Memories of an Unconnected Era: Searching for Sugar Man

Posted on Nov 14, 2012 | 26 comments

Memories of an Unconnected Era: Searching for Sugar Man

Many people reading this will be digital natives.

These are people who don’t remember an era in which we were unconnected.

There is no doubt that technology brings benefits to our lives and I have been a heavy user of tech since I was 13 (in 1981). I was connecting to online communities as a teenager on a 9,600 baud modem which is considerably slower than you can even imagine connecting today.

And for a bit of nostalgia for those that connected via modems (our original modems were external about about the size of two Amazon Kindles stacked on top of each other) play this short SoundCloud audio of a modem connecting to the telco network. Even if you never experienced it yourself it’s a cultural phenomenon I’m sure you’ll have heard.

The modem (modulate / demodulate … mo-dem) converted our digital computer information so that it could be transmitted via our analog telephone lines until it could be received by a modem on the other side that could convert the signal back to digital.

In my unconnected world there was no personal email. On vacation you really checked out because you had to. I lived and worked in Italy in the mid 90’s and weekends were sublime. I picked a city and traveled there and completely unwound. There were no Blackberry’s, iPhones or Internet to distract me. I was forced to go out and talk to people and when we sat at cafes the only distraction to our conversations were people watching.

Strangely, workers didn’t really email each other much or if they did they didn’t expect quick responses. In our company (Andersen Consulting) voicemail ruled. It was the quickest / easiest way to send a message to a work colleague friend (“meet at De Klomp tonight after dinner?”) or to send / receive work instructions from a colleague. Octel “voicemail” ruled our world.

Many places in the world didn’t have readily available digital phone lines so I had to carry a “tone generator” that could mock dial tone sounds in order to even use my voicemail systems.

I don’t say all of this to harken back to a better era – I like the world we live in and the democratizing forces of technology. And if you doubt just how pervasive the impact of technology on our daily lives consider this Tweet sent out today by the IDF.

Holy shit. Twitter as a communication tool in war. If that isn’t a plug for why every government and every corporation needs DataSift I don’t know what is. How’s that for people who keep saying that social media hasn’t been truly transformative. Twitter in many ways is as powerful as the telephone.

Despite our technology progress, there were benefits of “the world we lived in.” I was reminded this in reading Om Malik’s short post “The Problem of Plenty” which brings back nostalgia for “events” which resonated deeply with me (I, too, still call my mom every Sunday).

I am also reminded of the destructive nature that technology can have on our social lives when not properly moderated. My friend Daniel Wolfson sent me this poignant 2-minute video that is worth a watch. While you might find it slightly “over produced” there is no denying that there is a huge truism you will feel about how we tune out loved ones to plug into our mobile phones.

It’s why I recommend banning laptops and iPads at board meetings (all meetings, really). Give regular breaks for people to get their email fix but live in the moment. Maximize your productivity together.

So that brings me to Searching for Sugar Man.

This was by far my favorite film of 2012 and was totally unexpected. If you haven’t seen it – do yourself a favor and don’t read any blogs about the movie and don’t ask friends. Just go see it. Some way. Some how. I won’t spoil the film here – I will only give the set up.

But first, click on the SoundCloud below and torque up the music written by Sixto Rodriguez (aka Sugar Man). I had never heard this song. It is simply … magnificent. Nearly perfect.


The “not ruining anything” version of his life is set out at the very start of the film. He was an abject failure as a musician in the US. Many music executives of the era considered him to be the best musician they had ever heard. He was producing in the era of Bob Dylan yet he languished in US audiences.

Somehow he became popular in South Africa – with popularity approaching something like that of the Beatles. He inspired revolutionary fervor for change in an era of apartheid and injustice.

He became big somehow – despite not having done promotions there. And he had never known of his success in South Africa. No Internet. No email. No Twitter. Truly … and unconnected era.

And in SA there was a mythology to how Rodriguez had died. Some believed he had immolated himself on stage, killing himself in a performance fire. Others had claimed that he committed suicide on stage with a gun.

