SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 7, 2008

Forsaken in the Analog Ghetto

 

It was supposed to be very easy. Five minutes, tops. I needed a new tape recorder, so I headed up the block to the Radio Shack. I’ve bought tape recorders there before. I knew what I wanted, and knew where they kept them.

            Ten seconds after I walked through the front door, my path to the tape recorders was blocked by some loud, bald lummox in a Radio Shack shirt.

            “CAN I HELP YOU FIND SOMETHING TODAY?” he bellowed, as if under the impression I was hearing impaired.

            “Umm . . . sure—I just need a hand-held tape recorder.”

            “ANALOG OR DIGITAL?”

            “Analog.”

            “Oh,” he said, clearly deflated. “Over there.” He pointed to where I’d been heading anyway.

            It turns out asking if I wanted analog or digital was irrelevant, as they were in the same place (except that the old-fashioned analog recorders had been relegated to the bottom shelf). They only carry two models these days, neither being the one I was looking for. But that was okay. I’d settle.

            As I was making my choice, the lummox began talking just as loudly to his co-worker about some stupid in-store sales contest. Then he got on the phone to tell his brother about the contest. He sure was intent on winning that contest, it seemed.

            “YEAH, IF YOU BUY SOMETHING FROM ME RIGHT NOW OVER THE PHONE AND SIGN UP FOR THIS CARD, I’LL GET FIVE HUNDRED POINTS AND WIN SOME FABULOUS PRIZE . . . ”

            I had a question about one of the tape recorders, so I pushed myself back to my feet, and waited patiently. The lummox was still on the phone, pacing the length of the store talking to his brother about Wi-Fi and Blue Tooth and this contest. His co-worker was busy ringing up several hundred dollars worth of cell-phone accessories for some woman. And I, well, I had a stupid question about a stupid twenty dollar analog tape recorder.

            I waited and waited, and when no help had arrived after twenty minutes, I left the store and headed home empty-handed.

            Not being a herd beast, I do not own an iPhone or a Blackberry. I do not have an Mp3 player. I have never (ahem) “texted” anyone. I do not download things. I don’t own a laptop, and don’t have the technological capabilities to watch funny video clips on my desktop computer. Nor do I want any of these things. I’m perfectly happy and comfortable with my ancient machinery. And my experience at Radio Shack that morning reminded me once again that because of that, I have become a second class citizen. Beyond that, with each passing year, I am being denied access to these old machines as crappy technology forces them off the market.

            That’s why I was at the Radio Shack in the first place. The tape recorder I had at home wasn’t broken, but I knew the day was coming soon when I would no longer be able to buy an analog tape recorder, so I was making preparations.

            See, I own dozens and dozens of audiobooks on cassette—audiobooks that were never released on compact disc—and will never be released on compact disc, because compact discs themselves will be a thing of the past in five years. So an analog tape recorder is my only option for hearing these books, but it’s an option that’s being taken away from me.

            The same is true with my VCR. Just try to find a VCR these days. They simply aren’t being made anymore, except as part of some VCR/DVD combo—and even those will be impossible to find in five years. Yet I still have hundreds of videocassettes here containing rare films unavailable in any other form.

            At this point, some smarty pants might ask, “So why not just upgrade, asshole?”

            And sure, I suppose I could get the necessary input and output jacks and other doo-dads and start converting the old audio and videotapes and DVDs to some digital format or whatever one would do to be part of the modern world. But I’m stubborn and I don’t want to buy a whole bunch of wires and plugs and what-not to spend a year converting all this crap just for the privilege of, what, sitting in front of the computer screen to watch Lawrence of Arabia or sticking some damn thing in my ear to hear Hank Williams sing “Ramblin’ Man”?

            As things stand, I know where things are. If I want to hear Parsifal, I can feel my way down the stack and grab it. I can tell from a few fuzzy visual or tactile clues what I’m holding. What’s more, my old things work. I have thirty year-old cassette tapes here that still play perfectly. These are not technologies designed for disposability. They’re reliable and simple enough to use that even a blind moron can work them. If my hard drive blows, they aren’t going anywhere. Yet I’m being bullied toward using tiny devices with pinpoint buttons and screens I can’t see.

            I keep returning in my own head to the book example. Books are of such a perfect enough design that, except for a few cosmetic modifications, they have remained essentially unchanged for over five hundred years. They are still collections of pages with printing on them bound together. When the power goes out, books will still work, so long as you have access to sunlight or some candles. But even those are being phased out in favor of electronic devices. Hand-held reading machines that try and fail to recreate the experience of . . . well, reading a book. But what’s that point of that? Is it merely an impulse to digitize everything that was once, you know, real?

            (Of course I can’t actually read books anymore, but that’s beside the point.)

            So what is this drive, I have to wonder, toward electronic overcomplication, this greed for devices that, by their very nature, turn people into assholes? And why is it that those of us who choose to opt out of the overcomplication and the rampant assholery are treated like lepers with TB?

            Lord knows. But lord help us.

            Part of me (the CRAZY part) is still convinced it’s all part of some creepy conspiracy (a la Halloween III: Season of the Witch or They Live) that will be coming to a head early next year with the nationwide switchover to digital television. Which is why I’m awfully tempted to opt out of that nonsense as well. Let everyone else’s head explode after a final, collective dull-witted “Duh?” Those few of us who are left—those of us with books and ancient machines that still work just fine—will have a mighty big laugh over that one.

            Man, I should stay away from that Radio Shack.

 

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