When Old Technology Is Just What We Need
07/15/2013 - 09:49
Rabbi Jason Miller
The author's grandmother with the record containing birthday greetings from her deceased family. Rabbi Jason Miller
The author's grandmother with the record containing birthday greetings from her deceased family. Rabbi Jason Miller

It’s unusual for me to write about old technology. In the tech field what’s new is what’s interesting and newsworthy. Yesterday’s technology quickly becomes obsolete.

Yet sometimes, old technology can be more interesting than the latest gadget or about-to-be-released mobile app. As is the case with Judaism, we can embrace change and still revere the Tradition. Perhaps as a way to pay homage to the technology innovations of yesteryear and to feel nostalgic I keep a collection of old tech gadgets on display in my office. Hanging on the wall in glass cases are a panoply of laptop computers, personal digital assistants and mobile phones from a much slower and much bulkier time. On the wall in the conference room hang several enlarged framed magazine advertisements for computers from the 1970s and early 1980s.

Quite often I’ve had to dig into storage to find that old CD-Rom install disk of the software that was needed to open a certain file. Or someone has asked me if I have an electric charger for their old organizer so they can find a contact from their phonebook or a long lost photograph of a loved one. It’s fun to use the tech gadgets of today, but sometimes we yearn for the nostalgia of turning on a laptop computer from our college years or performing a HotSync with that PalmPilot that’s been collecting dust  in the basement just to see what data is still on there.

So sometimes we seek out older technology as a nostalgia trip, and sometimes it's for more practical purposes. I recently witnessed its use for both reasons.

Ever since she was a young girl my grandmother, Adele Gudes, has kept a small 78 record with her. It was a birthday gift from her father over seventy years ago. On the record were audio recorded birthday greetings from her mother, father and sister. She never listened to that record – not even once. And then last week, at 92-years-old, my grandmother ordered a record player from the store and had it shipped to her home so she finally be able to listen to her family’s voices after all those many decades.

My grandmother is no stranger to tech. She uses her computer to surf the web; she has a cellphone and she could teach a class in programming a DVR. But in order to listen to this birthday record, she needed a phonograph.

Together with my children, who had never even seen an audio record before, we watched as my grandmother took the record out of its sleeve (with a handwritten note from her mother telling her to “preserve this”) and gently placed it on the turntable. Her sister’s voice immediately came on. It was the first time I’d ever heard my great-aunt speak as she died long before I was born. And then my grandmother flipped the record over and set the needle on it as her father’s voice emanated from the speaker wishing his young daughter a “Happy Birthday.”

As I was recording this event on my smartphone, I tried to make sense of it. I was listening to my great-grandfather’s voice for the first time, using an antiquated form of technology, the phonograph, as recorded my grandmother listening to birthday greetings that were seven decades old. Tradition and change.

I had flashbacks to when my grandmother would play music on a record player for me when I was a child. And here I was now, as an adult, sitting with my own children as my grandmother demonstrated to them how a phonograph works. Thanks to this very old technology my children were able to listen to their great-grandfather’s voice. And thanks to the new technology of my cellphone’s video recording capability they’ll be able to show their own children – my grandchildren – the video of their great-grandmother finally hearing her recorded birthday greetings.

Sometimes it’s the old technology that is just what we need. But new technology is wonderful, too.

Rabbi Jason Miller is an educator, blogger, technologist and entrepreneur. He is president of Access Computer Technology, an IT, social media and website development company in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

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