Tech Nostalgia: BlackBerrys, Dictaphones and 11 More Things We Miss in 2023


THE ADVENT OF JANUARY induces us to make many forward-looking declarations. Many of mine involve my relationship to gadgets, like the oath I’ve taken to stop sleeping next to my phone, which serves as an all-too-tempting portal to YouTube. The difficulty of actually doing this has made me long for a time when technology was less omnipresent, less powerful, just…less.

Here, writers of different generations pen obituaries to that bygone era, stories about the tech they miss the most. A lawyer mourns typing on his

BlackBerry

BB 1.21%

Bold. An auction observer recalls how his iPod Classic made him interact with music. And a doctor reminisces about speaking her notes into a Dictaphone instead of pecking them into an electronic chart while her patient waits. For each, we’ve highlighted current gear or software that might help anyone feeling a similar loss recapture—or even improve on—the magic. —Daniel Varghese

BE KIND, REWIND The VHS tape was not particularly beloved while it was the only thing available—they were relatively bulky and a bit annoying to use. But the simple appeal of all physical entertainment delivery systems has become clearer in a world world where streaming services, which can cancel and remove our favorite shows, have become dominant.



Illustration:

MAX-O-MATIC; GETTY (women holding tapes, computer, VHS tapes, Walkman); ALAMY (Instagram icon)

Film Cameras

The scent of my Gen X adolescence wasn’t watermelon Lip Smacker or the Body Shop’s white musk; it was a vinegary combination of hydroquinone, acetic acid and sodium thiosulfate. Known as “developer,” “stop bath” and “fixer” in darkroom parlance, these pungent potions made printing photos from film cameras possible. From 1989, when I took my first photography class, to 2003, when I taught my last class on the subject to high-school students, I inhaled a lot of this stuff.

Healthy? Probably not, but it was all part of the process. You had to print photos by hand from the film negative in the dim amber glow of a safelight, using sensitive paper, a device called an enlarger, sloshing trays of the aforementioned solutions—and a whole lot of tactile trial and error. The ritual required attention, and attention made it special.

By the time I was initiating a new generation of shooters into the fold, digital cameras had become common. I hear that Gen Z boosters are leading an analog photography comeback. I suppose if it can happen for mom jeans, it can happen for the darkroom. —Sarah Karnasiewicz

A modern alternative: It doesn’t produce an evocative stink, but the Fujifilm Instax Mini Link 2 photo printer lets you add filters and effects to your otherwise plain cellphone snaps. ($100, BHPhotoVideo.com)

PowerPoint

Modern slideshow programs steer you toward building slickly produced “decks.” This wasn’t the case during my middle-school years in the 2000s. Microsoft PowerPoint, with its massive library of hideous bells and whistles, practically insisted that you create truly stupid masterpieces. Star wipes, drumroll sounds and swiveling WordArt ran rampant. Actual scholars and executives deployed PowerPoint’s unofficial mascot, a needle-nosed clipart stick figure, to unveil serious research and earnings reports. In my favorite image, the cartoon is scratching his head while looking at a bomb’s lighted fuse.

PowerPoint was the perfect tool when logging on meant enduring a screechy dial-up symphony, highflying professionals unselfconsciously used the word “webinar” and Clippy was omnipresent. Now every deck I’m forced to watch—explanations of benefits, management training—tries to look like it’s my friend. Bring back the bomb guy!

My sisters and I still make each other slideshows of the old, janky variety. Their tone is white-collar absurdist, faithful to the medium. “Get Inspired,” chimes one recent slide’s heading, followed by a bulleted list of schlocky advice. Once, this would absolutely have passed at a team-building off-site—or at least earned someone a solid B+ on an eighth-grade final project. Next slide, please. —Amy Rose Spiegel

A modern alternative You can still make silly PowerPoints with your pals, but a game like “Talking Points” will generate ones for you to present. The catch: You won’t know what’s in them until you’re in the middle of your speech. (Party Pack 7, $30, JackboxGames.com)

The iPod

I went to record stores every weekend during college, stretching my budget to build out my collection. In 2006, my senior year, I did an about-face, spending $349 for the fifth-generation 80 gigabyte iPod, a portable music library that could store the contents of 40 vinyl crates.