And some of his most beloved fans set out to find out what happened and went on a journey to find out the truth. The information of Rodriguez’s life journey and struggles were known in the US yet it was nearly impossible to find out in South Africa.

Imagine that in today’s era.

So they go “Searching for Sugar Man.” To find out what happened to this great man of music fame. This national “Beatle.”

And the journey will take you through the sparsely known origins of his life, his music, his supreme talent and his failures.

It is a truly marvelous film. And it will make it clear to anybody who is a Millennial just how different the world was just 20 years ago. And it will make those who are my age a bit nostalgic for the simplicity of a disconnected life.

And if you’re interested in a piece I wrote a long time ago on the impact of technology in our lives you can read, “We are All Frogs Boiling in Water” which includes a link to an article about a correlation between broadband computing and LOWER test scores in math and reading.

[Note: please don’t read the comments section if you haven’t seen the film Searching for Sugar Man as it’s possible that the circumstances of his life and the story of his stage death will be discussed there.]



  • jonathanjaeger

    Every generation says how the newer generation has gone downhill or takesthings for granted. But, technology is improving at an increasing pace, so perhaps it’s all happening quicker now. I just turned 24 and I remember the dial up days more than a decade ago when hackers hit Yahoo and I couldn’t play Yahoo! Games for a few hours. Frustrating. In elementary school, I remember calling up friends to hang out on the weekends. That didn’t happen all the time, but texting does now. It’s easier to prolong stupid jokes, keep up with friends when a phone call is a little inconvenient, and stay hooked in. Despite the distractions, it’s still a net positive for me. Now I just need to get the courage to take a digital vacation at some point (nothing crazy, but a full day would be interesting).

  • Zach Harris

    You have to admit it’s a bit ironic that your favorite film this year was shot using a 99¢ iPhone app.

  • Chris Mottes

    Mark, thanks for plugging this fantastic movie – I went to see it last weekend and was extremely moved. I am one of those South Africans that grew up fighting apartheid and listening to Rodriguez – the soundtrack of my youth! I still have those old boot-legs and listen to the “Cold Fact” album regularly.

    I was very apprehensive about how people that didn’t have Rodriguez close to their hearts would experience this movie and his music, and scared of having an old hero (who I also thought was dead until a few years ago) exposed as something other than the incredible poet and person he is. I wondered whether there is a place for such an earth-bound person in this digital age.

    Thankfully I was rewarded with an incredible flashback to the days when a revolution was managed person-to-person, and demos were arranged by breaking into the printer shops at night to make the posters and flyers, that we handed out or hung in the dark of night, with whistling lookouts and Puma running shoes as our only backup plan when the police where on the prowl ;). At the same time, everyone else in the theatre was awestruck and blown-away by this wonderful movie about an incredible man’s life story – and his revival from obscurity by the internet, that finally put him on the pedestal he deserves.

  • msuster

    I agree with you that generations lament the world that came before. I say that all the time, myself. Like when the radio crowd looked down upon the TV. When people complained that telephones ruined in-person conversations. etc.

    Still – it’s also worth noting the downsides of technology and adjusting. I think taking a digital vacation (2 days!) would be awesome. Now … if only I could do it myself 😉

  • msuster

    I had no idea what to expect when I saw the film and I had never heard of Sixto Rodriguez. I was truly blown away by the music and humbled by the man. I was dumbfounded by what islands SA & USA could be from each other. What was a 10/10 movie for me must be even more so for South Africans.

  • Joe Yevoli

    Great post, Mark. I try to take a few minutes everyday to walk away from my computer and my phone. It’s important to truly get your mind off work (unwind).

    I remember talking to my Dad about what college was like for him at UNC, while long-distance dating my Mom back on Long Island. He told me, “We sometimes went weeks without talking on the phone to each other. We wrote letters to one another. Today you can date someone who’s 500 miles away and communicate as if they’re in the same room.”

    It’s amazing how much things have changed.

