‘My friends call me the BlackBerry queen!’ Meet the people clinging on to old tech – from faxes to VCRs

You can keep your iPhones, emails and streaming videos. Aren from London, Lisa from St Louis and Billy from Wigan are quite happy with old-fashioned alternatives. And there are plenty more where they came from

More than 40 years since the fax machine became an office mainstay, it seems the party is finally over. With telecom providers no longer required to offer fax services, these machines may soon be consigned to the dusty attic of bygone tech. But for the TikTok generation, who’ve never known life without wifi, concepts such as fax, dial-up internet and Friday night trips to Blockbuster Video aren’t just outdated, they’re completely alien. Even so, not everyone has forgotten about the charms of older technology. From the clattering keys of an old typewriter to the nostalgic joy of a chunky Walkman, some people have never left their favourite tech behind.

‘I prefer videos because I enjoy owning something physical’

Billy Cunliffe, 79, Wigan, retired

It took me three weeks to save up £60 to buy my first secondhand video player in 1981. Now I’ve got seven players and more than 6,000 VHS tapes which I’ve collected over the years. Although I do use Netflix, I prefer videos because I enjoy owning something physical, and I’ve got a lot of content you can’t find on digital channels. I love my old movies, and I’m also a big rugby fan. I’ve recorded every Wigan match that’s ever been shown on television.

Billy Cunliffe at home with his huge collection of VHS tapes, vinyl records, cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes.
Billy Cunliffe at home with his huge collection of VHS tapes, vinyl records, cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

I feel like VHS offers better picture and sound quality than DVDs, which scratch easily and stop working. The downside is that it’s really hard to find VHS tapes and video players now, and when you do they can be expensive. People are going back to their roots and many now feel that older things look nice, so the prices of vintage tech are going up. I’ve started taping over some of the things I no longer watch as I find it impossible to get new blank tapes. Luckily I’m an engineer, so I’ve been able to repair a lot of my own video players and I take really good care of all my tapes. I’m a bit of an expert now.

As well as all the videos, I have more than 200 reel-to-reel tapes [magnetic tape audio recordings, popular in the 1950s and 60s], which include a recording I made of a televised Beatles performance at the London Palladium in 1963. I had to hold the microphone up to the television to record the sound, but the quality is just as good as the day they played. I’ve always been a big fan of vintage technology. My granddaughter loves vinyl and cassette tapes so I think she’s following in my footsteps.

‘I feel fax machines do still serve a purpose’

Lisa Ford, 54, St Louis, Missouri, nurse

I work in a hospital and still use the fax machine a lot. It’s really practical, secure and straightforward. There are situations where you have to share information in a non-paperless way, so I do feel they still serve a purpose. I like them because they’re incredibly easy to use, and it’s visual rather than virtual, so you can see the confirmation that something has been sent and received. If you want to send a document virtually, you often have to convert it to PDF or another format, which is more complicated than a fax. I still use a pager too, which is great when you don’t have phone reception or internet access because [it uses radio signals so] it will still go off.

Lisa Ford with her pager and typewriter.
Lisa Ford with her pager and typewriter Photograph: Handout

While new tech is more efficient in many ways, I feel there’s a bigger security threat because we don’t know how our data is being harvested and what it’s being used for. There’s also a nostalgia element with traditional tech, which explains why I have an old, heavy typewriter. I use it around the holidays for writing cards and notes, and it’s always a conversation starter when people see it.

‘People look at my BlackBerry phone like it’s an ugly kitten’

Aren Devlin, 39, London, actor

Aren Devlin’s BlackBerry.
Aren Devlin’s BlackBerry. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

I’ve been using BlackBerry phones for almost two decades, and I’m known by my friends as the BlackBerry Queen. I got my current handset five years ago and I’m holding on to it for dear life. I love the tactile keyboard and knowing that I’m not accidentally pushing the wrong buttons. People look at my phone and ask to hold it like it’s an ugly kitten. They’re fascinated by it, but also shocked that I still use it. Although I love my BlackBerry, I know I’m living on borrowed time because some of the functions are no longer working. At the moment, it still works for calls, emails and WhatsApp. I can take photos, but they’re not the best quality. Luckily I don’t use the camera much so it’s not a big problem for me.