That year, iPod sales represented 40% of

Apple’s

revenue. It seemed like everyone had one, white headphone cords dangling from their ears. I used mine to go deep into the edges of music, especially once I started digitizing the metal demos I’d buy while accompanying friends who played in bands on their tours. Soon, the collection of files I “owned,” didn’t just mirror my physical collection, it dwarfed it. My turntable became a shelf.

A year after I bought my iPod, the first iPhone came out, which made tagging and syncing up MP3s feel like the chore it was. Eventually, I gave up and began paying for Spotify. More recently, frustrated that the service keeps removing albums I like, I’ve started downloading music again. If I really love an album, I buy it on vinyl. That old iPod still sits near my turntable. But only one of them is collecting dust. —Sami Reiss

A modern alternative: Get a record player, pick the weirdest album you can find at your local record store and drop the needle. Embrace the lack of a skip button. (AT-LP60X, $149, Audio-Technica.com)

AOL Instant Messenger

Born in 1997, AOL Instant Messenger (or AIM) was the world’s first truly ubiquitous instant-messaging client. I remember the Pavlovian response I had to the sound of my best friends signing on (a door creaking open) or signing off (a door slamming shut). Remember when you could just sign off?

AIM taught millennials like me how to exist online—how to craft a digital identity, how to interact with others, and how to test the boundaries of digital pseudo-anonymity. We used the Away Message, which would display when you were offline, to covertly (often, too covertly) send coded messages to crushes. We used our screen names to communicate how we wished to be perceived. (The number of “surfergrl”s and “Sk8ergrl”s in my AIM Buddy List far outnumbered the actual number of surfer and skater girls I knew in real life.)

By the time it shut down in 2017, I had long signed off the platform for good and moved on to what I thought were bigger and better things: Twitter and Instagram. I doubt I’ll ever look back on them this fondly. —Michelle Ma

A modern alternative: Instagram is trying to make “away” messages a thing again. But the true heir to AIM is Discord, where you can shoot the breeze with pals and strangers 24/7. (Free, Discord.com)

BlackBerry

Just a year ago, BlackBerry announced that it would shut down its proprietary operating system, but many of us had felt the sting of its loss much earlier. The BlackBerry was the first piece of technology that made me, a millennial, feel like a grown-up. They were so much lighter (therefore cooler) than the bricks our parents carried. Their raised keyboards elevated hand-held typing to an Olympic-level sport, and Brick Breaker was the only game we needed. Emails fired off with élan.

BlackBerrys felt exclusive and executive, but they weren’t just a work phone—they were pop culture. “The Hills” star Lauren Conrad typed about boyfriend drama on a BlackBerry Curve. Kim Kardashian carried a BlackBerry Bold to answer emails, though she took selfies on an iPhone. Even former President Barack Obama refused to part with his beloved BlackBerry once he took office.

Today, phones are all screen, rarely have a keyboard and easily perform all sorts of gymnastics. But after 10 years of iPhone ownership—10!—I still fumble with the on-screen keyboard, misspelling words and struggling to select text. I’m confident I never made a typo with BlackBerry’s tactile typers. —Todd Plummer

A modern alternative: The digital Fleksy keyboard allows you to customize the stock set provided with iOS and Android software, and tends to be more responsive and accurate. (Free, Fleksy.com)

Dictaphone

When I graduated from medical school in 1983, physicians recorded their patient encounters into a hand-held tape recorder. Mine was made by a company called Dictaphone. Each evening, a transcriptionist retrieved its tiny cassette and typed the visit notes on my behalf. I’d review and sign them before they made their way into the patient’s paper records. Alas, paper charts are cumbersome. As electronic medical records became more affordable, then mandatory in 2014, everyone made the switch. Now healthcare staff type directly into a patient’s record.

There are benefits to this, especially for patients, but I miss my recorder. It is hard to give my full attention to my patient while simultaneously typing. I prefer conversations to be eye-to-eye, not eye-to-computer. And since I’m not so fast, I usually have to go back to my notes at the end of the day, when I’m exhausted. As a shortcut, I use speech-to-text software, but my little group of human transcriptionists understood my slightly southern accent in a way that artificial intelligence can’t seem to manage. Real people could always tell the difference between “will” and “we’ll,” and didn’t care how quickly I spoke. And each transcriptionist always added their initials at the bottom of the record, so I knew who did the work.

