It’s no surprise that Sony Corp. will finally stop manufacturing Betamax videocassettes. Betamax transformed the world’s viewing habits 40 years ago but it quickly succumbed to the rival format, VHS. No new Betacam recorders have been available, even in Japan, for over 13 years.
So why did the format last so long? It’s easy to blame corporate stubbornness. But the persistence of obsolescent technologies goes beyond culture. It takes three forms:
The first is pragmatic. Many people, including owners of the latest devices, retain some old ones because they avoid some of the vulnerabilities of newer equipment. Consider the often-ridiculed fax machine: A scanned document may be more convenient and cheaper to send than a fax, for example, but unencrypted personal information is notoriously easy to hack online.
Another pragmatic reason for using older devices is simply that they still work. Professional laboratory instruments and theatrical lighting systems with years of useful life ahead of them still operate with floppy disks, for example.
And the world’s military leaders, for all their fascination with advanced weapons, find it hard to part with older, rugged ones like the World War II–era Kalashnikov automatic rifle, now marketed and produced worldwide as the AK-47. The AR-15, a favorite of American civilian firearm enthusiasts, was also introduced over 50 years ago. Even apparent breakthroughs may be less effective than they seem. The military historian David Edgerton, in his book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, argues that Hitler would have done better to build 24,000 fighter aircraft for the cost of his “wonder weapon” V-2 rocket program, and that the U.S. could have defeated Japan earlier if Manhattan Project funds had been used for more (conventionally armed) B-29s.
In civilian technology, too, the past is still alive. Technically, the audio cassette (originated by Philips in Europe) may be even more primitive than the Betamax tape, but the largest remaining American producer, the National Audio Company in Missouri, has reported a 20 percent growth in sales from 2013 to 2014, and the best year since the company was founded. Lots of old tape drives are rugged and effective.
A second reason for using older technology is aesthetic. Where pragmatic users like saving money, aesthetic ones will gladly pay more for what they consider a higher quality or more authentic experience. Not too long ago, vinyl records were associated with middle-aged audiophile purists; now they appeal to youthful hipsters as well. Even vacuum tube amplifiers, said to have a warmth lacking in solid-state electronics, have new admirers.
Sometimes, pragmatic choices morph into aesthetic ones. Modern automatic transmissions offer better fuel economy than the few remaining U.S. stick shift models, and are now standard equipment on American-built cars. Yet remaining devotees still crave manual transmissions for the tactile experience of driving them. One enthusiast predicted in the Wall Street Journal that they will build their own if all manufacturers drop them.
Paradoxically, the Web and social media have also helped prolong the lives of waning technologies, especially on aesthetic grounds. The page “Driving a Stick Shift” has over 10,000 Likes on Facebook. Amazon, eBay and modern search engines make it easy to find niche products in the U.S—including working Betamax recorders and vintage tapes, still sealed in their original wrappers. The many academic aficionados of the elegantly simple WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS can turn to a Columbia University Web site for instructions and troubleshooting.
For aesthetic preservation, star power also helps. The artist Chuck Close’s stunning 20 by 24 Polaroid portraits helped frame the instant photo technology as an elite tool rather than a pre-digital relic; entrepreneurs who bought the failing original company’s assets are selling film and cameras again. Meanwhile, prominent directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow and J. J. Abrams have persuaded Hollywood studios to guarantee Kodak a critical mass of orders for 35-millimeter film stock. Tarantino, a staunch foe of digital projection, shot and released The Hateful Eight in the endangered 70-millimeter format. (Sadly there was no such champion for Kodachrome slide film; the last rolls were processed in 2010–11.)
Aestheticism can cost millions—Tarantino had to have special new lenses manufactured to project his latest film—but it also can be dirt cheap. A notoriously leaky 1980s Soviet camera, the Lomo, was embraced by a circle of Viennese enthusiasts who cherished its potential for creative distortion and founded a flourishing Lomography movement. The once-defunct Moleskine notebook company promotes a link between handwriting and individual style with its roster of historic artists and writers. (Many Moleskine notebooks are among the few surviving examples of real signature-sewn bindings.)
The third conservative style might be called rescue technology. Many essential records and elements of audiovisual production have not been and won’t be digitized. Whereas the last American company to sell IBM card-reading machines, Cardamation Co., went out of business in 2012 after its owner’s death, the California Tab Card Co. still sells punch cards. And at least one successful family-owned technology business, Sparkler Chemical Filters of Texas, proudly punches in its business records. Public libraries have long abandoned exclusive use of card catalogues, and the last company preparing new cards discontinued them in October 2015, but there are still countless historic public and private records in file card format that must be preserved, and damaged cards replaced.
Whatever the motive, saving old formats is among other things a green reply to planned obsolescence and the electronic waste menace. So let’s toast, not mock, the Japanese Betamax fans who stayed loyal to the end.
Edward Tenner, author of "Why Things Bite Back: New Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" and "Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity," is a visiting researcher at Rutgers and Princeton universities and the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.