Yes, it’s true, the Cathode Ray Tube is a dead … Kind of.
Despite how much we may want to tag human characteristics on to our objects, the lifecycle of technologies are a rather fickle thing. In modern consumer culture, a “dead” technology is merely one that’s intrinsic values are considered obsolete when compared to new models. In this case of the CRT, its older, bulky model has been replaced by new sets that boast slimmer, wall-mounted screens filled with liquid crystals and advanced features. So yes, technically the life of the tube TV is over. However, its afterlife has brought us not only a newfound sense of its irreplaceable characteristics, but sets an example for why the lifetime of objects will extend much further out than we may typically expect.
Toward the latter half of his article Lepawsky makes a brief introduction of the afterlife of CRT televisions. He paints a picture of the CRT being a valuable but deadly resource: parts being stripped for new technologies, toxic materials affecting humans, foreign countries buying them in droves because of their cheap prices, etc. In the author’s mind, the afterlife of the CRT is literally a technological poltergeist, as he discusses the millions of discarded televisions that harbor the evolution of deadly bacteria with their hazardous components. While Lepawsky certainly may have a point, I find his article to be rather one-sided, as he has clearly overlooked a major aspect of the CRT’s lifecycle: it’s reincarnation.
While it’s easy to write off the Cathode Ray Tube as “dead” because of obsolete technological specs and lowered economic value, the truth is that those who are aware of the CRT’s natural advantages hold it in high regard. In fact, vacuum tube technology as a whole has recently come back into popularity as many find a connection to its warmer, analogue qualities. In my mind, this coincides directly with the resurgence of vinyl records, film cameras, and countless other devices that are technically inferior. While “birth”, “life”, and “death” are relatively self-explanatory, the afterlife of an object stems from individuals having the hindsight to distinguish the unique qualities of each product, as opposed to the “ old=bad, new=good” mindset that is pushed in consumer culture. For example, CRTs are highly valued in gaming culture: tube televisions are much more responsive, have “deeper, more vibrant color”, and can easily adjust to a variety of resolutions. The introduction of the LCD television may have “killed” CRTs in terms of mass market value, but it cannot undermine its legacy, nor compete with the components that make it unique.
It’s very easy to merely state facts about the hidden value and advantages to older objects, so I would like to close by speaking from my own personal experience:
A few weeks ago, when shopping for a new guitar amp, I made a conscious decision to purchase an older model with vacuum tubes over one with digital technology. Looking at it from an economic standpoint, this is a completely illogical purchase: the digital amp is larger, less expensive, has higher wattage, and is significantly easier to repair/replace. But despite these facts, I (among millions of other guitar players) still chose the older technology, as there is something much more radiant and life like about it. We’ve spoken ad-nauseam about how we identify objects as extensions of ourselves, perhaps the value we see in old objects stems from the fact that they are “flawed”, and in that sense, more human.
* “14 Gaming Myths Exposed” at Gamepro.com