It’s funny how I still remember getting my first Game Boy. It was the original one, 8-bit in a lovely yellow colour, feeling heavy and smooth in your hand. My mum had bought it off my older cousin for about £10, and I remember feeling so surprised that she’d got me it for Christmas. I had a few games which were these wonderful plastic cartridges that you slotted into the back of your Game Boy, and you could hear the satisfying click when they were inserted properly. There was the sweet little noise it made as you switched it on, the Nintendo logo fizzling onto the screen, the red ‘on’ light glowing in the corner. The shimmering pixels and the chip tunes of game music.
I guess every generation grows up with some form of technological hardware that seems always exciting and new. Whether it’s a radio, gramophone or mobile phone, people born in the twentieth century have grown up with some newfangled machine that somehow adds to their daily life and experience of the world. I feel like my generation is an interesting one in this regard: we grew up with hardware but increasingly this hardware has shrunk like something from Alice in Wonderland, shrinking until it becomes something ethereal, intangible: a piece of code; a web of communication; a world available not only at your fingertips but at the swift movement of your iris. At primary school, we fiddled about trying to hand in homework on corrupted floppy disks. Now we have smartphones, iPods, Google Glass – and that funny thing, the Internet.
Recently I actually went into a shop and bought an album. That’s a statement that would seem pretty meaningless even five, six years ago. Who cares? Now, however, it’s an event. Why would I bother leaving the house when I could get the new music I wanted in an instant on iTunes? After all, that’s what I’ve often done before. I’m not sure why I decided to buy it in ‘hard copy’. It was the new Conor Oberst album, Upside Down Mountain. Being a longstanding fan of Oberst and his band Bright Eyes, I wanted to make buying his album seem more like an ‘event’, to get that kind of excitement I used to get as a teenager, spending endless Saturday afternoons browsing music shops and picking out intriguing album covers; or as a kid, when my dad would take my brother and I into HMV and let us each pick one album. I remember eleven-year-old me picking up The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan and my dad looking at the cover and frowning, ‘that looks a bit too gothic Maria’; he bought it for me anyway.
So I happily purchased Upside Down Mountain from Fopp in Edinburgh and took it home on the train with a smile. It felt good to hold something physical in my hand; yet also strange that it was made not from the hard plastic casing I was used to but a kind of recyclable card. Times are changing. It didn’t have the same retro feel of a CD, something that would look nice all stacked up with the title showing, but it was still better than the paltry avatar of album art you get on a computer. Funny thing, I don’t own a CD player, so of course I had to put it into my computer anyway, to eventually burn onto my iPod. What I first noticed was the soft whirring sound as I inserted it into the disc drive. I’d forgotten all about that whirr; owning a MacBook, there’s very little computer noise at all and working with it normally feels like a more silent, smooth and hi-tech experience than it did with my old laptop that used to hiss and bleep and burn a hole in my lap. There was something lovingly nostalgic about that whirr. It got me thinking: how deep is our relationship to hardware?
As a kid, I had a sorbet yellow tape player with soft grey buttons and a handle that let you carry it about the house. One day I found my dad’s old collection of tapes: boxes of tapes that he’d copied, some original purchases with the artwork intact. The first ones I stole (with permission) were The Police and Manic Street Preachers. I used to listen to the radio with my beloved tape player; at night I’d sit in a den I’d made out of muslin and cushions in the corner of my bedroom, and I’d tape-record my favourite songs off of the radio, snippets from live lounges and interviews which later played back to me, mingled with a softly rasping static. I suppose these were my own (poor) attempts at making mixtapes, the songs cutting off midway through, fragments of old material appearing where I’d failed to tape over properly. I miss listening to music like this: a mix of rewinding and pausing, stopping and starting. I had audiobooks too: childhood stories filling my room, about pots and pans that came to life, and the bizarre sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The excitement of silent sound space that came with the voice saying ‘End of Side One’ enacted a kind of participation in the story, as you had to manually extract the tape and flip it over before playing it again.
I feel lucky that someone has actually made me a mixtape before, and this was just before such an act became ‘hipster’ or mere ironic nostalgia.
My home town Maybole is pretty small and doesn’t boast much, but it did used to have a little video shop that my mum, my brother and I used to visit every Saturday night. We’d browse the aisles and argue about what film to pick, and it was always an excitement, knowing it was on loan only for one day and so we had to watch it. Afterwards we’d pop into Safeways across the road and buy snacks. Film watching was more of an event back then, a shared thing. Now, apart from a rare trip to the cinema, I only really watch films when I’m too exhausted to read after a shift at work, and even then it tends to be just me in front of a laptop sleepily watching whatever’s half-decent on BBC iPlayer. While now watching a film is easier to do in parts, before, you’d have to rewind and watch the funny people moving backwards, frustratedly searching out the point where you last left off. The ease in which we can slide between scenes on a DVD player or computer has probably added to our general sense of impatience; it’s too easy, perhaps, to skip over or lose concentration, knowing how easy it is to freeze and repeat.
Moving then from serial to random access memory, I entered my teens. When I was at secondary school, I was really into music and CDs – as much as I had once been into video games – and bought as many as I could with my birthday money. I had a cool silver-blue CD player from Argos that you could put three discs at once in, and it would shuffle songs from all of them at once (before it broke). I also miss the physical act of burning CDs onto a computer, one by one; back when they took ages to copy and almost without fail ended up crashing the family desktop. It was more of a reward when you finally built up a database of your physical music, and could sit and spend hours rearranging playlists whilst chatting to friends on MSN. Already, though, technology had given me the power of multi-tasking; it was just the slow internet connection and processing speed that tended to interrupt the flow (but I almost miss the bleeping symphony of a dialup connection).
I guess this article could be classed as another act of nostalgia, but I wrote it sort of to come to terms with where we are now. The Web has pretty much exploded, infested with advertising and weird material; an intricately layered network which is no longer just the facility through which I access Neopets but an intrinsic part of my daily life. Without it I couldn’t access course resources for uni, I’d struggle to contact my friends, I’d be limiting greatly the availability of information on hand to me. My laptop screen is now a perfect kind of mirror, an elaborate backlit LED technology which provides a window into the tunnel world of networks and code that make up our online lives. There is no longer that tangible, silvery translucence of the old LCD monitor displays which spread rainbow shimmers when you pressed your finger against them. The hardware of my childhood and adolescence – of tapes and CDs and Game Boys – has passed into the realm of the soft-world, the almost flawless efficiency of my MacBook Pro, through which everything is easily at hand. And you know what, I almost regret it.