Vivek Haldar

The intimacy of imperfect technologies

I had a humungous music collection on cassettes growing up. Yes, cassettes. Those analog thingies that held music, on tape. I had built it up during my high school years. I had to get good grades and beg my parents for cassette money. That, and the PC upgrades (1 MB, up from 640 KB!!) were probably the only reasons I got decent grades.

CDs had just arrived on the scene, but were totally unaffordable, costing about an order of magnitude more than cassettes. And they were so new that very few people (definitely none of my high school buddies) had CD players, killing any prospect of music sharing.

And so I gradually built up my music collection on cassettes. The thing about cassettes is, they weren’t like CDs, or now, MP3s, where once you had the thing it was trivial to play it.

You see, not only were they analog, they were mechanical. They spun. Things rubbed against each other. They wore out. They got jammed. They got dirt in them. Sometimes, they just plain broke. And God forbid, if you forgot one of them in the car in the summer. They would melt. Sometimes, the trauma was recoverable. Often, it wasn’t. Sometimes I had to transplant the tape from one cassette container into another one, or switch parts among them. And we haven’t even got to the player, with it’s motor, and the tape-reading head that got dirty and had to be cleaned.

With cassettes, you had to be involved. At scale, with enough cassettes and wanting to listen to them for enough hours, getting your precious music to play off cassettes required active coaxing and an ongoing commitment of time and effort. Not unlike tending a garden.

You had to touch them. Tinker with them. Tear them apart. Put them back together. Appease them. But you knew them. Which ones were good. Which one would need some fixing before being played today. Which ones stuck around which songs. Some of them were unlendable because only you knew how to get the music out of them.

They were yours. You were intimate.