  • BillMcNeely

    Here is the link to the 60 Minutes Segement on him

  • Dynamic Signal

    Cannot wait to see this movie, have heard such great things. And could not agree more with your statement “It’s why I recommend banning laptops and iPads at board meetings (all meetings, really).” Amen

  • Philip Sugar

    I thought you were looking for me :-)

    Its the pace that has gotten so much faster. And I do believe that has made attention spans much lower. We’ve gone from communications in two weeks. (mail a letter, get one back) to two seconds. (send a text and look at the bubble to see if they are replying) I’m not sure how it can get faster but it will: Google glasses etc.

    The same goes for the cost, which effects the quantity and quality. I was reminded of that when I threw away one of those modems in our move last month. A young guy asked me what it was, it was big and in a heavy metal box. One of my partners and I reminisced about the $17,000 Bay Area Network 36 port hubs we bought.

  • mgwitham

    Saw this movie a few months ago… It’s quite moving and a must see. I immediately downloaded his music in iTunes.

    @msuster ‘s perspective of the unconnected era and the film is a synthesis I didn’t realize prior. thanks.

    I’m grateful for technology. For Georges Doriot, Don Valentine, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk. We are so lucky to be alive during such a disruptive time in human existence. It’s unfathomable to think only 50 years ago finding, learning, and using information was limited to books and land-lines. Now, I can open one website and get the pulse of the world.

    It’s great to live in 2012.

  • bernardlunn

    I feel conflicted on this. Love the connectedness but do recognise that it is a bit addictive. As a parent I try to switch off all devices and encourage all kids to switch off all devices for as long as possible. Best analogy I have seen is food – we need it but too much is not good for us.

  • bernardlunn

    Oh, yes, love the Rodriguez music, my personal fave is Climb Up On My Music.

  • Cookie Marenco

    Once again, Mark, you’ve hit a home run.

    The art of conversation has disintegrated to 140 characters or less. With all the ability to tweet, text, ‘like’, youtube, send photos, ‘friend’ and generate cheap content quickly.. is anyone really better off? or are most people tuning out? I find myself tuning out and turning off the noise. It feels that we are less connected than ever.

    Time is the most valuable gift we can give and it seems we’re spending more of it with devices than being in the presence of humans. Kind of sad.

  • ShanaC

    I feel like a very early digital native, as I vaguely remember the modem sound, from when I was a preteen, maybe 9?

    I also realize that the pace and style change may be why I have this preference for living in the city, but for vacations I like to go to the middle of nowhere….no cell service, no internet, trees or desert, and it is very relaxing. Plus you kind of can’t take your work with you :)

  • msuster

    On the other hand he probably wrote deep, meaningful and romantic letters. Today we go on dates and spend our time on Twitter or Facebook on our iPhones.

  • msuster

    thank you

  • msuster

    thanks, Sugar man!

  • msuster

    great analogy with food

  • msuster

    and I like “I Wonder”

  • msuster

    sadly most people take vacations these days with devices. Myself included.

  • ShanaC

    Go to a national park. America is very beautiful. In most of the national parks your devices won’t won’t work – even if you brought your device with you. It forces you to relax :)

  • Andrew Rogoff

    Yeah, my favourite movie of 2012 too. I absolutely love tech but I do sometimes wonder if we’ve lost some of life’s romanticism to it.

  • redpineapple

    I was one of those in ZA who heard the music in the seventies. I listened to my sisters LPs. At lunch the other day my sister says she still has it!!!
    I love technology and think it is great! (But vinyl and valve amplifiers don’t deserve being dumped!)

  • Jeff

    My favorite of 2012 as well. What a talent. Can you imagine having such an impact on a major political movement and having no way to know about it. I prefer the way things are today.

  • Pete Griffiths

    It will be interesting to see what happens with Backplane.

  • Velocity Local

    I do recommend this kind of vacation. No blackberry’s, no Internets. This way you could actually try to relax and talk to people. Where can I find such a place?