Cassette Futurism: Streaming, Repair and the Allure of Old Tech


Originally Published in Farrago Edition Six (2022). 

Now, more than ever, young people are embracing technology written off as obsolete. According to The Guardian, vinyl sales hit a 25-year high in 2015 and have been steadily growing since, with The New York Times claiming that 'Vinyl Is Selling So Well That It's Getting Hard to Sell Vinyl". Is the recent push towards embracing obsolete technology just fueled by nostalgia, or is there merit and sustainability to using older tech? I will explore this phenomenon through a retrofuturist aesthetic that emphasises dated technology, affectionately titled Cassette Futurism.

Cassette Futurism evokes familiar retrofuturistic images from the late 20th century--anything from the payphones of the 1950s to Nokia cell phones of the late 1990s. Think cassette tapes, film photography, fax machines, and CRT monitors. It is best exemplified by films, television and video games such as Akira, Blade Runner, Cowboy Bebop, Alien, Neon Genesis Evangelion, or more recent video games like the Fallout series and Quadrilateral Cowboy.

Much like the wider genre of cyberpunk, Cassette Futurism sidesteps earlier, Tomorrowland-style, utopian views of the future. Instead, it often tells post-apocalyptic stories of nuclear and climate disasters. Although more recent retrofuturist works are the results of nostalgia, many Cassette Futurist artists of the late 20th century imagine the future through the lens of their current technology.

For one, Mobile Suit Gundam's 1979 debut kicked off an '80s and '90s craze for futurist science fiction and robots. Subsequent "mecha" anime in the ensuing decades such as Neon Genesis Evangelion eschewed sleeker designs for classic, angular designs. The adoption of retro influences extends to the soundscape. For example, Cowboy Bebop's '70s influences are evident in its jazz-influenced soundtrack, with episode names paying homage to music icons like Queen, Aerosmith, and the Stray Cats.

However, one genre-defining example is the massively influential 1988 animated film Akira. Its environment art blends the familiar and the unfamiliar: familiar 1980s technology and infrastructure in a chaotic imaginary city. Released in 1988 but set in 2019, on the man-made island "Neo-Tokyo" after the destruction of Tokyo in 1988, its imagery reflects the technology available at the time--but reconstructed into dense, surreal arrangements of elevated highways, neon lights and connective pipes and tunnels. In a similarly dystopian vein, Neon Genesis Evangelion's world presents a late-20th-century vision of 21st-century climate tragedy. It is set in 2015 after the melting of the Antarctic ice caps incites environmental and societal collapse. The drones of cicadas are ever-present, with the world thrown into a perpetual summer.

Our environment, as well as our imagination of what climate change would look like, has changed drastically since the 1990s. Scientists have predicted global warming since the 1970s, but we have been increasingly observing its effects in the last decade. Similarly, technology also looks very different than we expected: we've lived through 2015 and 2019, and they weren't anything like Back to the Future Part II, Neon Genesis Evangelion, or Akira imagined them to be. Much like the science fiction writers and artists of the late 20th century, we also imagine the future through the lens of the "futuristic" technology we see around us-for them it was CDs and LED, and for us, the trend leans more towards sleek, parabolic forms, minimalist design and shining surfaces, reminiscent of Apple's designs.

Apple's aesthetic is emblematic of a kind of inaccessibility-for example, the round edges for which it was granted a patent in 2012, and its use of trademark law to prevent the sale of third-party parts while also refusing to sell official repair parts to consumers. The products' slim, light designs house delicate, difficult-to-replace batteries, and their tiny screws require specialised screwdrivers. The use of adhesive to seal certain products, such as AirPods, creates a sleek look, but leaves consumers attempting to replace a battery by melting the adhesive with a hair dryer. So for repairs, users are limited to the services of Apple technicians, where it is often easier to trade in a broken
phone for a new one than pay for expensive repairs.

In Aaron Perzanowski's book The Right to Repair: Reclaiming the Things We Own, he writes:

"From technology, to pop culture, to politics, the drive to break with the past in order to make room for a more promising future is pervasive, if often unfulfilled. Why fix a decade-old internal-combustion car when you can replace it with an electric one? Why repair a three-year-old laptop when a new one is lighter, faster, and comes in your choice of color? ... But we have to be careful to separate those contributions from mere product differentiation masquerading as innovation."

Devices with increasingly short lifespans exacerbate the issue of electronic waste, which is very difficult to recycle or dispose of sustainably. Over 70% of the toxic waste in America is made up of electronic waste, or "e-waste". The trend towards streaming and server-dependent technology over direct ownership also changes the way we interact with the media we consume. Remote disabling, or "bricking", occurs when products dependent on a remote server can be disabled by the company where it is located, losing features or functionality altogether.

The emergence of streaming over physical ownership can also disempower the artists employed by streaming platforms. Although Spotify makes it much easier to find new artists, their way of operating means it takes millions of streams for artists to make minimum wage. Furthermore, HBO Max recently removed many titles from its service with no notice, leaving their creators blindsided and devastated, and with no legal way to access their own work. Julia Pott, the creator of Summer Camp Island, a series that was pulled from HBO Max, writes on Twitter in response: "We worked late into the night, we let ourselves go, we were a family of hard-working artists who wanted to make something beautiful, and HBO MAX just pulled them all like we were nothing." Owen Dennis writes in his Twitter bio: "Creator of #InfinityTrain, a show that got pulled from @HBOMax and can now only be pirated."

That might be where we see the recent popularity of analogue media come in, like Urban Outfitters' sprawling shelves of vinyl or the increased sales of cassette tapes. Lately, there is a push towards owning things you love via DVD rather than just streaming it on a platform that may abandon it at any time. For music, buying individual copies of records, whether that's as an MP3 or in vinyl on Bandcamp, has the bonus of directly supporting artists- for smaller artists, these individual purchases can be significant in comparison to Spotify's insignificant remuneration.

While the trends lean towards sleek, cheap, and irreparable products, Cassette Futurism rejects a convenient and technologically perfect future. Instead, it asserts the opposite-"futuristic" tech is enduring, able to be repaired, and something that will stay with you. It finds beauty in the clunky, the unwieldy, the non-aerodynamic, the DIY, and the obsolete-the curved screens, the blinking lights, and the LCD displays. Maybe that's the relationship with tech we need right now.

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