Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Skill of the Past: Using a Cassette Recorder

Having been literally bullied sick by my boss, whose picking up on small things I may have said weeks earlier and then assembling them into a file which apparently demonstrates my unprofessionality (if there is such a word) despite her committing many of the same 'offences' such as receiving personal phonecalls at work, has driven my blood pressure so high as to leave me debilitated.   Back at home I am obviously seeing more of the woman and her 8-year old son who live in my house than of recent when I have primarily been living in another town in the very social class divisive South-West of England.  Anyway, the boy came to me the other day because his mother had said that I might have something him to record music with.  Neither his mother nor I are in a position to buy him a minidisc or MP3 recorder which would be the modern type of system.  However, I did remember that stored away in the shed was a hand-held cassette recorder that I used to use in the 1990s for recording interviews.  It was not one of those mini-cassette recorders that people used as dictaphones back then, it takes full-sized cassettes.  We have had a few machines around the house that take cassettes and my car which is now 14 years old takes them too.  However, I would not know where to go to buy a blank cassette and the only place you can get music on cassette is in the cheaper charity shops like those associated with hospices rather than the big national charities.  Surprisingly quickly I found the machine.  Usually it takes a couple of hours for me to sift the stuff stored in the shed only to remember that I gave the thing away a few months earlier.  I so regret giving away my copy of the 'Talisman' board game when I left Milton Keynes.  The boy in my house would have loved it and even if he had not given the number of expansions I had to the original I could have sold it for over £100; the basic game sells for around £30 on eBay and rare expansion sets for over £200.

I have heard that following the concern in the 1970s that traditional skills were being lost we now have more thatchers in the UK than we have work for.  Every episode of 'Time Team' over its sixteen years seems to have drawn on a different craftsman/woman able to make pottery or mosaics the way the Romans did or weave or make swords the way the Saxons did or cook or dance the way the Tudors did.  It seems that we have sufficient guardians of the 'old ways' for now.  However, what this incident with the cassette recorder showed me was how fast other technology-dependent skills are being lost.  I suppose if, like my grandparents I had lived from the 1910s to the 1980s I would have seen many skills that were no longer needed as mechanisation of all aspects of our life, notably in the home, advanced without cease.  Technology dates very quickly.  I remember the acclaim that the University of Hull received back in 1986 for putting the Domesday Book on its 900th anniversary into computer format.  By the end of the 1990s no-one had computers that could access those files (though ironically people can still read the original book).  This year it was announced that a project to update the computer files was complete.  I wonder how long it will be before these are obsolete.

What I was surprised was that a child whose reading age is well advanced compared to his physical age and is able to programme the Freeview box, search the internet for downloadable games and asks me if I use Google and Word, found it so tricky to operate a cassette recorder.  I realised that the key challenge came from that the rules of cassette recorder are mechanical rather than electronic.  He quickly mastered pressing the 'Record' and the 'Play' buttons together in order to record.  He worked out he needed 'Fast Forward' and 'Rewind' because he is familiar with video cassettes, though even his 2-year old cousin has grown up in a world without them.  What the 8-year old could not get was the concepts of how the cassette machine worked.  When he rewound to find what he had recorded, he asked 'doesn't it know where the music is?'.  Naturally on an MP3 recorder it would know.  I had to teach him about looking at the spools and how far they had wound on and matching it against the little indicators on the front panel.  This recorder had no counter but I must say I have not seen one with a counter in twenty years.  Then he complained that the music had been lost and we found out that in switching cassettes he had put it back to play the B side rather than the A side on which he had recorded the music.  He has never encountered a recording storage item with two sides.  DVDs have one side, CDs have one side, even archaic video cassettes only have one side (unless someone can show me a Phillips cassette from the early 1980s; anyone remember them?).  He even had difficulty opening the cassette box as it looks different to a DVD or CD box.  To me it was a matter of a flick of my thumb but I had to demonstrate a skill that very few people in the world know how to do.

I guess all of this is simply a reflection of me getting old.  I do not feel incapable of operating successfully using current devices but I have probably not slipped into the assumptions about all technology based on what is currently the norm.  Perhaps in the future we will be surprised to find we used to have press buttons (even if these are increasingly simply squares on the screen rather than actual physical buttons) and not command a device by our voice or our thoughts.  I do think it is worthwhile making a record of those little skills that we never even thought about when using them, such as the rules and norms around operating a cassette recorder (the fact that you will not get 'disk read error' but that the tape might snap) and a score of other devices which were once part of everyone's home and are now going the way of the upright washing machine and the valve (and even the transistor) radio.

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