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'Mom, what's a pager?' Explaining the obsolete to your kids (and yourself)

Old-school items like turntables are making a comeback. What does it say about how we feel about tech?
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Remember rotary phones, answering machines and pagers? Baby boomers and Gen Xers have had to step up and embrace a steep learning curve to remain functional and relevant ever since.David Van Der Veen / AFP/Getty Images file

As a woman of a “certain age,” I occasionally face questions from my children about now long extinct items that existed in my early adulthood.

“What’s a pager?”

“How did answering machines work?”

Stuff like that.

Recently, writer Matt Whitlock posed this question on Twitter: “Without revealing your actual age, what’s something you remember that if you told a younger person they wouldn’t understand?” Pagers, floppy disks and busy signals were among the thousands of replies and retweets. A recent article by Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic aptly pointed out how certain references — especially tech references like these — point directly toward your actual age, Botox and Juvéderm be damned.

It’s a wonder we Gen Xers somehow managed to function before smartphones were the nerve centers of our lives. And, when you step back and think about it, we’ve had to step up and embrace a steep learning curve to remain functional and relevant ever since.

“It is obvious that most of the relics of earlier eras that stick with people are technological, or at least about the material culture of technology,” Madrigal says. “It is banal to note that these technological eras are becoming shorter. No one expects today’s social networks or electronics to last as long as AM radio or the internal combustion engine or even three-channel broadcast television. That’s not how products work anymore. Many things are designed for obsolescence and the rest end up there anyway with frightening speed.”

This certainly can seem literal: it feels like certain products (like smartphones) are programmed to time-out after a relatively short period of time, making it that much harder (and more expensive) to keep your tech life current.

Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s tech podcast Note to Self and author of Bored and Brilliant, a book about how spacing out can bring on your best creative ideas, says tech manufacturers aren’t actually being shady — it’s just the rapid clip of technology keeping its now frenetic pace. “Software is always being updated to work on the latest hardware, which means it may slow down the device you have,” she says.

Though we’ve grown accustomed to life moving faster than Ferris Bueller ever anticipated, what does the resurgence of old-school items (like the turntables) say about how consumers are feeling about tech? Are we relishing their kitsch value or do we wish things were simpler?

“I think we are yearning for items that have a single purpose because otherwise we get sucked down content rabbit holes, like checking Instagram messages but then looking at people's vacation photos for an hour,” says Zomorodi. “The only thing you can do with a record player is play a record. How wonderfully minimal!”

She also thinks we’re craving more immersive sensory experiences while doing just one thing at a time. “Sure, we tap lots of screens and take in a lot of eye candy, but there's something satisfying about the touch of vinyl, hearing the actual scratch on a real record, and listening to music the way the artist intended,” she says. “Humans learn best when all their senses are engaged.”

That may work for vinyl, but what about cassettes, which also seem to making a comeback? "Who else is old enough to remember sitting by the radio all day/night, patiently waiting for your favorite song to come on so you could hit 'play' and 'record' at the same time to get it on tape?," tweeted Whitlock.

On second thought, some things are just too hard to explain.

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