A moment of passage into adulthood occurred for me upon the purchase, charged to a MasterCard not billed to my mom and dad, of a piece of consumer electronics. It was a Panasonic VHS deck from a Nobody Beats the Wiz in downtown Manhattan, either the cheapest or next-to-cheapest kind of VCR you could buy in 1994, in the ballpark of $50. I was sharing a 2-bedroom near the Sheridan Square stop of the 1/9 train. The console TV set in our living room was a hand-me-down from my grandmother, who that fall was being moved from an apartment in Brooklyn to a nursing home in New Jersey. We didn't have cable, though it didn't stop me from watching through terrible reception some of my favorite shows of the 90s, particularly Homicide and My So-Called Life. Mainly I watched movies rented from Kim's, a place that ought to have been preserved for exhibit at the Smithsonian. Kim's organized its tapes by director, which is really all you need to know about that VCR and what I did with it in the 1990s.
When we gave up the apartment, I kept the VCR and my friend and roommate Matthew kept the red formica and chrome table and chairs that we had bought at a flea market around the same time. Today I might rather have the furniture. At the time I needed that VCR more than I needed even one chair.
Before I succumbed to the pleasure of my own cable TV subscription at the end of the decade, when I was living in Madison, I used to get friends to record things. Everyone was talking about Buffy so I asked someone to tape it for me. Felicity came on afterward so she gave me that too to fill up the available two hours, and I loved them both, they were the highlight of every week. As I recall I was already watching Ally McBeal and the World Series, so I guess Fox came over the air but not the WB. Maybe I had Classical Film Theory on the nights when Buffy and Felicity were on and didn't know how to program the VCR. Now, of course, any episode of these shows can be summoned from the cloud in a moment. Maybe that's a loss as well as a gain.
Soon after our relationship began, Elana acquired a second VCR so that she could tape two shows at once. An exuberant extravagance, but an easily justifiable one. Within a couple of years I went from no cable and a VCR used mainly to catch up on the history of world cinema to cable and two VCRs used to record current network shows, as well as old stuff on cable (Elana watched Happy Days recorded off Nick at Nite while eating breakfast; I studied the TCM schedule to plan my taping). Elana taught me never to watch TV shows live. You save fifteen minutes per hour by recording them and skipping the ads, which adds up if you're a busy grad student.
Where is all of this hardware now, these objects of magical fetishistic delight? The VCRs are long gone. Two out of three television sets I watched while living on my own in the 90s (one from New York, two from Madison) are gone. The third TV set, a 1980s Sony Trinitron from Elana's parents' family room, sits in our basement and is used for Atari VCS games and the very rare playing of a Bob the Builder VHS cassette. Over the years we have cycled through numerous rectangular metal and plastic boxes, which we increasingly treat as short-term items, like the reusable-disposable Ziploc containers in which we pack cut up strawberries for kids' lunches.
There is a 1946 RCA Victor television set on a table in our dining room, a museum piece. It belonged to Elana's grandparents. People always ask if it works and we shrug. If it did work, what would you want to do with it? Would you sit in front of it to watch Orange is the New Black on its tiny black and white screen? I wonder if any such thing of our times would end up in the home of our grandchildren. It didn't take long for the blueberry iMac and the Razr phone, both of which I really wanted, to seem boring, out, even embarrassing to look at.
As part of an ongoing uncluttering project (with apologies to Glengarry Glen Ross, one must Always Be Uncluttering), I took a trunkfull of old hardware to the Department of Public Works on the most recent electronics recycling day. Next to an enormous widescreen CRT set left by someone else, which is probably in perfect working order and not much more than ten years old, I stacked a stereo receiver, laserdisc player, two DVD players, three DVRs (all SD, two TiVo's), a laptop computer, and a video game console. Next to that I left a big plastic bag filled with cables. I was a bit reclutant to type that list, which seems to amount to a confession of throwing money into the fire. But most of these items had been unused for more than five years, and some more like ten. None of them are worth much at all on eBay. Some of the items work, some don't, and none of them were going to be of any use to us.
