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5 ‘Old’ Technologies That Deserve a Second Look

In some cases, it's more about utility and quality than nostalgia


Warning: Don’t interrupt me while I’m watching the TV commercial for the home security system that people can use via their cell phones. Even though I don’t need that particular piece of gadgetry, I’m always fascinated by the latest tech developments and eager to get my hands on whatever is new and shiny.

That’s why my home (and purse) is filled with the latest whatever. However, I’m still a lover of many technically passé items. Some, I would even argue, are better than their digital-world equivalents.  Here’s a round up of five old tech items that still kick booty:

1. Landlines

My vacation home in upstate New York loses electricity during nearly every rainstorm and sometimes even when it’s simply windy. No cell service exists within a mile radius either. So, my iPhone works only when connected to wi-fi. But to get wi-fi, one needs electricity. Perhaps this explains my reliance on the old-fashioned corded telephones that are connected to outlets in several rooms. How can I call the electric company to report my outage if my phone won’t work?

Many people, and not all of them boomers, share my respect for copper wired phone lines. Good portions of the USA don’t have adequate cell service, let alone high speed internet. (Among those areas is my New York City apartment.) This digital inequality is something the cellular companies are trying to fix.  In the meanwhile, a landline telephone can be a lifesaver.

Some of us 50+-ers also have a sentimental attachment to our landlines. I’ve had the same 10-digit New York City phone number since 1975. And although my landline rarely rings (except for spam calls), people, like the long lost cousin with whom I had fallen out-of-touch, know they can use it to reach me.

Pros: Better reception than a cell phone in most instances; no dropped calls; will work when electricity is out.

Cons: Expense. Do we really need to spend about $100 per month for something that isn’t used very much? For many, it’s a toss up.

Caveat: Verizon FIOS, Spectrum Cable and other internet/television companies often offer a “landline” at no extra cost. (Crazy, but many of these companies will lower your bill when you add the “landline.”) Unless your phone plugs into the phone wires in your wall, though, it’s not really a “landline” and won’t work when the power is out and after the battery backup has been depleted. Phones attached to a digital network still sound better than cellphones, and they don’t drop calls. But they don’t actually provide an electricity-free backup, which is a huge landline benefit.

2. Vinyl LPs

I remember a tabloid headline from the 1980s that read, “Who Killed the LP? You!”  When music first began to be available on cassette tapes, everyone loved that they no longer needed heavy vinyl discs that could so easily get warped or scratched. True, tape stretched easily and cassettes had a habit of turning into rats’ nests, making that “mix tape” your current crush created for you kind of useless.

Thus, everyone was happy for the advent of CDs. Their plastic jewel cases kept them safer from the elements; the sound quality was good and you didn’t have to flip sides.

Recording purists, however, have maintained that the sound on an LP surpasses that of a CD. I’m not a sound engineer, so my explanation is pretty simplistic: A vinyl disc contains more “information” that can be transmitted through a turntable needle to speakers than does a CD. That, vinyl aficionados argue, means a fuller, more nuanced sound.

An appreciation of the LP’s full-throated sound accounts for its recent comeback. Recording artists largely drop new albums via MP3 files that you can download to your phone, computer and other digital devices. But albums are increasingly being released on vinyl as well.

Another great side benefit of LPs: the resurgence of cover art and album notes. In the old days, LPs usually had distinctive covers that became as recognizable as the music. (Think Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band.) People would analyze the art along with the music. Song lyrics often appeared on the album’s inner paper dust jacket. The resurrection of the LP has made this all possible once again.

Pros: Probably better sound. (This is a matter of debate.) Cover art.

Cons: Cost. Unless you saved your old KLH 20 vintage record player with speakers, for vinyl, you’ll need a turntable that either has, or can be connected to, an amplifier and speakers. Vinyl records themselves are often more expensive than  digital downloads.

Caveat: If you’re intending to purchase a turntable so you can listen to your old Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs, you might want to first check to see if the LP still plays. Vinyl records stored in your attic crawl space might have warped, due to high temperatures. Also that James Taylor record you played a zillion times? It might be worn out. Vinyl has a shelf life that’s much shorter than a MP3 audio file.

3. Rabbit Ears

I’ve heard many a “cord cutter” or Millennial who is determined not to subscribe to a cable or satellite service surprised to discover that they can receive local network channels for free. All one needs is an antenna. In most places, a set-top “bunny” or “rabbit” ears will be able to pick up a signal, a really good signal in fact (typical price: $15 to $50). Add on a cheap Sling TV subscription, purchase an Apple TV, Roku or Firestick device so you can view a few more TV staples (such as Netflix) and you’ve liberated yourself from high-cost TV. You’ll find useful advice from Suzanne Cole in “Best Ways to Cut the Cord and Slash Your Cable Bill.” 

