In search of comfort in the cord: the enduring appeal of throwback tech

Nostalgia for retro technology grows stronger as young people seek ways to break from constant connectivity – and means to connect on a more personal level.

Listening to music on wired earbuds instead of their easily misplaced wireless counterparts. A simple game of Snake on Nokia’s recently-relaunched 3210 “brick phone.” Twirling the cord while gossiping with a friend on a landline for hours instead of doom-scrolling on your smartphone.

These are just some of the pastimes that were silently fading into history until the mighty pull of longing for simpler times brought them back. Younger users' newly found love for a landline is met with particular curiosity as phone service providers are getting closer to phasing it out.

Barely a quarter of Americans still use landline phones, and most now live in wireless-only households. According to data from the National Center for Health Sciences, over 70% of adults were wireless-only in 2022, compared to just 3% in 2003, the earliest available number.

The opposite is true when it comes to landline-only use. Just over 40% of Americans only had a corded phone in 2003, compared to around 1% almost two decades later. Users of both landline and wireless phones dropped from 55% to 25%.

Unsurprisingly, those over 65 are most likely to own a landline, with just under half of people in this age group having cut the cord entirely. The overwhelming majority of all other age groups are wireless-only. Curiously, more people aged 25 to 44 live in households without a landline than those between the ages of 18 and 24.

While the difference could be just a matter of a statistical margin, the many feeds on TikTok exalting the virtues of a corded phone may suggest that young people are rediscovering the technology they saw on their favorite shows and movies as children.

“Picking up a landline to have a full conversation with a friend is a far more enriching and connected experience than sending a text,” said TikTok influencer and Gen Z political activist Cheyenne Hunt.

Members of Gen Z – people generally described as those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s – are experiencing an “epidemic of loneliness caused in large part by the digital divide,” said Hunt.

The digital divide is a gap between people who have full access to digital technologies and those who do not, a problem that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated.

“Older tech products fill a void in the modern offerings, specifically more personal social connectivity,” said Hunt, who is running a campaign for a seat in Congress as a “Gen Z Democrat” and sees reigning in Big Tech’s influence as one of her key policy priorities.

About one in two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness in recent years – even before the pandemic. The lack of social connection increases the risk of death to a level comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to an advisory from the US Surgeon General.

Benefits of disconnecting

For others, however, vintage technology also offers a way to disconnect from what could feel like an overwhelming social media landscape. The negative impact of social media, especially for younger people, is well-documented.

A 2022 study from Oxford University showed that girls are most vulnerable to the risks of increased social media use when they are 11 to 13 years old and boys when they are 14 to 15 years old. This “window of sensitivity” again peaks at the age of 19 for both girls and boys.

Devices that are simply functional could be a welcome respite from overly-commercialized modern tech that bombards users with ads in all their online activities.

“While ads were a thing in the early days of tech, most of the technology was just functional – phones made calls and sent texts, DVDs just played the movie, and games didn't have live-service offerings,” said Nick Hyatt, director of threat intelligence at Blackpoint Cyber, a Maryland-based cybersecurity company.

“Combined with the mass data collection that social media companies perpetrate – remember, if you don't pay for it, you are the product – there's a legitimate need to return to basic functionality,” Hyatt added.

This view is shared by Hunt, who noted a lack of strong data protection legislation in the US as one of the reasons some people are opting for older devices that do not have the capacity to collect personal data. “Smartphones are rife with applications designed to learn as much about us as possible just to sell that information to the highest bidder, but an older device can’t do that,” she said.

Simpler, less-connected gadgets may also provide cybersecurity benefits, even though few retro tech enthusiasts will forego modern technology altogether.

“While nothing is inherently perfectly secure, more simplistic devices have a lower threat profile than something like a modern smartphone. If all you want to do is call and text, why do you need a smartphone?” Hyatt said.

Here to stay

While there’s a noticeable recent boom in retro gadgets, tech nostalgia as a phenomenon dates back at least a decade, when headlines declared the “comeback” of the typewriter. First commercially introduced in the 1870s, the typewriter had been an office staple for years before giving way to personal computers more than a century later.

As an aesthetically pleasing object with no real mainstream use, it was naturally embraced by young millennials, representing the peak of hipster culture of the early 2010s. Type-in events at coffee houses, bars, and bookstores were reported from “coast to coast,” and young people were said to be “more and more” interested in old typing machines.

Fast-forward a decade, and the typewriter was again making headlines about its (second) comeback, with antique vendors claiming they’d been the busiest in decades during the pandemic. The vinyl revival – a phenomenon so big that it merited its own Wikipedia page – is another case in point, with increased interest first observed in the late 2000s and peaking again in the 2020s.

Typewriters and vinyl records, unlike radio and books, were largely replaced by more advanced alternatives, allowing them to fade from mainstream consciousness and evoke genuine nostalgia. Are there any gadgets that we use today that could stir up similar feelings for future generations?

“It’s almost impossible to predict what will become antiquated in a trendy way, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the next generation thinking our ‘vintage’ devices that weren’t entirely operated by AI are nostalgic,” Hunt said.

Old Apple computers are already collectible items, and nostalgia for older iPhone models has also been professed in online forums. Retro tech has carved out a niche in the public consciousness, and the trend shows no signs of fading away anytime soon.

“There will always be another generation, and they will always say in wonder – you guys used this?" Hyatt pointed out.