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Sunday, April 14, 2024

MiniDiscs Helped Me Keep in Touch With My Brother, a World Away

Back at the very end of the last century, my brother fell in love with a Japanese woman. They began planning a life together—getting married, starting a family—and it quickly became clear that he would be moving with her to Japan and probably staying there for the rest of his life. We hadn't been physically close to each other for years; our college lives kept us on opposite coasts. But now our real lives were going to put an ocean of distance between us.

This was back at the dawn of the internet age, when the series of tubes we now take for granted were frail and creaky. Keeping in touch mostly involved talking on the phone. I didn't even have a cellphone, just a landline. International calling fees were things that still existed, and boy they stung. So the issue of how to keep in touch became a source of nagging worry. We had email, but not home broadband. Facebook was years away, and the iPhone wouldn't arrive for a decade.

Soon after my brother moved to start his new life, we hit upon an esoteric method for transferring our thoughts and emotions to one another across the great divide: the MiniDisc. It's a technology for recording and playing music that came after the CD but predated the iPod. If you haven't seen one, a MiniDisc looks like a very small floppy disc. It's a rigid optical disc—shiny and silver like a tiny CD—housed within a transparent, 2.5-inch plastic shell with a sliding metal door. You pop it into a MiniDisc player, which looks like a shrunk-down CD player. The disc spins up, and after the player reads the contents for about five seconds, you can hit play and listen to music.

This technology was developed by Sony in the early 1990s, and although you could buy the players and blank discs at Best Buys and Targets well into the 21st century, MiniDisc never caught on in the US. In Japan, however, MiniDiscs were mainstream. By the late ’90s, you could buy commercial releases on the format at Tower Records or so-called denki stores that sold consumer electronics. You'd find MiniDiscs of new albums by U2 or Green Day or Utada Hikaru, sold right next to the CD copies. Blanks were sold in three-packs or bricks of ten, and they came in bright colors with fun designs. Teens would buy sleeves of stickers at the Sanrio store and decorate their MiniDiscs with Hello Kitty or Badtz-Maru. It was a whole culture.

Key to MiniDiscs' popularity was their pure tradability. MDs were passed between friends with the same fervor as cassette tapes one decade prior. Every MiniDisc player was also a recorder, so you could connect a cable from your CD player or your computer and fill a disc with goodies. MiniDiscs could hold 80 minutes of music—more if you were OK with a dip in audio quality. You'd rip an entire CD onto one disc, or more commonly, sample tracks from various CDs, and even mix in a few MP3s that you downloaded from a shadowy message board. And they were erasable. If you grew tired of an album, or if a mix gifted by a friend wasn't doing it for you, you could zap the contents of the disc and refill it with whatever you wanted. You could even erase individual tracks. (MDs used a flavor of audio compression called ATRAC. A cousin of MP3, the ATRAC file format offered a quality of audio that most people found indistinguishable from that of a CD. Now it's gone, just another made-by-Sony standard that, like Betamax and MemoryStick, has dissolved into the ether.)

MiniDisc provided a convenient bridge between the analog and the digital. The discs had the tactile familiarity and emotional weight of a cassette tape, but the flexibility and ease of use of a computer hard drive. They were the last gasp of physical trading culture and a harbinger of the free-market chaos just over the horizon: Napster, CD-Rs, rip-mix-burn.

World Trade

My brother urged me to get a player, so I did—a silver Sony MZ-R70, which I bought along with a brick of blanks. And so the sharing commenced. My brother would mail me MDs stuffed with exotic punk bands I'd never heard of, plus discs filled with Japanese releases by familiar acts that I would request by name. (I'm a sucker for a good Boredoms jam.) Thirty-five minutes of Okinawan folk music on one disc, 75 minutes of live UA on another. I'd respond in kind with full-disc rips of whatever was hot that summer, or assemble samplers with songs plucked from from my stack of recent vinyl acquisitions. Every month or so, I'd apply artwork, stickers, and liner notes to a few MDs, carry them to the post office, affix a green customs form to a gray USPS International Priority envelope, and count out the $13 in stamps. Weeks later, I'd get a reply, a few more artfully decorated discs for my collection filled with new sounds.

I got into it. My best friend bought an MD player and we'd trade our techno DJ mixes with each other. I bought my girlfriend a player too, and made her thoughtfully curated discs she could listen to at work. (I must have done something right; we're married now.)

When my first Sony player eventually conked out, I bought a second one. But soon after, the MP3 barged in and steamrolled over everything. I picked up a sexy new device called an iPod. I also got a broadband connection, and my nights became a whirlwind of secret FTP servers and massive Napster binges. The music sharing habits between me and my brother morphed from mailed MiniDiscs to mailed USB sticks, then eventually emailed links to files. The flow of those gray International Priority envelopes slowed to a trickle, and the personalized, stickered-up discs were replaced by digital files devoid of passion.

I recently found my MiniDisc collection in my closet. I shook off the 20 years of dust, popped a disc and a fresh AA battery into the player, and was surprised to find that everything still worked. But even though the discs still spin, the magic is gone for good. Those discs were a wonderful way to make my faraway brother feel close to me, but the technologies that have followed can make distances disappear with greater ease.

Right now, I can pull out my phone and talk to him over a WhatsApp video chat. I can ask my voice assistant to show me pictures of his kids, my niece and nephews, and get hundreds of superb snapshots. I can even find all that Okinawan folk music with a few quick taps.

If we think too hard about where we are right now, in 2020, it's easy to grow dismayed with all the ways technology is being used to dehumanize us, manipulate us, and monetize our desires. Then we might become nostalgic for the simplicity of our past, when technology was little more than a benevolent enabler. But I would encourage you to remember this: When it comes to staying in touch with a loved one, seeing a familiar face, or hearing that favorite song one more time, the present is a pretty damn spectacular place to be.

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