I’ve made much recently of the economic, environmental, and social benefits of thrift shopping, and I still firmly believe in all of them. However, as with any human endeavor, there is a downside: hidden costs, unintended consequences, and immutable constraints which can rob both value and joy from the experience. A fair treatment of the issue requires that we examine this hidden dark side as well.
One of the biggest limitations of thrifting emerges when shopping for tech items: computers, cameras, audio, and the like. It’s one thing if you don’t mind being a generation or more out of step with the rest of the world; there are more than enough manual typewriters, 35mm cameras, and cassette players out there for everyone who wants to “go retro.” Two problems stem from using retro-tech, though: support and compatibility.
“Support” means anything from refills (of film, ink, or ribbon, for instance) to repair. Once a technology gets bumped to the curb in favor of the faster/newer/shinier version, several things happen: first, the manufacturer shifts its resources toward support of the new thing, which means fewer replacement parts and refill supplies. Second, as the old thing’s market share wanes, there is less demand for (and consequently less supply of) those repair/refill products; prices and scarcity may both rise. Maybe I’m missing something, but I haven’t seen Discwasher refills or true audiophile cassette tapes in stores in a dog’s age or longer. Time was, the neighborhood record shop carried all that. And yes, you have to be of a certain age to even know what I’m talking about.
Without spare parts and supplies and knowledgeable repair people, nothing will make an item obsolete faster than being irreparably broken-save being incompatible with everything around it. What if electrical appliances came out with new plug configurations every few years? Chaos would ensue. Yet such has been the case now for years with media and information. The floppy disks I have from only six or seven years ago are useless to me now, never mind any old LP records I may have. And how are we to share the hundreds of photos we have in albums and boxes? Oh, right…a scanner. Have you priced one of those lately? Yikes. As common as they may be, the fact remains that we don’t have one; not a working one, at any rate. Oh sure, one of our printers (bought at a yard sale for $3) is an all-in-one printer/scanner/copier, but can I get the scanning bit to function? If you guessed “no,” give yourself a little prize. (Technical support on this issue will not be rejected, BTW.)
What I’m seeing here is the need for an entire parallel infrastructure to support the use and sharing of old-tech-based output, as well as format-conversion support for migrating said output to current modes of sharing and display. (What’s the scanner-equivalent for VHS tapes?) The alternative is going through the work of updating everything to compatibility with the newest storage and display. That means digital audio, text input, and photo/video recording. This scale of conversion could take months, even years, to accomplish; I still don’t have on my computer all the music that I had in LP and cassette form, and I’m not converting my scores of books to PDF anytime soon (if ever!).
The question remains, though: since we know how low-tech one can get, how high-tech can one get while thrift shopping? Can a poor locavore stay plugged-in on the cheap?
The short answer is, “Yes-and no.” The long answer will be forthcoming soon. I have to scan some of my journal pages, convert them to PDF, post them to Scribd, and…kidding!
Still, it’s more of a journey than I want to squeeze into a single post.