I came to know the people behind those initials. I took care of one person’s dying child. Another invited my own daughters on a birthday trip. I think of them when I sit in my office, pecking away at my keyboard well after everyone else has left for the day. I miss my Dictaphone, but I really miss the humans who made it work. —Colleen Arnold

A modern alternative: Otter.ai, an easy-to-use transcription service, supports various regional English accents. It’s free to try, but requires a subscription fee if you want to transcribe more than 300 minutes of audio a month. (Pro plan, $100/year, Otter.ai)

Google Reader

Ten years ago this July, Google shut down Google Reader, then the best way to read news online. I’m still mad it’s gone. The free service let you subscribe to any publication, then browse all its headlines in one place. This gave me complete control over my media diet. I started each morning with every article from NPR and Lifehacker, plus webcomics from XKCD.

In retrospect, it’s clear Reader shaped not only how we interacted with the web, but also how it was populated. In February, 2013, the month before it was retired due to a declining user base, Reader drove at least 25 million referrals to news sites, according to Buzzfeed.

In the same month, though,

Facebook,

which had recently touted its billionth user, drove 70 million referrals. The writing was on the wall. Three of the five top-visited websites last month were social media. While it once made sense for bloggers, artists and journalists to develop their own distinct websites, today’s online creators are dependent on the individual algorithms of each platform to reach any audience. Those algorithms seem to favor the most emotionally resonant things—often, things that make you angry.

There’s hope we could get a version of the Reader-age internet back. But these days, I approach any new product with caution. It could easily disappear. —Justin Pot

A modern alternative: Feedly is an elegantly designed RSS reader that functions as a decent spiritual successor to Google Reader. It’s free, though you can pay for features like highlighting and automation. (Pro plan, $72/year, Feedly.com)

6 More Nostalgia-Inducing Gadgets

In case you needed more reason to long for less-advanced days

Six-disc CD Player

Sharper Image-style home models were luxurious. Car versions varied: My sister’s was in her trunk. Listening with these players was simple, but stocking them was a pain. So you planned out an extended mood. You could still skip tracks to bypass soupy ballads and rap skits. You might override a whole album—but you would immediately be met with another. —A.R.S

Duck Hunt

Even when anything can be rebooted, this 1984 Nintendo Entertainment System, in which you would shoot hapless fowl out of the sky, will probably stay in the past. That is because the game’s controller, a fake-gun called the Zapper, was only designed to work with old-school, cathode-ray tube TVs. I didn’t know that when I, barely out of diapers, grabbed the hardware from my older sibling and took aim. No birds (or bros) were harmed. —Paul Schrodt

VHS Tapes

There is no better medium for showing off a film collection than the VHS tape. Sure, that’s not the point of the collection, but I miss having my tapes before me as a prominent, physical display of my movie-viewing options. I’m even a bit nostalgic for the whir of the mechanical rewind. —Magdalene J. Taylor

Tiny TVs

Before innovation drove down the price of the massive LED panels you’ll find in most 4K TVs, the only boob tube I could ever imagine myself buying had a 9-inch screen and a VCR slot. When my parents got one for their bedroom, it became my favorite way to watch episodes of “Arthur” they had taped for me. —D.V.

A Tamagotchi, circa 2006



Photo:

Getty

Tamagotchi

I discovered the Tamagotchi at camp in 2003, six years after the

New York Times

called the pocket-size device housing a blobby digital pet “a sensation around the world.” I treated mine as if it were a real pet. Leaving it wrought anxiety: Was his poop accumulating too quickly? By comparison, my cats are easy. —Jane Starr Drinkard

Label Makers

Up-to-date models of Martha Stewart’s preferred labeler, the Brother P-touch, are Bluetooth-enabled and offer 800 symbols and over a dozen fonts. Mine, the Dymo Executive 3, is chrome-handled, with a rotary alphabet wheel and a spool of red plastic embossable tape. I used a similar one in the ‘80s to label folders and mixtapes. Today, it keeps my spice drawer looking punk rock. —S.K.

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