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Why people mourn the death of the VCR and other outdated technology

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The prolonged and foreseeable death of the VCR that was reported last week seemed to spark a wave of denial, grief and disillusionment that only comes with the passing of a much-beloved friend. But with the exception of a few technology holdouts or VHS connoisseurs, chances are that most people who still own videocassette recorders have let them collect dust in the basement for years.

Why, then, do humans feel the pangs of sadness and nostalgia when an antiquated technology finally goes out of production?

Academics are exploring with increasing interest the nexus of psychology and technology, studying the relationships people develop with electronic devices and software, and how those relationships impact human behavior. In the age of the omnipresent smartphone and persistent social media, our interactions with technology have never been more frequent or intimate.

“If you’ve ever seen a person frustrated, screaming at their computer or watch them hold their phone into their heart as if they’re giving it a hug, [then you understand] we have in-depth relationships with technology,” said Elizabeth Gerber, an associate professor at Northwestern University.

Technologies serve two key purposes that can create emotional attachment. First, their functionality gives people the ability to do things that they could not do before. A first-time car owner gains autonomy. A TV liberates us from the movie theater. The Internet lets us gather information instantaneously. And though its functional superiority can be supplanted by newer technology, Gerber said that some people will inevitably prefer things as they were.

With all our family archives on VHS tapes, the VCR player will be around for years. Moreover, combo VHS-DVRecorders using re-recordable DVDs provide a very inexpensive alternative to DVRs. I plan to keep mine for years to come. – bboeri

“There is always a group that has an attachment to [old technology] and will forever. It’s the record player. It’s the telephone. It’s the [classic] car,” Gerber said. “For every major technology there is a group that will lament its passing and hold on to old versions of the technology.”

Technology also facilitates or captures our personal memories — and in turn becomes a proxy for those memories. The VCR and the VHS tapes it plays supplied entertainment at countless sleepovers and social gatherings, and they were the way families filmed holidays and milestones throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Many can easily recall the first home movie they purchased, the experience of rewinding to rewatch favorite scenes, or dad holding the massive camcorder at birthday parties.

“Stopping making them feels like a threat to those memories,” said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, a nonprofit organization that studies how people use media technologies. “Aside from the movies, which are all available on DVD and streaming, people have hours of family activities, their kids’ spring pageant, sporting events that are locked into these devices. It is a little like someone threatened to throw away all the photo albums, however irrational that is.”

We [still] have a VCR and a stack of children’s movies that my daughter still watches. Some of those old Disney and Pixar movies you can watch 100s of times and still be entertained. – rosaadriana64

So where do we go from here? Gerber recommends mourning the passing of the VCR or any other technology much as you would a person. That may sound absurd, but studies show it works. Gerber has pioneered the concept of the “Tech Break Up,” a methodology in which people were asked to articulate their relationship with a piece of technology and then sever ties with it in an improvised breakup — much as they would end a relationship with a close relative or romantic partner.

“It was cathartic. Finally I could say what my relationship was with this technology in an honest way and move on,” she said. “I think the idea of being explicit about the relationship, what it meant to you, and then the next steps, is important.”

And perhaps another branch of psychology can offer a path forward: the seven stages of grief.

Shock or disbelief:

The death of the VCR is greatly exaggerated. I have three machines and many tapes. Won’t be giving up these things for some time. Others also have VCRs and tapes. Ridiculous and arrogant for the reporter to declare the VCR’s demise. Must be a millennial. – lwptvu




Fifty years ago, I took the time and paid the expense to convert my family videos from Super 8 format to VHS. What now? – georgettec28



What are we supposed to do with our home libraries of VHS tapes? What do we do when our VCR breaks down? They should continue making VCR’s for six months and let us buy a new one to store when the old one dies. We have so many old movies, many out of print as well as recordings of our students etc. over the years. Do you know how much it would cost to convert them to DVD’s? First we had to throw out our 45 records and then the 33’s (which now we find out that they have new record players out). — donald 

Acceptance or Hope:

I still own a working VCR and the video cassettes we made over the years. I suppose I need to transfer the contents to DVD. Time marches on relentlessly. – sbirdy

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