Anna Jane Grossman, author of Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By, has compiled a special short list for Giz readers, four things we'll really miss, and four we're glad are gone. (She's pictured below, not above.)
Technology is all about what's new and what's next — today's iPhone is just tomorrow's paperweight. What about the things that were "new" and "next" yesterday or the day before? We live in a time of so much change and progress that there's nostalgia for things that kinda still exist. Here are a few that, for better or worse, are fading fast.
What We'll Miss
Boomboxes Boomboxes forced social interaction. Yes, they may have sometimes been disruptive, but at least they were egalitarian: anyone could whip out a so-called "ghetto blaster" if they wanted to determine which song everyone else would hear. Today's public places are flooded with people living in their own little aural universes. Personal music players give us autonomy, but it's nearly impossible to have a conversation with strangers when you're wearing headphones.
Push Buttons Buttons used to be objects that symbolised intelligence-in cartoons and movies, complicated panels of them always signified something brilliant or sinister. The springy turn-things-on-and-off kind of button we're accustomed to was born about a century ago. In the early 1900s, Eastman-Kodak introduced them on cameras (although at the time, they were called "electric snaps"). "You push the button, we do the rest," was the slogan.
Today, buttons are becoming mere ideas: a link on a webpage; a "keyboard" on the screen of an iPhone. Thing is, sometimes buttons really do make things easier. My friend Mackenzie once watched Karl Rove try to figure out how to navigate the button-less elevator cars of the News Corporation (NY Post, Fox News, etc) building in Manhattan. "I could see his mind working, looking for buttons, but there were none," she told me. "I just grinned at him as the doors closed, ready to take him to some mysterious random floor." Good thing nobody cool works in that building!
Answering Machines I got my own phone line, princess phone and answering machine when I was 12. It was a big deal. Today my voice mailbox needs to be full before I'll retrieve my messages, but back then there was such excitement in coming home and seeing the little red light blinking the number of calls I had. In earlier times, if you were out when you got a call, you may never have known that someone had tried to reach you. Can you imagine?
When answering machine usage became widespread in the eighties, phone usage surged across the country: people quickly caught onto the fact that you could make the requisite calls to exes and in-laws and creditors at odd hours without actually having to speak to anyone. By 1988, more than a quarter of all US households had one.
My favourite part of answering machine ownership was the outgoing greeting. I'd spend hours coming up with the perfect clip of music to play. Once, I even wrote a rap song:
Hey guys and gals let me make it plain: You've just reached Anna Jane. I happened to go out for a while So I'm not here to catch your dial. Leave a message, at the tone And I'll call you right back when I get home.
Needless to say, I wasn't very cool. [Price Is Right screengrab from The Bleat]
Easy-To-Open Packaging It's Christmas morning, the gifts are all unwrapped, and in homes all around the world mums and dads are wielding sharp objects. How else are they supposed to open the thermoplastic polymer clam-shell packaging that now envelopes nearly anything that can be purchased? I have scars. And I also have memories of freeing dolls from their packaging by simply opening a box. For our ancestors, the only thing that required that kind of exertion was, perhaps, hunting for dinner. Today, hamburger meat comes in cellophane that's easily torn away…but if you want an external hard drive, you better be prepared to go in for the slaughter. [Blister pack frustration image from Rahindeed]
What We Won't Miss
Tube TVs I have a tube set. Want it? It's yours—but you have to come get it. When I bought it in 2006—after a friend assured me the picture quality was better than any flat screen set, as if I'd notice—it took me and three girlfriends an hour to get it out of the box. And two of those girlfriends were men.
Tube sets work thanks to the cathode ray tube, aka CRT, which fires electrons that light up a phosphorous coating on the inside of a curved glass screen. The bigger the screen, the bigger the tube has to be—and the more your household starts to seem like it revolves around a washing machine that occasionally shelters a man name Brady who has three boys of his own. In 1973, Sony's Trinitron tube television was so admired it became the first TV set to win an Emmy. Today, however, the CRT's contribution to entertainment is not so appreciated: The 115kg 40-inch sets you can find for cheap on eBay all come with the "Pick-up only" shipping caveat. And many Salvation Armies and Goodwill donation centres in the US no longer accept anything but flat screens. [Image by lloth/Flickr]
Laugh Tracks In the 1950s, sound engineer Charles Douglass recorded people laughing at a series of mime shows. (Yes, people used to laugh at mime shows.) He then put the recordings into a piano-like machine which he called the Laff Box. TV viewers were used to sitting in theatres where they could hear other people's reactions, so TV producers argued that home audiences needed similar cues while watching sitcoms. Thanks to this reasoning, we suffered through several decades of comedies where it seemed like beneath every couch lived a hysterical hyena. I recall, as a child, sitting stone-faced through episodes of Small Wonder, hearing all the "people" laughing at the jokes. I just figured it was my poor sense of humour.
Dial-up Modems Before iTunes and Pandora, there was really only one soundtrack that anyone associated with the Internet. It started with a lulling dial tone, then came the little beeps of a phone being dialled, then a series of longer beeps in different octaves, then screeching, static, more static, a coughing-up-phlegm sound and then…"You've got mail!" In my household, there was kind of a call and response between humans and modems: After it sputtered through its routine, I would sing out a few choice words about how long each page was taking to load.
In 2006, Apple released a MacBook Pro without a modem, and a lot of people flipped out. But the truth is, not many ended up missing it. By the previous year, the number of people using broadband devices had surpassed the dial-uppers. Today, only one in 10 people use dial-up connections. I pray for them. [War Games shot from PC Museum]
Getting Lost In 1983, President Reagan decreed that a military project known as Navstar would be opened up to the public. It is now known as the global positioning system. Little did the Gipper know how this decision would affect the lives of so many couples who'd grown accustomed to deadlocking on whether or not to ask for directions. It'd also lead to fewer people handing the phone to someone better at giving directions, or suggesting navigation tips based on the distance to an Arby's. And there'd be a serious dip in the number of cartographer wannabes mapping out entire highways on a square cocktail napkin.
As someone who can hardly locate her own elbow, I am pretty glad that nearly every phone now can tell me to make the next legal U-turn. However, in addition to having no sense of direction, I have issues with punctuality — and it kind of sucks that I can no longer use "I got lost" as an excuse when I'm late. I mean, I guess I could. Actually, sometimes I do. Usually it's because I've lost my phone.
Call me crazy, but sometimes I like to dance when I listen to music. If I were able to play my music aloud, I wouldn't look so strange doing the Running Man alone on the subway platform.
Got any more dead innovations you want to lament or wish good riddance? Chances are Anna Jane covered them in her book, but until you pick up a copy, you might as well comment about it below.
Anna Jane Grossman is the author of Obsolete: An Encyclopedia of Once-Common Things Passing Us By (Abrams Image) and the creator of iamobsolete.net. Her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including the New York Times, Salon.com, the Associated Press, Elle and the Huffington Post. She has a complicated relationship with technology, but she does have an eponymous website: AnnaJane.net. [ Photo of Anna Jane by Amber Marlow Blatt, from Hey Brooklyn]