Robert Hanks: The perils of this rapid evolution of technology

I stopped to buy a spare mini-disc for my recorder and was told the shop no longer stocked them
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The Independent Online

Last month, Graham Goodall of Middle-by-Youlgreave in Derbyshire was fined £750 for keeping a collection of 49 Trabant cars in his garden. Earlier this year, explaining himself to the press, Mr Goodall had said: "I just love the little things."

Last month, Graham Goodall of Middle-by-Youlgreave in Derbyshire was fined £750 for keeping a collection of 49 Trabant cars in his garden. Earlier this year, explaining himself to the press, Mr Goodall had said: "I just love the little things."

You could probably draw several morals from this story, but for now let's just concentrate on one of them: that the human capacity for fetishising commodities knows no bounds. The Trabant, the archetypal product of a command economy, was unreliable, slow, polluting, and gracelessly styled; and yet people can still find it in their hearts to love them.

So somebody, somewhere is almost certainly going to be mourning the demise of the videocassette recorder, which seems to be imminent now that Dixon's has announced it isn't going to bother stocking them any more. Every new technology brings nostalgia in its wake - diesel trains left people pining for steam, central heating is a pale riposte to an open fire, LP enthusiasts curse the compact disc.

In most instances, though, you can make some aesthetic or practical case for the superseded technology: vinyl-lovers, for example, will tell you that analogue recording gives a warmth and a truth that are simply absent from digital recording. I've never noticed this myself, but I'm prepared to go along with the argument.

And quite often, what is offered as a technical advance is no advance at all. A few weeks ago, I went to the National Film Theatre to watch a restored print of the 1955 James Stewart western The Man from Laramie, shot in Cinemascope and Technicolor. The crispness of the picture - you could pick out every grain of scree on a New Mexico mountainside - and the luminous colour gave it an eye-popping, hyperreal quality that no advances in technology have been able to beat.

Still, it is hard to see why anybody would get fired up on behalf of the video cassette: compared to digital versatile disc, tape is inferior in terms of convenience, reliability, durability and quality of picture and sound. We threw out our family video recorder a year ago, fed up with having tapes chewed up or worn to frizzy unwatchability by a few viewings. (Since I review television, I still keep a small video recorder tucked away for professional purposes, but Channel 4 has said that from next month all review material will be sent out on DVD, and it won't be long before the other broadcasters follow suit.)

The DVD has so much more to offer: the clarity of the colours, the perfection of the freeze-frame, the ability to conjure up subtitles in Magyar or Danish. At the moment, there are a few things available on video that aren't on DVD, but the gap is closing all the time. And buying a film on videotape always felt provisional somehow - you knew it wasn't going to last for long. DVDs will no doubt degrade one day, but for now they are looking far sturdier.

The one good argument in favour of hanging on to video cassette recorders, the ability to time-shift television programmes, is undermined by the presence in one of our upstairs rooms of dozens of tapes, representing hundreds of hours of quality television which has so far been time-shifted by an average of about five years.

While there are good reasons to celebrate the death of the video cassette, though, there is also room for anxiety. It represents a new phase in modern life, in which the new technologies around which our lives revolve face ever-swifter obsolescence. The first stage of this has been the defeat of analogue technologies at the hands of the digital: vinyl and cassette have given way to CD, which in its turn is ceding primacy to MP3s; videotape has been overtaken by DVD and hard-disk recorders like TiVo; old-fashioned film cameras are being pushed out by their digital descendants.

But the digital technologies themselves are on a Darwinian merry-go-round of destruction and renewal. Think how many formats have come and gone for data storage: floppy disks, Zip disks, CD-ROMs, DVD-ROMs. Without consciously trying, I have gone through at least six computer operating systems in the last five years, as updates have become more and more frequent. A large part of my early journalistic output sits in files that are no longer readable by any extant computer operating system

The threat is that large chunks of our lives are recorded on these moribund media, and are now becoming inaccessible to us. Holiday snaps sit on hard-drives that are going out of date; we no longer have a player on which to view our wedding video. Two months ago, on my way to conduct an interview for this paper, I stopped in at a hi-fi superstore to buy a spare mini-disc for my recorder, and was told that the shop no longer stocked them: I had to record over the disc I had sitting in my player.

We are wiping the tape of our lives. So print those photos out, watch those videos now: most of all, try hard to remember what you see and hear. Human memory, at least, is a technology that shows no signs of obsolescence.

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