I think it’s good to not have all the apps because I could see myself wasting too much time. The newer phones that are constantly beeping and buzzing also disrupt our concentration more. It’s unlikely I’ll be able to get another BlackBerry when this one breaks as they’re no longer being made, but I won’t consider getting a new phone until then. I’m very conscious of my carbon footprint, so if something’s working and I enjoy using it, why would I replace it? I think the constant turnover of new technology is wasteful.

‘I hope my Walkman never breaks’

Tess Caven, 56, Essex, strategy and marketing manager

A Sony Walkman from the 1980s.
A Sony Walkman from the 1980s. Photograph: AKP Photos/Alamy

I bought my current Walkman in 1989, and although I live and work in a very tech-driven world I still enjoy using it. My dad was stationed in what was then known as Burma during the second world war and used to tell us amazing stories about his experiences, and in the 90s I recorded them on cassettes to make sure I’d always be able to listen to them. Even though I know I could have them digitised, I like listening to them on the Walkman because you can hear all the crackles and sounds in the background. It takes me back to when I spent the day recording the stories, so there’s a real sense of nostalgia as well.

I’ve also got some old mixtapes that I’ve kept since the 80s which my children enjoy listening to. They’ve got Spotify too, but we like the sound of the Walkman because it’s less polished and gives the music more depth. The downside is that although vinyl is really popular again now, you can’t buy tapes and players easily. I hope my Walkman never breaks – I’ve no idea how I’d get it fixed.

‘I find using a typewriter meditative’

Carla Watkins, 36, Colchester, photographer

I’ve got eight typewriters, three of which are in working order. I use modern technology as well, but I love using my typewriters for letters and journal entries. I have one friend I keep in contact with entirely through typewritten letters, which is lovely. In a digital world, it’s nice to get a big chunky envelope full of the kind of news you don’t see in a Facebook update.

I find typing meditative, because there are no distractions – you can focus better. Finding people to fix them can be difficult and expensive – it’s a bit of a dying art – but I’m determined to get some of my other typewriters restored. I’m scared of taking them apart myself in case I can’t put them back together again.

Carla Watkins with her collection of typewriters.
Carla Watkins with her collection of typewriters. Photograph: Carla Watkins

My oldest typewriter is from around 1910, and I like thinking about the history of these machines and what has been written by the generations before us. I also have a landline phone with a rotary dial, which I love. I will spend afternoons having long chats with my friends, and because I can’t do anything else at the same time I’m able to fully engage with the calls. I’m definitely an old-fashioned girl at heart.

‘When you play on Atari, the focus is completely on the game’

Neil Thomas, 42, Cotswolds, museum owner

I got my Atari VCS games console in 1985 when it was handed down to me by a family member. I loved playing on it as a child. My favourite game was River Raid, where you’d fly a plane down a river, shooting at things. Just over a decade ago, I found the console in the attic and began to use it again. The main attraction is that the game is instantly there on the screen – there’s no waiting for downloads, as you do with modern consoles. I also feel the gameplay is really good on the older consoles. Without flashy graphics, the focus is completely on the game itself.

Neil Thomas playing River Raid on the Atari VCS.
Neil Thomas playing River Raid on the Atari VCS. Photograph: Sam Frost/The Guardian

Over the years, I have begun to collect more old consoles and computers, and in 2017 I even set up a website and YouTube channel for other retro tech enthusiasts. As a result, people started sending me their old consoles and computers. I’ve since opened two museums in the Cotswolds where people can come and play games.

I think the revival of older consoles is happening partly because there’s a nostalgia to reliving your youth, and partly because people want to share the history of video games with their children. Ten years ago, you could pick up secondhand consoles for virtually nothing, but now they can be expensive due to their growing popularity. Luckily, we have a lab in the museum where we take care of the consoles and fix them to ensure they stay in great condition. I’ve also found a use for all the floppy discs I’ve been sent – they’re wallpapering the museum.


Lizzie Cernik

The GuardianTramp

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