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Perhaps the point of vinyl is not the music but those poignant pops, crackles and hisses

If you’re the right age, these sounds whirl you back in time to those first records you owned.

I had to listen to the test pressing of my finished album the other day. This is when you check what the vinyl version will sound like, so you sit very quietly in front of your speakers and, ignoring the songs completely, take note of the overall sound quality and strain your ears to listen out for any excessive surface noise, any unwanted pops or crackles. And, this being vinyl, there are occasional pops and crackles. But are they unwanted? Ah, that’s the question.

Vinyl has had a revival, you will have read. And part of me can’t help feeling that it’s really the pops and crackles that have made a comeback, securing their place in people’s hearts as some kind of badge of authenticity. The clunk of the needle dropping. The faint hiss before the first song begins. Sounds that, if you’re the right age, whirl you back in time to those first records you owned.

I loved those records of mine, yet I treated them so badly – handling them without care, leaving them lying on my untidy bedroom floor, among discarded clothes, copies of the NME and cups of tea. I’d pick them up with sticky fingers and let the grooves get coated in hairspray, and then I’d play them on my brother’s 1960s Dansette. I wonder whether I ever replaced the needle? Probably not.

For my 18th birthday, in 1980, I got a music centre, which was a step up, but still pretty unsophisticated. It wasn’t until I met Ben that I realised you could have a separate record deck and amp, with proper treble and bass controls, which Ben had adjusted to suit his exact taste so that when he put on an Eno album, or Chic’s “At Last I Am Free”, the sound shimmered like silver in the room. I’d never really considered the sonic quality of records before, my appreciation of them being entirely emotional. This was eye-opening.

If vinyl nostalgia among those my age is about remembering our youth, I think the enthusiasm among younger people is more about a longing for an idealised era that preceded them – a lost age of music, when it was new and countercultural. Through the medium of vinyl, they hope to recapture the innocence. All stardust and golden, they’re trying to get themselves back to the garden.

Two of our kids have bought record players and raided our album collection, working their way through Nico, Bowie, the Velvet Underground and Joni Mitchell. Right now, I can hear Joy Division’s “Transmission” coming from the youngest’s bedroom, and I wonder whether he’s playing Ben’s old seven-inch single, or mine. At this point, the idea of the record as artefact – a tangible thing that can be passed on – makes sense to me. I’m glad that single has survived. It feels like glue holding us all together.

But for those of us who still make records, the vinyl comeback is a bit of a nuisance. There’s a shortage of pressing plants, so the manufacturing queue creates an unwanted delay of several months between completion of recording and release. I’d like to finish a record and have it in the shops the next day.

The other reason I’m sometimes sceptical about its revival is that I remember when vinyl and cassettes were the only options. We’d listen to a recording we’d just finished – which had sounded so rich and sparkly in the studio – squashed on to a piece of plastic, with a sinking feeling of disappointment. In 1988, our album Idlewild was the first we released on CD and the experience was a revelation. We were thrilled at how close it sounded to what we’d actually recorded.

So I can’t get exercised about the whole “vinyl sounds better” debate. I don’t think it does, but then I don’t think that matters. People like vinyl in an irrational way, the way they like lots of things. There is meaning in placing the record carefully on the turntable, lowering the needle. It’s reverential, ritualistic. And maybe we like the snaps, crackles and pops, the surface noise, that faint mysterious hiss that seems to come from somewhere else entirely, perhaps the place where the music lives. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.