, while for others, it is about nostalgia.

For example, I have been taking photos for more than 25 years and what made me fall in love with photography was the dirt, grit and grime of film. And as much as I love my digital cameras, I have been shooting with film again to capture some of that visceral quality I no longer get with pixels.

The resurgence of old tech does not stop with physical media.

For example, tens of millions of Americans still own a landline; millions of USB thumb drives are still being used even though you can store anything in the cloud for free; and people still use and buy tens of millions of flip phones every year, including such notables as American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, business magnate Warren Buffett and singers Iggy Pop and Rihanna.

Pagers also never completely died.

You have probably heard the saying that the minute you drive a car off a dealer's lot, it loses value. Well, that is no longer true for old cars. Some vintage cars have increased in value by 500 per cent. (One reason for this is that younger car owners want to be able to fix and tinker with their own cars. Try doing that with a Tesla and you will void the warranty.)

Of course, there are some outdated technologies that die a fateful death and never return. I do not know many people with a dedicated car phone, for example.

To be fair, we have been wrongly predicting the demise of old technologies for some time. In 1876, for example, when The New York Times first wrote about the telephone and later the phonograph, the writers of the day said these devices would empty the concert halls and churches, as no one would ever want to leave home again.

And yet, just this month, Diplo held a concert for an estimated 500,000 people in Cuba. Something tells me that some of those people will also be buying the performer's album on vinyl.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Turn the tables on old gadgets'. Print Edition | Subscribe