While a new thing gets people excited, the old thing often doesn’t go away. And if it does, it takes a very long time to meet its demise. Just look at film cameras, records and cars.
For a glimpse of what teenagers are into these days, all you have to do is visit Abbot Kinney Boulevard in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. On weekend nights, the half-mile shopping drag is packed with style-conscious kids who traipse past coffee shops, ice cream parlors and boutiques, often while taking selfies.
Yet one of the most popular destinations for these teenagers is a white, single-story 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 Nick Alt, the 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, we often believe it will make an older technology obsolete. As a reporter who has been covering technology for The New York Times for more than a decade, I’ve made such proclamations, saying that the iPad would kill the Kindle (I later realized the error of my ways, and now own both), that eBooks would be the death of print (I later reversed myself, several times), and that driverless cars will make driving passé and allow us to nap in the front seat (this has yet to be disproved).
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But what I’ve come to realize is that while the new thing gets people excited, the old thing often doesn’t 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 don’t want to wait. (Polaroid has also become the go-to camera for people who take nude photos and fear that their phones could be hacked.)
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. (Records are also one of the few growth areas for the beleaguered industry.)
So why does old tech survive and, in some cases, undergo a revival? For some consumers, it’s about familiarity (e.g., newspapers and print books), while for others, it’s about nostalgia (e.g., record players and film cameras).
For example, I’ve been taking photos for over 25 years, and what made me fall in love with photography was the dirt, grit and grime of film (I used to shoot with Tri-X 3200 for the film nerds out there). And as much as I love my digital cameras, I’ve been shooting with film again to capture some of that visceral quality I no longer get with pixels.
The resurgence of old tech doesn’t 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 free; and people still use and buy tens of millions of flip phones every year, including such notables as Mayor Bill de Blasio, Anna Wintour, Warren Buffett, Iggy Pop and Rihanna. Pagers also never completely died.
You’ve probably heard the saying that the minute that 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 percent. (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’ll void the warranty.)
Of course, there are some outdated technologies that die a fateful death and never return. I don’t know many people with a dedicated car phone, for example. (Though I’m sure some hipster just posted one to Instagram.)
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 that 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 half-million people in Cuba. Something tells me that some of those people will also be buying the performer’s album on vinyl.