Renting a video together was like updating Facebook to ‘in a relationship’
Jennifer O'Connell: Add slow sets to the list of things I love that are already, or about to become, obsolete
Mixtape etiquette: mixtapes were a crucial part of the courtship ritual in the 1980s and early 1990s
I read an article recently about how the qwerty keyboard will soon be extinct. Speech recognition is on the verge of killing-off typing, and one day, not too far from now, we’ll all just tell Siri what we wanted to say. As artificial intelligence advances, she’ll probably know before we do, which will make the job of writing columns a lot easier.
Or maybe Siri will be obsolete too, the article suggested, and we’ll attach a Bluetooth device to our fingers, waggle them in the air, and words will appear on a screen.
So now I have to add typing to the long list of things I love that are already, or about to become, obsolete. My passion for typing might have something to do with the fact that it’s the only endeavour involving moving parts of my body at speed that I was good at as a child. It didn’t matter that I was everyone’s last pick for teams in every sport, because I could type “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” at 52wpm.
Slow sets promised a full three minutes’ shuffling around an unerotically lit sports hall, two stiff arms’ length from the object of your affection
Sometimes, when asked the dreaded hobbies question, I would actually say “typing”. And I wondered why other children seemed slow to warm to me.
It made me think about all the other things that I used to love which are now obsolete – like the weekly ritual of Saturday morning TV. Thanks to Netflix, Apple TV, YouTube, Chromecast, on-demand, 24 hour everything, catch-up TV and pause and rewind buttons, my kids can watch whatever they want, whenever they want, on a screen of their choosing. They would regard a world where there was only one screen, and it was only theirs for a few short hours every week, as unimaginable deprivation. But they’ll never know the unalloyed joy of those hours on a Saturday morning when you’d wrap yourself in a duvet and push soggy Frosties around a cereal bowl, while you decided which member of the Thunderbirds you’d kiss first.
As an adult, of course, I now realise that Saturday morning TV is not for children at all, but was a cunning Darwinian measure to ensure the continuation of the species, promising up to 19 minutes of uninterrupted private time for parents between ad breaks. Now, thanks to the pause and streaming-on-demand button, reliably uninterrupted Saturday-morning parental private time is no more. I miss Saturday morning TV, and I’m not just referring to Forty Coats and his sneaky snake.
Mixtapes are another phenomenon consigned by big tech to the dusty attic of the cultural memory. For the benefit of the Spotify generation, mixtapes were a crucial part of the courtship ritual in the 1980s and early 1990s. There was both an art and a science to them: the art involved deciding what songs to put on, which order to put them in and what you were going to write on the sleeve (Some Cure lyrics? A quote by Bob Dylan?). The science part involved syncing up two tape decks, or hovering by the radio with your finger on the “play” and “record” buttons, trying to get the timing just right as you waited for the DJ to stop talking and Tracey Chapman to start singing.
If the mixtape had the desired effect, the next stage of dating was a trip to the video library –yet another victim of the digital revolution.
Going to the video library together was the ’90s equivalent of updating your Facebook profile to “in a relationship”. If you lived in a small town, you knew word would fly around that the pair of you had been spotted in Blockbuster, taking out a video with Meg Ryan on the cover, which was tantamount to placing an engagement notice in The Irish Times. For boys, having a membership card for Laser video store on George’s Street displayed prominently in their wallet was like growing a big, bushy hipster beard: a signal that you were both manly and unafraid of subtitles.
Other rituals of my childhood that my own children wouldn’t understand include racing home to ask your mother if anyone rang; getting a phonecard from your granny for Christmas; long handwritten letters; people calling to the door unannounced; and slow sets, or the promise of a full three minutes’ shuffling around an unerotically lit sports hall, two stiff arms’ length from the object of your affection. With all of that now gone – rendered obsolete by the relentless march of digital progress – it’s a wonder that people aren’t on their way to becoming obsolete too.
But the human race always finds ways to ensure its own survival. So now, instead of slow sets, we now have swipe culture and sexting. Instead of trips to the video library, there’s inviting someone around for “Netflix and chill”. Is that really progress? Or maybe that’s just another sign of my impending obsolescence. In the future, there will probably be columns like this one, getting all gooey-eyed and nostalgic about the days when you opened up an app on your phone and found photos of some stranger’s penis on it. I can’t help feeling that’s not really an upgrade.