Pros: You can save $100 or more a month. I think it’s kosher to say that sharing a Netflix or Hulu subscription is OK. The CEOs of both those services have said it’s no big deal.

Cons: Try to add in everything you are currently receiving via cable or satellite and you’ll end up paying more than you would with a cable or satellite subscription.

Caveat: There are places where rabbit ear antennas simply can’t pull in a signal, no matter how much adjusting you do. If you live in a mountainous area or far from a local station, the signal may simply not get through.

4. Radio

Most of us reading Next Avenue grew up having a small transistor radio we could slip under our pillow to countermand parental “lights out” orders. (By the 1980s, the device was probably a boombox that included a cassette tape player.) With radio, disc jockeys took requests and would mention our names, sometimes linked to our current heartthrob to whom we had dedicated the song. And we’d swoon, knowing that our friends would be listening, too.

These days, people are more likely to be listening to Spotify or SiriusXM than a local radio station at home, in the car or at work. The availability and growing popularity of podcasts has also reduced the radio audience.

Though I love podcasts and appreciate why people have moved from playlists they have created themselves to Spotify and Pandora, I think that our disconnection from local radio is sad. Yes, it’s great to be able to stream music you know you’re going to like and skip over songs you don’t. But I miss the whole element of discovery we used to find in radio — the new songs we would hear because the disc jockey was working through a pile of 45s or because some one sent in an interesting tape to a station.

These days, most everyone I know has personalized their music streaming service to the point where when we hear something new, it will be something we will like. There’s never the surprise of finding new artists we wouldn’t have chosen or of feeling our hearts melt upon hearing a once-beloved oldie so different from what our tastes are now.

Also gone is the community that radio listening built. We knew so much about the disc jockeys. They were stars. And they developed relationships with people who called in.

So I’m not surprised that “talk radio” has created a huge uptick in actual radio listening. The hosts may be opinionated. They may be obnoxious. Listeners may be enraged by some of the callers. But it’s also a community where people engage. And some radio stations, like WGCU out of Ft. Myers, Fla., can be lifesavers by broadcasting important news during hurricanes or other disasters.

Pros: Radio that goes over the airwaves is free.

Cons: As with lots of free things, you’ll need to listen to commercials. Then again, sometimes commercials tell us about things that interest us.

Caveat: A radio signal only travels so far. AM signals diminish along a straight line from the broadcast tower. FM signals bounce, losing power along the way. So if you’re traveling, be prepared to run your dial up and down the spectrum until you find something you like.

5. Kodachrome Slideshows

Through Facebook and Instagram, I get to share experiences with family and friends as they are happening. I love the immediacy of social media and the way it keeps us connected.

Yet all the spectacular and fun photos of people eating curry in Jaipur or sitting high atop the London Eye that I view on my phone and computer somehow lack the import of the old Kodachrome slides revolving in a carousel projected onto a screen in someone’s darkened living room.

Yes, the colors on the slides weren’t as vivid as the ones in the photos we now can digitally share with friends. However, gathering together in someone’s home to experience shots of their life gave slideshows an import and gravitas that Instagram posts often lack.

For those of us who miss the old-fashioned slideshows, the good news is that you can still purchase slide film and get it developed. Slide viewers are also for sale on the Internet, and a white sheet still makes a passable screen.

Pros: Going to a friend or relative’s house to view a slideshow is great fun and brings back the feeling that someone else’s travel is important and should have your full attention.

Cons: Since most of us didn’t save old film cameras, let alone slide projectors, re-creating this kind of entertainment can get pricey.

Caveat: To be honest, viewing a couple of Kodachrome slideshows may be a kick, but the novelty probably wears off quickly. It’s not as if slide film has any advantage over current digital camera shots.

In fact, projected slides are less clear and less true-to-color than digital photos. Those of us who remember slides fondly should probably just let it go. However, I will keep touting the wonderfulness of landlines and the importance of live radio. No matter how great it is that I can ask Alexa to turn on my lights when I get home, there is a lot of tech out there that may seem dated but is actually too important to throw into the dust bin.

Linda Bernstein
By Linda Bernstein
Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches journalism at Long Island University, Brooklyn.

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