And then there are the fetish objects I am too reclutant to part with, a shelf cluttered with phones, iPods, cameras, and their chargers and cables. These tell a story and I don't feel ready to give them up, especially when they don't take up much space. But they're basically just marking time on death row. Once in awhile I do an exercise in a New Media class where I bring in "old" technologies, like a film camera and a videocassette and a clickwheel iPod, and ask the students to describe the object imagining it's the latest thing. It's useful to have some old things around for times when I want to make believe they're new.
We took responsibility for the disposal of our e-waste, but we're middle-aged homeowners, and we fear one day that we might have a basement like those of our dear parents, home to a lifetime of accumulated stuff. If there weren't so many other moments vying for the honor, I might say recycling such an impressive collection of hardware is another life passage, now into middle age, but really I just wish it were so. Meeting a lawyer to sign a will and buying life insurance already served that function. Still, giving or throwing meaningful things away, like saying goodbye, can be a reminder that eventually you will have no want or need of persons or things. For me, anyway, these times feel ceremonial.
Others might experience such passages differently. On moving days over the past few years, particularly in the campusy neighborhood near us, I have been paying special attention to the presence of so many CRT television sets abandoned by the curb alongside rotting sofas and broken chairs. Sometimes the TV has been damaged, it often seems intentionally, perhaps with a hole poked in the rear. Goodwill sells CRT television sets these days for 99 cents. Ninety-nine cents for a television. That's less than they charge for a hardcover book. People still want televisions, just not that kind. Maybe there is some pleasure in destroying and rejecting the old, obsolete, abject tube, in treating it like your shit. I have not felt this. Yet I have become fascinated by the ugly heaps left behind by college kids, hoping when I bike by a dilapidated sectional or a mound of old plastic shopping bags filled with leftovers of a few years of undergrad living that there will be a CRT set face down on the lawn for me to photograph and post on twitter.
While disgusted by the environmental and social and economic hazards likely to be caused by such fast cycles of planned obsolescence and overheated consumerism, what seems more interesting (to me anyway) are the emotional ups and downs of living amidst such an abundance of new and rapidly aging stuff. People want their e-things so badly, then they take pleasure in their destruction and abandonment so soon afterward -- unless they cling to them and refuse to let them go even after finding newer, better e-things to replace them, as I do with my iPods and flip phones. When I asked a class of 20 students to leave their smart devices on the table in the front of the room for 45 minutes one day last semester (I put mine there too), people got twitchy and felt the absence of those palm-sized bricks they keep by their flesh even as they sleep. In a few years those objects will no longer be anyone's whole life any more. They will have cracked screens and dead batteries, maybe they'll be dumped by the curb, maybe they'll be responsibly dropped in a cardboard recycling bin at Best Buy, if that is still a place you can go to. Whatever their fate, they will have been consumed, digested, and excreted.
For a long time, the future-minded among us have predicted an end of old technologies like paper and more recently discs and other physical wares. The trend now in electronics, particularly where software is concerned, is to move from objects you purchase and own to services you subscribe to -- from atoms to bits, from discs to the cloud. Maybe this will mean our homes will be less burdened by accumulations of stuff, though I doubt it. The consumer economy requires more stuff, ever more stuff, not less. More books were published last year, a time of e-reader revolution, than the one before. And we still like our stuff.
Elana and I have been watching thirtysomething off and on for a few years, and until recently were doing so using the four box sets of DVDs on the shelf. Then we noticed that the series is also streaming on Amazon Prime, which we access through a Roku to watch on the television set in the living room. For the fourth season, we switched from the DVDs to streaming, partly because Amazon's HD picture resolution is better (though the image is also cropped), but mostly because we're too lazy and tired to deal with the discs. And yet the thought of getting rid of thirtysomething DVD box sets because the show is also available online strikes me as simply outlandish. They could disappear from Amazon for all we know. And I still want them, can't stop wanting them. These are the objects about which, like Alien in Spring Breakers, I say:
This is the fuckin' American dream. This is my fuckin' dream, y'all!
All this sheeyit! Look at my sheeyit!
Look at my sheeyit! This ain't nuttin', I got ROOMS of this shit!