The tween heroes of Stranger Things are tech nerds in a time before Silicon Valley had made that either cool or financially viable. They combat a creature from another dimension unleashed by a secretive government agency using only the technologies available in the first Reagan administration. That’s no small thing. And neither is this: The show turns hardware nostalgia into a plot device and devices into an essential part of the story.
The perfect example of how the show creatively uses obsolete technology comes at the midpoint of the first chapter of the show, “The Vanishing of Will Byers.” The three lead characters discover their science teacher, Mr. Clarke, bought a Heathkit ham shack radio for their four-man AV club. The three kids who haven’t been kidnapped by an inter-dimensional marvel at the imposing piece of equipment laid out on a desk in front of them. “When Will sees this he’s totally gonna blow his shit!” says Lucas, not realizing what’s happened to his friend yet. “I bet you could talk to New York on this thing, says Dustin. “Think bigger, responds Mr. Clarke. After Lucas’s suggestion of somewhere as far reaching as California is shrugged off, Mike giddily chimes in: “Australia!?”
The scene represents the characters discovering that this now-antiquated piece of technology can expand their very limited world (which will seem quaint after the craziness that happens to them throughout the shows first season). But in the moment, modern viewers simply find it funny to assume the characters couldn’t just call up someone down under with a quick Skype call or FaceTime. When they put on exaggerated Australian accents in the hopes of getting an Aussie to respond back — even though they ask stuff like, “Do you eat kangaroos for breakfast?” — makes you feel nostalgic for a time when such a global mindset was something out of science fiction.
Its no coincidence then that the radio eventually acts as a medium through which the telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) uses to try and access the stranded Will in the dimension they call “The Upside Down.” And it isnt just the ham radio. Will also tries to contact his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) by channelling his voice through a landline telephone.
It eventually fails, but not before a faint transmission from their friend signals to them that he’s still alive. It also signals that the piece of technology, stone-age by contemporary standards, has gone beyond any range the boys could possibly imagine.
The opposite of this sentiment, that outdated technology has nothing further to offer us as new advances are developed, plays out in the remaining episodes of Stranger Things.
In the third chapter, police chief Hopper (David Harbour) rushes to the local library with his deputy in tow in to comb through endless droves of microfiche, in a search for the origins of the government conspiracy in Hawkins.
“We have the New York Times, The Post, all the big ones,” says the librarian, one of Hopper’s spurned ex-lovers, after bringing them to the library’s extensive card catalog. “They’re organized by year and topic,” she explains, before refusing to help them. The idea is that Hopper has to toil at finding what he’s looking for through these old methods. It would simply lose the dramatic impact of finding Terry Ives, the mother and MK Ultra test subject that might be the key to everything, if he did a five-minute Google search.
The best example of the dramatic effect of using analog tech might be in Chapter seven’s BMX bike chase, in which Mike, El, and Dustin get separated from Lucas, and unbeknownst to them, the government stooges are on their way in typically boxy 1980s vans to recapture their friend with mental abilities. Luckily Lucas has strapped a massive walkie-talkie to his bike, while Dustin communicates via a rabbit ear headset as the group tears through the suburbs trying to escape. The bulky equipment perfectly recalls the era, but also helps reinforce the moment they meet back up. The three of them standing in their backyard using Find My Friends on their iPhones just doesn���t pack the same punch.
Stranger Things goes beyond simply having these outdated objects there as kitschy references. It’s something greater than Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) making his brother a cassette mixtape or introducing him to The Clash on his vinyl turntable Hi-Fi setup. All that technology is there for a reason.
It’s sad because it seems as if modern technology wouldnt be able to be used in the same way. Will we be nostalgic for the iPhone in the same way as, say, Joyce’s rotary phone? Will we look back as fondly on playing immersive video games as we do when Mike and his friends live out Dungeons & Dragons? Given the pace of technological advancement, we’ll know this soon enough. But for now, fire up your old ham radio and try to ask some Aussies what they eat for breakfast.