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Be Kind, Fast Forward

11/12/2010 05:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Videotapes are worse than DVDs. This isn't always true in the battle of analogue vs. digital. The CD flattened the strummy warmth of a vinyl and the MP3 compressed the CD's range. E-readers coated the coziness of a novel in slick steel and mediated out of existence the quiet triumph of turning a page. But the cinematic experience of VHS is objectively inferior to DVD and Blu-ray: poorer picture quality and crummier sound, less time efficient, less space efficient, less life efficient. VHS, understandably, after a transformative 30-year run, has had a somewhat silent demise.

So it surprised me when I visited a friend in London recently and saw her shelves stacked with videotapes. There weren't dusty cultural artifacts she hadn't the heart to dump, but the new acquisitions of an infant collection. The sleeve of the 1984 erotic thriller Body Double was even tossed next to the television, the VHS player still on.

What surprised me even more was how happy it made me.

Analogue advocates often get tangled in an argument of emotion against the rational onslaught of the technophile. E-reader devotees, for example, can quote tangible metrics like greater book sales and less paper waste in defense of the digital. Objectors, on the flipside, usually talk about the damage done to "the experience of reading," a trail of argument that plunges "into realms of hazy phenomenology," in the words of Lev Grossman, bestselling author and tech commentator.

The realm is indeed hazy, hazy and whimsical like a Michel Gondry thought-train. Physical books, records, CDs, or tapes are wrapped up with all the thinking and feeling you did as you read or listened or watched them. And if you build up a library, your shelf becomes a map of the imprints (big or small) each one made in your mind.

This notion is romantic, unfalsifiable. Consumers have voted. The CD and the VHS: dead. The book: dying. Only the sonic richness and social cache of the vinyl has shielded it (and only slightly) from this one-way trend. Science has triumphed over object fetish, and trumped that stickiest of secular religions: nostalgia.

It's easy to wax nostalgic about videotapes: the gravelly texture (montage by artist Oliver Jennings), the furious hum of rewind and fast forward, the vicious sibling feuds in the Blockbuster "Teen" aisle. I remember as a child sitting cross-legged and thumbing the plastic spines of the entire Walt Disney Classics collection. Oh, the satisfying feeling of sliding my chosen video into the VHS player! The mechanical gurgle, the obedient swallow! (Psychoanalysts, enjoy.) That VHS player was the first chunk of machinery I lovingly anthropomorphized. (The microwave was technically first, but it wasn't so loving.)

Nostalgia, of course, is not a reason to resist technology. It's a feeling with an imaginary object: a simpler time that wasn't really simpler, family bliss that wasn't really blissful, community that was really just as frayed as now.

VHS nostalgia is a symptom of a wider retro culture, according to the New York Times. Certainly, those backward glancing brittle pangs have come early to the chests of Generation Y, who might laugh at a VH1 segment on Furbies, when their own Furby is still sitting in the back of their closets with a battery that isn't yet dead.

When we buy The Adventures of Pete and Pete on DVD or get drunk and sing the rap interlude to "Wannabe," we're just groping, apparently, at that misty, watercolor era of non-perpetual war.

I don't think 9/11 can explain my love of videotape.

It's true that nostalgia is a palliative for crisis and rapid social change. The more isolated and individual we become, the more we crave collective memory to orient us within a larger whole.

So it's no wonder that digital natives, born into the greatest social revolution since the invention of the printing press, would get nostalgic so prematurely. In the last three decades, change has been so quick that technology -- the agent of chaos -- has itself become an object of nostalgia, whether VHS or dial-up, brick cell phones or Casio keyboards, Walkmans or Tamagotchi.

New technologies make everything faster, more efficient -- and we get nostalgic faster and more efficiently too -- for Sim City or the first generation iPod or the Facebook interface of four years ago (it appeared briefly on screen in The Social Network and my heart swelled). It's a pattern: A new technology is introduced to the market, becomes the reservoir for all society's anxieties, and then gets domesticated, becomes obsolete and is transformed into the totem of a quainter time.

Nostalgia is a cheap eulogy for the fallen technologies of the last thirty years. It ignores specifics, leaving us with just a vague feeling and a grab bag of romanticized memories. But it's the specifics that need to be remembered, so we're always aware of exactly how digital media is reconfiguring our lives.

So I asked my friend why she started collecting videotapes.

The bulkiness. Not for more square inches to laden with sentiment (although tapes were, she said, a more aesthetically rewarding purchase), but because VHS doesn't scratch or snap. People also don't borrow them so often, so you lose your collection less easily. DVD chapters, for her, were a negative. That handiest of digital advancements, which has saved humanity thousands of hours, chopped up movies, she said, into a numerical sequence which wasn't how films were intended. And most importantly, you can't watch them on your laptop. "One step closer," she said, "to enabling you to appreciate cinema without distraction."

It's also a plus, she mentioned, that your average videotape is now 50 pence.

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