An ode to the short but influential life of the audio cassette.
Great post Steven. To answer your question, "are there other examples of this pattern?" of prescient obsolescence, I think there is another way to look at this through the lens of disruption and jobs-to-be-done. In other words, almost all functional products contain the "seeds of their own destruction."
In the disruption case, a new product, like the cassette, is introduced that is actually worse on some critical dimensions. In the cassette example, it clearly had lower audio quality. It initially gets dismissed as a "toy" (as disruption theory explains). This was true of MP3s as well, i.e. they didn't have the quality of CDs and were dismissed by audiophiles. This was even true of the iPhone, which was famously dismissed by Steve Ballmer as an expensive "phone," when it was actually a disruptive, lower cost portable computer.
Disruptive products (i.e. products that are initially worse but often lower cost) expand the market because they move "non-consumers" into the market. Non-consumers are people who want to get a job done, but the current solutions are too expansive. The India example Byrne uses is a good example of this.
The underlying customer job-to-be-done (JTBD) is stable, but the products are not. For example, humans have always and will always want to 'create a mood with music' (the JTBD) but the products have and will continue to change. In some cases (e.g the cassette, the iPhone) the new product will be disruptive because it is initially worse on some dimension (e.g. audio quality, computing power), but then the new product take over the market because they get the job done better on other dimensions (e.g. mobility). How a new product gets the job done better can be measured using the speed and accuracy of getting the job done.
For example, creating a mood with music with LPs was high quality, but it was impossible to create a mood with music while mobile (e.g. in a car or while exercising) with LPs. Enter the cassette, which was a much faster and more accurate solution to creating a mood with music while mobile, even though the quality was lower.
This framework explains the evolution of almost every functional product in existence. The Kodak Brownie camera helped share memories faster and more accurately. It dominated for six decades, so a few decades longer than the cassette, but it too was replaced by mobile phones and social networks which enabled consumers to share memories faster and more accurately. This is true of encyclopedias and libraries, which dominated for centuries, but were replaced by the Internet, Wikipedia, and online sources of information as soon as they helped people find information faster and more accurately.
Music is a great example of both disruption and jobs-to-be-done. Why did all of us who are old enough switch products and repurchase our entire music collections multiple times? Because each new product (from LPs, to cassettes, to CDs, to iPods, to streaming services) got the job done faster and more accurately.
Every product contains prescient obsolescence because we cannot manufacture more time. So humans will always switch to new products that help them get important jobs done faster and more accurately.
One thing I love about this post (and there are many!) is the automobile as meta-medium (?) – that is, the container for the cassette deck technology. Long after I had abandoned cassette deck stereo components and Walkmans for CDs and mp3s, I was still driving older cars with cassette decks, still listening to my old tapes from high school and college. This practice continued until just a few years ago (finally upgraded my ride) so my tween-ish kids are very familiar with tapes – and early 90s indie rock. So, an interesting set of experiences locked in my memory around tapes and cars and my kids but also my own adolescence.
My adolescence also coincided with the rise and fall of the cassette. I never thought of this way before but making mixtapes (which was *everything* to me), amounted to my first foray into technology, not just the music itself.
Oh, the memories, the Acura with the George Bush bumper sticker applied before the first Bush ran for President and was still there when my mother/Stevens Grandmother passed on. Another example of Prescient Obsolescence?
Great reflection Steven. I was just chatting with my 18-year-old son this morning about tapes -- in particular my collection of Neil Young bootlegs, acquired through trading in the early 90s. It’s so fascinating how technology truly follows that evolutionary pattern. Mixtapes to playlists, etc. I find it interesting that tapes have not made any sort of comeback from the fascination some audiophiles have with the analog experience of music v digital. I suppose tapes are nowhere near as acoustically pure or resilient as LPs in that regard. But they were portable and conferred many advantages, as you describe. Did we ever think headphones would be permanently affixed to our children’s heads? I look forward to watching the Byrne talk. Happy Thanksgiving!
These were cheap to begin with, made cheaper by mass take up, and quite disposable culturally. You took care of your vinyl recordings but tapes were nowhere near as precious. They had a tendency to get jammed in the machine.
Was their demise foreseen? I’m not sure it was at the time. There’s some overlap with the old withering and the new becoming accepted. I mean, how long has vinyl got? We thought it was dead once but it was only slightly unwell.
Cassettes liberated my mother’s music tastes, but greater choice and planned obsolescence drove up the cost.
Passing boats had been skipping the LP needles in the houseboat she raised us on. I egged my folks into buying our first deck (mostly so tween me could tape off FM). She expanded from lumbering symphonic classical to peppy jazz, but iron on Mylar isn’t meant to last, especially in salty air.
I offered to pirate from the Columbia Record & Tape Club, but she turned up her nose at IP theft (disdain shared in our P2P age by my otherwise perfect spouse).
Love this idea. I wrote something a while ago about how changes takes about 30 years from the earliest technology to mainstream adoption of new behaviors. I used the CD as an example, instead of the tape!
Fond memories of Amy making mixed tapes and then teaching me how to make my own. Loved doing it.
Great piece (the Byrne book is great too). Made me realize that without the cassette, there is no Grateful Dead, their popularity built not off their albums, but off tapers creating and circulating tapes. Me, I had BEST OF on 8-track (taped of a friend's brother's album), but I didn't get into them until someone handed me a stack of bootlegs and said, Copy what you want, me having a two-deck stereo.
Thanks. Very thoughtful for both my precocious twelve tear old grandson who is inching up on the idea of the adjacent possible in his own reading and this grandfather who is now writing about how paradigm shifts happen. Not question to you is, therefore, what are the circumstances under which seemingly small adjacent possible changes add up to the kinds of huge leaps forward we got in situations like these? It’s a big enough question to I(maybe) nudge me into paying for a subscription!!!!!
Mapquest, CD-R, MP3/WMA CDs players, iPods, XM, cassette aux converters, point and shoot cameras, stand alone GPS. If future generations made a road trip movie set in the year 2005, I could see how they would get it wrong.
One reason for the success of cassette tapes was that the standard was put in the public domain so there were all sorts of suppliers. I bought cheap cassettes from suppliers advertising in the latter pages of the arts section of the New York Times.
Of historical interest, cassette tapes helped drive the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The media was censored, but cassettes, passed around and copied spread the word about the shah and his corrupt regime.
Another transient technology was the magic lantern. It was basically a slide projector with a kerosene lamp. In the latter part of the 19th century, it was seriously popular. You could buy glass slides with travel pictures, histories, narratives, educational stuff and so on. There were even interactive slides where you'd turn a handle or slide a knob to explain how the seasons worked or aspects of geometry. There were pages of slides and sets in old Sears catalogs.
How about player pianos? They had a similarly short life span, but they offered music to people and places lacking someone with musical talent. You could buy a roll and play what you wanted when you wanted it without having to actually play any instrument. It was displaced by the phonograph save as a nostalgia thing.
We'll ignore 8 track cassettes. I had a cousin who loved them. She was always the practical one. You can probably file this with wire recorders that stored sound on an iron rich wire.
VHS tapes were only around for 30 years or so, from maybe 1975 and into the early 2000s. We digitized our last few just recently. Yes, on our bootleg tape of Star Wars, Han shot first.