Obsolete vs. useless

Quartz and Wired is making a big deal today out of a new survey that shows 58% of American households still have a VCR.

“It shows,” writes Christopher Mims*, “that a majority of Americans are holding onto a device designed to play a media format that isn’t even available anymore.”

But there’s a reason for this “lingering on past their expiration date,” as Mims nicely puts it: old VHS tapes.

While millions of Americans have moved on from tape formats, decades of media were created and stored on them before discs, drives and cloud storage appeared. And while it’s easy to replace that videotape of “Dirty Dancing” with Blu-Ray or a stream, doing so with home movies and one-offs taped from live TV is much harder. Many families have paid for a service to migrate their essentials; mine has dubbed its childhood videos from Super-8 to VHS to DVD over the past 15 years. But many others have not. And until they do, they’re not ditching their VCRs.

I still have roughly 800 cassettes in my possession (well, technically, they’re in my parents’ basement, to my mother’s ongoing chagrin, but still), including a number of bootlegs, one-offs, hard-to-find albums, and irreplaceable moments, from a Taj Mahal concert at summer camp in 1989 to my college radio shows. It’d be great to digitize them for posterity. But seeing how hard it is even to move all my CDs to MP3, the digitizing of my tapes won’t come for awhile. And while I wait for myself, I’m glad to have a working cassette deck, still gorgeous in its anachronistic 1988 glory.

So color me unsurprised at the persistence of the VCR. It remains peripherally useful for many, even in the rarest of moments. And so it remains, unbothered in many homes’ wall units, biding its time, and probably blinking ––:–– as usual.

* Of course, Mims is the author behind the recently infamous “2013 was a lost year for tech,” which suggests he’s in the dot-com-needling-provocateur game right now, much like Farhad Manjoo a couple of a years ago.