It was a Sony Dream Machine, model ICF-C120, purchased in the fall of 1990, when I was heading off to college. At the time, it was the latest in clock-radio technology: a white cube with digital numbers and analog FM/AM dials. It didn’t do the things future clock radios would do — play a CD, dock an iPod, connect to the cloud.
But it lasted, making its way through dorm rooms, apartments, and houses, surviving so many falls from the nightstand that, by the end, four pieces of duct tape held it together. And then, one day this winter, it took a final spill and its numbers disappeared. All that remained was a lonely green colon, flashing the absence of time.
What do you do when you suffer a loss in 2016? You post a requiem on Facebook. The outpouring surprised me. College friends waxed poetic about their own ’90s-era Dream Machines. A former coworker confessed that she’d retired hers prematurely and never figured out how to work the replacement. We might love the next big thing, but we still marvel at a household appliance that measures its lifespan in decades.
We’ve been trained to expect the opposite. Planned obsolescence has been baked into the economy since the days of the first light bulb: Styles change, cheap tiny parts wear out. And technology advances: My childhood alarm clock had numbers that physically flipped with an audible click. Looking back, I wonder how I ever slept.
Today, the speed of change is extra jarring. At the Apple Store, hipster “geniuses” stare down past the tips of their curled mustaches and inform you how much it would cost to fix your three-year-old computer (too much, dude, too much). Last month, Apple unveiled its latest iPhone line: The last big thing was a larger phone, but the new big thing is smaller. In fact, it’s about the same size as the phone that came out two big things ago.
I never thought of my Dream Machine as an awkward period piece. But an iPhone 4 from 2012 looks like a weird, clunky brick from the Pleistocene Epoch. It also self-destructs if you’re foolhardy enough to download the latest operating system; Apple faces a lawsuit for creating a faulty product, but most of us seem to accept implicitly that our tech gets outdated, fast.
And yes, the newest smartphones do more and cooler stuff. But not everything new is necessary. (Should you get a baby monitor that connects to the Internet, so you can watch the baby stirring during Date Night? No.) The latest devices strive to be your companion, addressing you by name in dulcet tones, pulling an intimacy algorithm from some faraway server, somewhere.
But I already had an intimate relationship with my Dream Machine. It was the last thing I saw before I went to bed at night and the first thing I saw when I woke in the morning, a physical reminder of constancy and change. I probably wouldn’t pine over a lost microwave oven or a vacuum cleaner. In fact, I hate my vacuum cleaner. But the clock? It’s irreplaceable.
“You know your phone has an alarm, right?” one Facebook friend snarked when I proclaimed my loss.
I know. It can wake me up. But two decades from now, it won’t be there to tell me where I’ve been.