Nostalgia tech: Why are we so obsessed with technology that is old and clunky?

Cassette players, clock radios, camcorders – we’re reluctant to give them up, and their successors don’t feel quite the same

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Newer is better, right? That's what we're told by a technology industry that's keen for us to buy its wares. But it's not a given. Pieces of old consumer tech are still held in huge affection by many people. Old stereo hi-fi receivers may not have Bluetooth capability or optical inputs, but 1970s models by companies such as Marantz are revered for their sound. Film cameras and physical photographs may seem obsolete in a digital age, and yet Fujifilm is reported to sell millions of such cameras and photo printers every year.

There's a growing obsession for old-style mechanical keyboards, and you'll see heated online debates about which kind of key switches give the most satisfying click. Cassette players, clock radios, camcorders – these things were built to last. We're reluctant to give them up. And their successors don't feel quite the same.

Technology that harks back instead of marching forward can prove unexpectedly popular. Take the Fragment 8, a new video camera that emulates Kodak's Super8, originally launched in 1965. It comes in a bulky retro case, restricts you to two minutes of video per clip and even makes a Super8-style whirring sound while it's recording. It's not sleek, multifunctional or discreet. But it smashed its target on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter and is now in production.

French designer Julien Rivoire imagines new forms, like a foldable WinampAMP player. Courtesy Julien Rivoire
French designer Julien Rivoire imagines new forms, like a foldable WinampAMP player. Courtesy Julien Rivoire

"Nowadays, people use their phones to shoot everything in their lives," says a representative of the Hong Kong company behind it, The Lofty Factory. "But we wanted to get back to the idea that we just shoot the cherished moments."

Is this fondness for retro technology part of a desire for greater simplicity? Wanting gadgets to do less, to take up a smaller part of our lives? A need to feel more connected with the real world? Peter Leigh, whose Nostalgia Nerd channel on YouTube is devoted to the technology of yesteryear, is suspicious of the upgrade cycle.

"It's hard to see the improvements brought by new phones," he says. "These don't feel like advancements. They feel like they're there to bring in another round of sales, a drive to create more income. It's really the economic system we live in that is the cause."

Leigh's channel has about 300,000 subscribers, and it's evident that there's a big audience for retro tech. Musician and electronics wizard Sam Battle has won huge online audiences by using old synthesisers and games consoles to create wonderful new machines.

The Fragment 8. Courtesy The Lofty Factory
The Fragment 8. Courtesy The Lofty Factory

YouTube star Marques Brownlee launched a six-part series called Retro Tech back in December which examined gadgets such as the first Macintosh, the Sony Walkman and the brick-style DynaTAC mobile phone, picking up millions of views. Many of those views will be young people laughing at the chunky, low-powered gadgets and poking fun at an era when GPS would have felt like witchcraft. But there's also a lot of love out there, rooted deeply in nostalgia. "If you think back to the '70s, '80s or even '90s, technology was incredibly exciting," says Leigh. "Each new innovation seemed like a quantum leap forward, and it completely sparked our imagination."

Some companies are now striving to tap into that emotion. Kentucky audio company Crosley has become the world's number 1 seller of vinyl turntables by giving them a budget pricetag, a retro appearance and the ability to play 60-year-old 78rpm records. Sony celebrated the anniversary of its revolutionary Walkman by releasing a modern audio player styled identically to its 1979 cousin. There are frequently launches of replica 1980s home computers such as the Commodore 64, VIC-20 or ZX Spectrum.

Atari is due to unveil its VCS gaming console next month, a lookalike of its 1982 predecessor, the Atari 2600. NEC's TurboGrafx-16 console is also getting a reboot; 57 retro game titles from the early 1990s, housed in retro casing. Design is evidently part of the appeal. For older people, the look of retro gadgets evokes a period that they tend to idealise – their childhood, their teenage years – to a point where a scratchy-sounding mono cassette player can elicit a wistful sigh.

There was no functional reason for Motorola to include a hidden retro mode in its new Razr smartphone, where a few swipes can activate a faithful recreation of its 2004 Razr. Nor for Microsoft to give is new Windows 10 Terminal app a retro-style video effect that emulates old CRT monitors. It's there solely to provoke a plaintive longing in the user, with nostalgia drawing us closer to the technology.

But some design is timeless. Chinese company Shanling last year launched a portable music player, the Q1, that is reminiscent of a 1950s-style Smeg refrigerator. JBL has unveiled a new loudspeaker, the L82, that looks almost identical to the L100, its orange-fronted model from the early 1970s. Some artists use this fascinating collision of new and old as a springboard for their own artwork.

Swedish designer Love Hulten refashions old games consoles into beautifully crafted pieces that play with form and nostalgia; his works fetch thousands of dollars and pictures of them are greeted with delight on social media. French designer Julien Rivoire, meanwhile, imagines new forms – a curved wooden retro calculator, a foldable Winamp player – and again, these images provoke enthusiastic reactions. "There are some details or colour combinations that looked strange or awful back then, but nostalgia makes us see it with a better angle." he says. "Today's design is more about minimalism and premium materials – and don't get me wrong, I love that too – but I suppose that we're still attached to these retro objects that were more toylike."

These new versions of old technology could never be described as sleek, minimalist or unobtrusive. They’re bold, hefty and, in some cases, completely unnecessary. They do things that smartphones can do perfectly well. But the human brain often finds delight in the unexpected. And new things masquerading as old ones – or vice versa – will always have a mysterious and enduring appeal.