Retro tech takes Kiwis back to the future

JESS MCALLEN
Last updated 05:00 01/06/2014
NOKIA 8210: Mix tapes and ‘brick' phones are making a comeback.

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If you're still holding on to an old Nokia phone, have cassette tapes gathering dust and a typewriter hiding in all its clunky glory, now is the time to bring these items back out and potentially make a fortune.

A generation of digital natives is being romanced by old-school technology, while those who refused to adapt to newer gadgets in the past have become unwittingly fashionable.

Reports from Europe last week claim demand for old Nokia phones is growing, with a large jump in sales over the past year.

European site vintagemobile.fr sold more than 10,000 handsets in the past two years, the most popular being Nokia's 8210 which is selling for up to £48 ($95). A quick Trade Me search reveals our secondhand bricks are a steal at $10.

The risk of cracking expensive smartphones and the pressure that comes with always being connected is starting to get to us, said James Charlton, a senior lecturer in Creative Technology at AUT.

Cassette tapes are another comeback item - with major artists and record labels following Europe's lead and releasing albums on the vintage music platform.

Once, the art of selecting romantic tracks for your sweetheart, trying to fit them on to one 45-minute side and writing out song titles on the paper slip was an endearing declaration of love. However, in the late 1990s it became a laughable practice with the introduction of CDs and MP3 files while the likes of iTunes, Spotify and YouTube turn compilation-making (aka playlists) into an effortless task. You don't even need to listen to music while doing it.

And listening is part of the charm of cassette tapes, said Benji Jackson of Muzai Records. It requires dedication. You can't skip songs without furiously fast-forwarding and then carefully rewinding. You have to grin and bear it. And sometimes that's how the best songs are discovered.

Jackson has been following the overseas cassette tape revival with interest. Two years ago his company decided to launch a compilation cassette, featuring bands under its label. The songs were buffed over old Alanis Morissette tapes.

"It's become more acceptable to release stuff on cassette in the past year. It's cheap to make, has that keepsake-style element to it and is kind of like a poor-man's vinyl."

For smaller record companies, like Muzai, the trend is a blessing as production costs are cheap. The company occasionally nabs tapes for 30c apiece but they are usually around $1.50 a unit and sold for $5 to punters.

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Muzai has followed in the vinyl industry's footsteps by including a digital download code with each tape.

"Most people will download it digitally but I think people also load it in their cassette player for that morbid curiosity of ‘have I actually bought something with music in it and is it music from the 80s or what was actually advertised?"'

The warm, warbly and crusty quality of tapes appeals to people, said Jackson, although it depends on the artist. "But there's always the anxious moment wondering if your tape player is going to chew it up. The sound all depends on the production and who you're listening to - dubstep isn't going to sound as good on cassette as an acoustic set."

This fascination with old-school technology, initially dismissed as an underground hipster fad, is now being touted as a symbol of the "post-digital" era, said Charlton. It represents a desire to be human, not digital, and to have control of technology instead of being awed by its mystery.

It doesn't mean the end of digital (much to the dismay of the newspaper and film industries); we won't be rushing back to side-of-the-road phonebooths and commuting to work on penny-farthings. It's about acknowledging the point where technology becomes so commonplace it stops being interesting. This gives us a chance to re-evaluate our values and go back to simpler communication methods if we choose.

"As technology becomes integrated into everything we do it's no longer seen as this utopian magic that can solve all our problems. It's just another thing in the world," said Charlton.

The movement started with a glitch - more specifically, the glitches in music production. Artists and music-appreciators started to look differently at the errors - the scratched records, the flaws and the dirt.

"In some ways these flaws bring back the human element of technology," said Charlton.

"Technology is not this mysterious thing any more that only nerds or university researchers know about - any 14-year-old can hack their phone and make it do what they want. Failing that, they can google [how to do] it instead.

"We can do all these wonderful things and we now have the choice whether we want to do them or not."

The seduction of the new will always be there but Charlton thinks retro tech is here to stay.

"I don't think it's just a trend - not because I have a crystal ball into the future but because I have a crystal ball into the past. Was the wheel just a trend? I'm sure people thought it was."

The best part of all this? Instead of creating e-waste we now have a pile of untapped treasure at our hands.

- Sunday Star Times

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