Technological Nostalgia: The Vinyl Record

In our modern-day world, technology moves at a pace that escapes our imagination. Things that were considered cutting edge a few decades ago now appear as dinosaurs, dead-ends in the evolution of technology. The steam engine was very advanced tech for its time, but now evoke a retro-nostalgic feeling. An entire genre of science-fiction called “steam-punk” is dedicated to re-imagining how the world would look like if steam never lost its dominance.

No one misses the telegraph after it disappeared, in fact it was only a few years ago that Western Union ceased its telegraphic service, but nobody cared or even noticed. A plethora of technologies died without anybody missing their passing, such as the Franklin stove, the clothes wringer, non-electric irons, ticker tape, the incandescent light bulb and the cathode-ray tube display.

Yet there are technologies that are obsolete and but have not died or have seen a revival in recent years. Amongst these are the vinyl record, the typewriter, the fountain pen, manual transmission and steam-powered locomotives. I will go through and try to explain the popularity of these technologies in the face of their obsolescence.

The Vinyl Record

Modern phonographic records function almost the same way Edison invented them more than a hundred years ago. There have been minor changes, such as the use of vinyl instead of shellac, and the use of electronic circuitry used to amplify the signals from the records. But it still uses the basic principle of grooves to record sound waves that was invented in the 19th century. But the phonographic record, along with other physical formats for music, is obsolete. Music nowadays is often stored in the cloud, or on a file sharing network, constantly ready to be deployed over the Internet to our ears when necessary.

It is much more convenient to listen to music in this way, but something went missing when we transitioned from physical formats to streaming music. Back in the days when music was analog, we can own music in a physical format. Be it vinyl, cassette tape or CD, we have a physical object that we own. But with digital music, we no longer have a sense of ownership. Digital music can be easily streamed over the Internet, and when music comes from anonymous servers on the cloud, we ceased to have a sense of ownership over our music. It is this sense of ownership over music that many people give for buying vinyl record. Most people feel like their identities are defined by the material objects they own, therefore ownership of music in a physical format is a way for people to express their identity.

Another reason for the continuing popularity of the phonographic record is its powerful symbolic value. When a record goes platinum, the RIAA does not send an audio file to the artist, but a gold-plated record instead. Despite all these years, the phonographic record remains a potent symbol of music that it continues to be used in stores, advertising and even computer programs. I think this cultural significance is what keeps vinyl records alive in such a technologically advanced world.

Are there any other reason vinyl is still popular? Some have said that it has a warmer and softer sound. Unfortunately this is a purely aesthetic judgment, so I cannot decide whether this is valid. However, some people noted that the sleeves of vinyl records provide more space for cover art, which is important. In our digital world where we are often forced to pare all art down to simple icons, it is excellent to see the possibility of incredibly rich graphic art.


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