We constantly hear about striking differences in China’s generations. It can be tough to find a Chinese person over 45 that uses email and one under 40 that doesn’t have two or three smart devices. In that gap, did China miss out on the history of modern tech?
The set up was simple. It was a glorious Saturday afternoon, yet into the icy air conditioned halls of the shopping mall we went; Mecca for the flocks of Chinese youth engaging in their favorite pastime of spending money. These youngsters are already pros when it comes to buying the latest, coolest gadgets out there, but is that where the expertise ends?
We wanted to know if these young adults, the next generation of movers and shakers in China’s bright future, have their heads comfortably stuck up their…umbrellas!? Or do they have some inkling as to the history of this tech revolution they are enjoying so much? Enter our quizmaster, armed with a selection of photographs of obsolete devices, it was time to put these kids to the test and show them just how much they don’t know about what was happening in the world before they arrived on the scene!
Our first interviewee seemed very confident he could pass our little test. He and his friend had no trouble identifying the first picture, a Morse telegraph key. He confidently explained how to use it before telling us its modern day replacement, the cell phone, had rendered it completely obsolete.
“The only use for this machine now is asking people if they know what it is.”
Our second photograph caused him no more trouble than the first; a roll of camera film. After telling us how the film is developed he commented that it would be hard to find a shop providing the service these days. However, he did concede that this tech could still be useful nowadays, both for photography enthusiasts and for stopping people in the street to ask them about it!
For our third picture we wanted to give him a challenge. We showed him a collection of CRTs (cathode ray tubes), the essential component of any TV before the days of plasma. This one had him stumped. He tentatively suggested they were CPUs as his friend chuckled next to him, but inside he knew he was beaten. To be fair, two out of three ain’t bad as Meatloaf always said. Time to set off in search of a younger demographic.
These three girls were just about to catch a movie when they decided to attempt our tech test. As their boyfriends hovered at the fringes we jumped straight in. Our first photograph was a classic pager. The girls knew what they were looking at immediately and were even quicker to declare the pager dead and buried as far as useful tech goes.
“You see these in the movies all the time growing up. You know what it is but you don’t know what it is!”
Our second picture was a VHS cassette. The technology that had dominated home movies for decades was almost unrecognisable to our young interviewees. One of the girls had seen something like it in a movie. Suddenly, something clicked and as one they hit on the right answer. Then, to augment their success the three of them broke into a dance to demonstrate the process of rewinding a tape.
Our third photograph was the iconic floppy disk. Surprisingly, the girls recognized the disks right away before explaining that they had used them as children on their family computers almost 12 years ago. With that they were off to see their movie with boyfriends obediently in tow.
Wyman was out shopping with his sister when we caught up with him. As an English major he jumped at the chance to practice his language skills and also take a shot at the test. Our first picture was of an old Atari gaming system complete with joysticks and cartridges.
“You could put it in a coffee shop. People who spend all day in a coffee shop love that kind of thing.”
He identified the games console with ease and explained to us how the joysticks were perfect for tank games. As a modern day equivalent he suggested the PlayStation 2. As for its use nowadays, he seemed convinced the Atari could find a loving home in a coffee shop as ornamentation and if not there was always TaoBao.
The second photograph showed a typical answering machine. His first guesses of a cassette player or record player were wide off the mark, and after a little more deliberation he finally admitted he didn’t know what it could be. After we revealed the answer he told us answering machines had never been particularly popular in mainland China though they could still be found in use in many areas of Hong Kong.
Our final picture for Wyman was a reel to reel audio recorder. At this, he was completely flummoxed. We decided to push him in the right direction with another picture of a cassette tape. This one was no trouble and he explained he had listened to English tapes as a child. Nowadays he prefers to download sound files from the Internet. We thanked Wyman and engaged in the obligatory WeChat swapping session before his sister was able to continue her shopping at last.
These students had bags of enthusiasm even if their knowledge was a little lacking. In the end it was Leo who saved the day for them, scoring bonus points for the Taiwanese crowd. We started with a standard gramophone record (also known as a vinyl record).
“They’re never completely useless. If it’s old then somebody, somewhere is collecting them.”
They recognised the picture but were a little confused as to its use. Ivz seemed to think the record could play video as well as audio and her friend said she’d only seen them in the movies. When asked about their use nowadays they felt they were mostly collector’s items and told us they could be sold for a high price.
For our second photograph we pulled out the pager again. The three of them stared intently at the picture before suggesting it was a radio of some kind. After a few more minutes Leo connected the dots and guessed the correct answer. The girls told us their parents had used them ten to 15 years ago. When asked how they would feel to receive a pager as a gift they declared they would be surprised, but would like to keep hold of it as a collectible.
For the third picture we decided to try them with the telegraph. Again the girls had no idea whatsoever, stating they had never seen anything like it. Leo was lost in thought for a minute or so before asking if there was some connection to Morse code. After he brought the girls up to speed they all realized what they were looking at. They admitted that this was a machine they had only ever seen in very old movies; another item only existing now to be bought and sold for collections.
For our final group of contestants we found a family relaxing outside in the sun. Four generations in one place, we had grandma, mum and her two sons of very different ages. They were reluctant to try the test at first, but with a little coaxing they agreed to give it a go.
“I don’t know what it is but it would make a good picture frame I think.”
Our first offering was the floppy disk. Little Guocheng didn’t seem to have any idea, but Huiyi looked like he was on the verge of success. Then he gave us his answers, maybe an SD card or a notebook! After noticing our puzzled expressions he went on to suggest a picture frame.
When asked how he came to these conclusions he was mysteriously reticent. We revealed the answer and he decided the modern day equivalent would be a USB drive.
The second picture was the cassette tape and the boys were in their element. Both of them knew what it was and Liang Huiyi went on to explain that he still uses cassettes regularly to practise his English and other subjects. They appeared a little surprised that the cassette had made it onto our list of dated technology.
For our final test we pulled out the telegraph once again. Contrary to our other groups, Liang Huiyi recognized the machine instantly and went into great detail on how to use it. He equated the old tech to our modern day keyboards as a manual tool for constructing messages.
We asked the family a few more questions about the technology in their lives. 6-year-old Guocheng didn’t own a cell phone and wouldn’t be getting one anytime soon. Even grandma took a quick glance through our photos. She didn’t manage the CRTs, but there wasn’t much struggle with any of the others.
Our day of interviews was over and we had time to reflect on what we’d discovered. Perhaps the modern generation don’t know the ins and outs of every device and machine that has made our lives easier in the last hundred years. Maybe they don’t know how differently China has evolved from elsewhere in the world. But it seems they know enough to know where we came from and more importantly how we ended up right here together.
Reporting by Daniel Zeng and photos by Chris Crescenzo