I just bought and set up a printer that has a fax machine attached. One of the weird little quirks of working in a legal adjacent field is the continued reliance on fax machines. We’ve started a move largely to secured digital signatures here and there but good ol’ fax is the way to go for a not small portion of the population.
At the same time I was trying to download yet another driver for this BEAST of a printer, a pal sent me an old photo of a person at a payphone in Athens circa 1986. I laughed because, well, payphone, but had to explain that I never even got a chance to use one. By the time I moved out of the sticks, Athens had already rid itself of most working payphones. I couldn’t begin to tell you how to work one without having to ask the Internet.
So why bring up this bevy of old tech, you ask? Well, R.E.M. of “we’re the last to have a website!” fame, announced last week that the band was re-releasing their debut single for its 40th anniversary. I don’t particularly care about such things as I don’t collect re-issues but I was immediately drawn to the cassette player that came with one of the cases. The internet loves to paint us millenials as a bunch of freewheelin’, websurfin’, downloadin’ types but tends to forget that for those of us of a certain age cassettes were a first love. I mean, sure, I ditched my tapes for cds once I had a decent Discman that wouldn’t skip but I still have plenty of my old single cassettes lying around. Cassingles.
I can’t make a good argument for why a cassette tape other than sheer nostalgia. CDs hold more and sound better, vinyl is vinyl, streaming straight up exists… But I had to have that little purple doodad so I bought the set. I also get a nifty shirt too. Neat. But back to the nostalgia. As I get older, I do appreciate the physical packaging that comes with the music I buy. Liner notes are a must, art that can hang on my office walls is always appreciated, and not having to spend more money on my data plan to stream something is the best. There is a whole decade of local music that only now exists on burned cds that lay corrupting in our closets, the original websites they lived on are now all forgotten.
The payphones you see around town now have been repurposed into displays for the local knitters. The rest have been taken up. But I still think about pay phones (and cassettes) way more than I think I should. They were a weird fixture of my 90s upbringing, featuring heavily in R.E.M.’s own songs like “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and in my favorite childhood tv show The Adventures of Pete and Pete. You’re physically interacting with the delivery device. You’re twisting the phone line between your fingers while waiting for the call to connect. You’re *clack*ing the tape into the Walkman after Side A is done.
It’s important to pay attention to how you experience media. You can look at the reissue trends today and scoff at most of them as money grabs but there is a value in immersing oneself fully into an experience. So yeah, a cassette isn’t the best way to listen to Radio Free Europe by a long shot, but it is a great way to experience something as a work of art. Michael Stipe mentioned something similar in a recent interview about his new book. There’s a need to feel the weight of something you’ve created. Honestly, it’s probably why I’ve had trouble blogging consistently over the years. A single click away and it’s gone. Physical objects take a while longer. But anyway…
If you’ll excuse me, there’s a phone ringing somewhere that I need to answer…