From floppy disks to Betamax, retro gadget fans are rejecting today’s endless tech upgrade race
Towards the end of 2015, one of the last sources of floppy disks in the UK, Verbatim, quietly stopped production. There was no fanfare and no obituary. Maplin’s product page for a pack of 10 Verbatim disks, each holding a mere 1.44MB of data (a fraction of the size of one MP3 file) simply states that the disks are now a “discontinued product”, placing them alongside thousands of other pieces of technology that are phased out every year.
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Yes, the floppy disk was already a relic of a bygone computing age, and its passing will have gone largely unnoticed – but for a dedicated group of people, this was a significant moment. Whether they’re using an old word processor, an ancient piece of musical gear or an ageing 1980s PC, floppies still form part of their lives, and they’ll now have to be sourced secondhand or overseas. These people simply don’t want to do the bidding of an industry that requires us to jettison last year’s products and buy new ones that are supposedly a bit better. Resisting that temptation to upgrade and sticking with technology that’s deemed “old hat” feels almost heroic these days, whether it’s down to sentimental attachment, retro fetishism or just a stubborn unwillingness to play the game.
“I probably straddle the first two categories, but yes, it’s nigh on impossible to keep out of the upgrade loop,” says writer Matthew Holness, best known for his horror author character Garth Marenghi. “If you try, you end up having this nagging sense of doom that it’s all going to catch up with you.” Holness, whose fondness for old tech extends from workbenches to coffee machines, chooses to write on a functionally limited device from more than a decade ago called an AlphaSmart Neo.
“It’s been a saviour for me, as a writer,” he says. “It’s like an old word processor, and it was made for classrooms as an educational tool to help kids to type. You can’t edit as you go along because the screen is too small, but it’s perfect for bashing out rough drafts. And, of course, there are no distractions from the internet. It really forces me to write. When I found out they were being discontinued, I bought three.”
Holness’s love of his Neo is analogous to Stephen Sondheim and his Blackwing 602 pencils, or the ancient DOS machine running WordStar 4.0 that George RR Martin used to write the novels that eventually became Game of Thrones. These tools give a sense of security to their owners, enhancing their creativity and, at least in their opinion, doing the job far better than any modern equivalent. “Getting a laptop always felt like taking the easy way out,” says Ben Jacobs, who made several albums under the alias Max Tundra on an old Commodore Amiga 500. “I wouldn’t say I felt superior… but using newer technology always felt like taking a step back – even though making music with the Amiga involved typing endless columns of letters and numbers. Eventually, I fell out of love with it, but I felt very sad the day I sold it – not least because it didn’t go for very much money. Someone in Denmark paid £20 for it.”
We’re often told that Apple is the world leader in producing technology that we feel an emotional connection to, but it’s not the smartphones, computers or tablets that we feel affection for; these things are easily and regularly swapped out and upgraded, while the content – the thing we’re really attached to – remains largely the same.