As gung-ho as so many of us pretend to be about this big fancy future we’re building, true techies are real softies – we find it hard to let go.
For evidence, look no further than whatever cabinet functions as a crypt for your family’s long lineage of dead cellphones, forgotten gaming consoles, and VHS cassettes. Or, for fresher material, behold the new wave of retro-tech — gadgets that give an upgrade and afterlife to ghosts of tech past. It’s a trend fueled in part by raw nostalgia, and in part by a creeping anachronist chic that’s marching in with all the subtlety of the chunky sneakers that are stomping all over the world’s Fashion Weeks.
In the past week alone we’ve heard news of revivified Tamagotchis (in celebration of the effortlessly killable handheld virtual pet’s 20th anniversary), Lenovo’s consciously normcore but insanely souped-up silver anniversary reissue of the original ThinkPad (complete with big blue Enter button), and trademark rumblings that maybe kind-of sort-of suggest a revival of the classic GameBoy. What’s going on here? Could it be that Generation X is toeing the chilly waters of its midlife crisis? Or is it — wait, actually, no, we just nailed it right there. That’s exactly what this is.
Which is fine! It’s totally natural for nerds — of a certain age — to look back and try to preserve our fading memories of fonder, lower-res days. Take the resurgent Polaroid follow-up to the defining OneStep camera (40 years after the fact), the OneStep 2 ($99.99). A gently updated grandchild of the camera that reinvented the embarrassing vacation photo, the “analog camera for the modern age” comes off like a challenge to Instagram to meet its maker. Slightly sleeker but still a handful, it screams inconvenience compared to our high-end smartphone shooters and revels in its signature imperfections.
Another wry riposte to the smartphone era is the re-introduced Nokia 3310, the stubby, lovable standby of the early cellphone era, that feels as familiar as the hand of your first ex. It hums the same ringtones, speaks with the same scratchy typeface, plays the same games (i.e. “Snake”), and aside from now having a flashlight and a decent camera, it hasn’t changed much. In fact, it beams with a simplicity you once took for complexity, and somehow it seems more charming now than it did then.
The gaming world is where the retro-activity is reaching a peak. The gaming emulator game is nothing new, necessarily; latter-day third-party “flashback” consoles aping designs and running vintage games (for defunct systems like the Sega Genesis, ColecoVision, and Intellivision) are easy to find but mixed in quality. But some of the big names in video games are finding an extra life for their back catalogs.
Nintendo recently launched a miniature version of its second major console in the form of the NES Classic ($79.99), which fits in the palm of your hand and comes loaded with 20 classic titles (plus a sequel to the cult classic “Star Fox”). The groundbreaking 1982 Commodore 64 console is also coming back in the form of an officially licensed, 50-percent scale hand-held clone, the C64 Mini (updated with a foxy HDMI output). And Atari shook several generations of gamers with news of its forthcoming Ataribox, which gives a space-age makeover to its industry-defining 2600 console and ... well I don’t really care what it does I just want one. Like real bad.
Everything old is new again; but then again, some of the coolest gadgets out there capture the textures of the past in ways that don’t feel bogged down in nostalgia. Take Amazon’s freshly introduced Echo Spot ($129.99) — a miniature version of its Echo assistant that aspires to the subtle trustiness of an old-fashioned bedside alarm clock. Or the ReMarkable Tablet ($599), a Norwegian-made "tablet for paper people,” which combines a “canvas” surface and a system of tiny magnetic ink particles to simulate the tactile feel of pen against paper. (Imagine a high-tech descendent of Wooly Willy).
Or take my favorite gadget of the season, the Spire Studio ($349), created by local firm iZotope. While the small cylinder that is this mobile recording device resembles the modern home assistants of Google and Amazon, the plug-and-play functionality of Spire Studio feels more akin to the old four-track cassette recorder I’d use to knock out punk songs on as a teenager.
Working in tandem with an app, users (and musical beginners especially) can simply plug instruments or microphones (plus headphones for listening along) into the Spire and quickly create multi-track recordings with a couple taps. It’s essentially a household hit factory with a range of effects and an easy-to-use interface; but my favorite feature is that it doesn’t do everything. Like much of this retro tech, it revels in its simplicity and celebrates its limits: leaving room for error, making mistakes possible, and giving imperfection an overdue upgrade. Those are ideas worth dusting off.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur