My Christmas: A Shrine to Obsolete Technology

Sony Walkman Tape Player The centerpiece of my Christmas was inspired by a two-month old news story: Sony Walkman Cassette Player Dies In Japan, Lives On in U.S.

Launched in 1979, the 31-year-old portable media player will no longer be sold in Japan. (It will continue to be available in the U.S., but not indefinitely)

How did that news story turn into a work of art celebrating obsolete magnetic media technology?

Background

I saw the story. “Hey, Doc M, Sony has stopped making the Walkman tape player.”

(No, I don’t call him Doc M; I call him by his real name. But Doc M is the ablogymous name I use for him when I write about him on the internets.)

Doc M: “I have a Walkman. I wanted to sell it on eBay, but it’s busted. So now it’s just a piece of junk. Typical.”

Susan: “Oooh. Can I see it? Can I photograph it?”

Doc M emerges from the other room with the player.

Susan: “When did you get this?”

Doc M: “I’m not sure exactly. It was top of the line in, like, the early 90s.”

We pause, looking at the black and silver case. It feels heavy and solid. Green surrounds the play button.

Susan: “Wow…. too bad it doesn’t work.”

(pause)

Susan: “Hey! I know! How about if I make a shrine for it? Put floppy disks there and cassette tapes and your busted Walkman. Would you like me to make that for you for Christmas? A shrine to obsolete technology?”

Doc M: “I love when you make me art. You’ve made me other cool stuff—” (and here follows a description of a couple of some past creations)

Susan: “Okay. Fantastic.” I giggle with exuberance. I mwa ha ha at my growing scheme.

On obsolete technology

Digital Lasts forever, or five years, whichever comes first.

We who live in this era of swiftly-changing technology are losing more data faster. To obsolescence.

Detail of a 5-1/4 inch floppy disk platter on the shrine. I first encountered this notion when I read the book, Clock Of The Long Now, by Stewart Brand. (The book is about time, responsibility, the world’s slowest computer, and long term thinking. Very long term thinking.)

Brand stated that in these first decades of computing and digital media we were losing more stuff to obsolescence than immediately preceding this time.

More?! Say what?

Why, sure. Once this software application or that storage medium gets retired (5.25 inch floppy disks, anyone?), what happens to what you created in that app? What happens to what you stored on that floppy?

Oh. Now I get it.

I still think about how I’d like to, some day, get some text files off of 5.25 inch floppies. I was going through a lot and typing my little heart out on my Kaypro computer. In WordStar. (Remember dot commands)?

But how do you (1) resurrect a disk that got inadvertantly “erased” (but not written over) and (2) transfer said data from a free-standing computer to the one I currently use?

My typed journal files are, well, obsolete.

Detail view of a cassette tape spool and interiors of cassette cases. Now, granted, the medium of cassette tape is not digital; it’s analog. A format for storing an audio electronic signal on ferric oxide that’s stuck on flimsy acetate tape. One of the granddaddy storage formats, a big player in a succession of Methods to Store An Audio Recording. A shining star of the last third of the twentieth century.

But Sony isn’t manufacturing the Walkman tape player anymore. People do have portable music players, but they’re digital.

We’re seeing stories of the last this, the last that. Two months ago, it was the Walkman. A few days ago, it is Dwayne’s Photo and Kodachrome film (NYTimes), and an audio interview with Grant Steinle of Dwayne’s Photo; the last photo lab to process Kodachrome film just shut down Kodachrom film processing.

Digital may last forever (or 5 years), but it IS pushing aside analog technologies.

And that is shrine-worthy.

The Making Of The Shrine

I had the centerpiece (Well, Doc M had it)—the busted Walkman cassette tape player.

Shrine in progress before framing. Note the 5-1/4 inch floppy in the foreground. I’ve got floppy disks (both 3.5-inch and 5.25 inch). Oh, and cassette tapes, too. In order to make art using cassettes and the spools of tape inside, I searched through my collection of old tapes for the ones that are held shut by the little phillips screws. I had a collection of tapes from the L.A. Times Festival of Books panel recordings. I had bought some and shared them with friends. The LA Times has gone from producing their panel session recordings on cassette; now they produce them on audio CDs. (obsolescence. See?)

What to use as the case for the shrine? A shadowbox. How happily that that trip-to-the-mall-gone-awry turn out!

(Yes, I am crazy: Go to the mall on a Saturday afternoon during the height of Christmas shopping season, in the midst of the deluge of December, in order to see a too-well-publicized flash mob of the Hallelujah chorus? No, that wasn’t crazy. Getting a late start was.)

Current conditions: downpour.
Parking lot: full.
Patience: none.

“We are so outta here! Doc M, whip out that smart fone and find the closest thrift store.” Found. (what’s more, it’s close). And lo, there was one shadowbox there. Better’n the ones I saw at Michael’s. With glass in the back, so I could put the Walkman in front. Excellent!

(Alas I did not take a picture of the nice little pressed flowers/leaves arrangement from the shadowbox’s previous incarnation.)

Constructing the shrine using a hot-glue gun (a work in progress) Next, I got my hands on Doc M’s Mom’s old glue gun. Got some new glue blanks and some advice at Michael’s.

Then I deconstructed the floppy disks. (I opened a shrink-wrapped box of 5.25 inch floppies. I still hold out hope that I might get those old data files off my vintage Kaypro floppy disks.) Found a bunch of software install disks that I will probably donate to the Computer History Museum, too. (They take commercial software that’s more than a decade old. Yep. Got that)

Close up of a cassette tape spool and the inside half of a 3.5 inch floppy disk.

I got my handy dandy phillips screwdriver and deconstructed a number of those L.A. Times Festival of Books cassettes.

That’s when it occurred to me that I could “reconstruct” the cassettes in weird ways, with both halves facing out. A few tests of varying complexity later, and I found the shape of the cassette-construction that would work.

Cassettes reattached to one another in different fashion. A test. this is why we like the cassettes that are screwed shut: You can unscrew them and screw them together differently.

I glued the floppy platters and the floppy disks to the backing board. Then I laid the cassettes over them. To make sure it all worked, I put the work-done-so-far into the frame to ensure that it would all work okay.

Test of collage inside the shrine (to confirm layout before gluing all the tapes inside the cassettes)

The next step would be the painstaking and time-consuming: Gluing each tape spool into the cassette, and winding the tape around the little spools and paths that they’d need to go.

Did I mention that I learned to love a glue gun? I used both glue gun and white glue on this project; those little dark slippery surfaces that live inside cassettes are designed to aid in free movement of the tape spools. I learned (the hard way) that the liner sheets will just snap off. 

Shrine before framing

Here’s the completed shrine—with everything except for the Walkman. The candles have LED lights in them. They flicker. Somehow battery-powered shrine lights seem so appropriate.

The completed Shrine with LED candle in place but without the centerpiece, the Sony Walkman cassette player.

Here, after the shrine was unwrapped on Christmas morning, and the Sony Walkman placed in it. All hail obsolete technology!

Merry Christmas! Here's the completed shrine, with the Walkman in place.

I’m happy to say that Doc M likes his Christmas present very much. He plans to put it in his media room.

Make art of the old, make use of the new (the new, here, being two 2.0TB disks) Postscript: Here’s another view of the shrine, with two 2.0TB disks (two terrabyte disks—2000 gigabytes apiece!) in front. Those 2 huge disks were in a package with my name on it, destined for my backup system. (Just last night they were installed inside my Drobo, so I went from having 1 TB backup capacity to 4GB backup capacity. In the world of obsolescene, backups are another matter entirely)

If it’s old and has too small capacity, make art from it.
If it’s new with huge capacity, make use of it.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on January 03, 2011 in • AudioDigitalityObsolecence
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