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13 October 2015

Records, books and handwritten notes: the rise of low tech

When new technologies emerge, the old ones are meant to fall by the wayside - but sometimes, they manage to rise from the ashes. 

By Barbara Speed

No one was surprised when HMV went into administration in January 2013. The chain was just one victim of the seemingly inevitable changes in our shopping habits: the decline of the high street; the rise in online shopping and digital formats; the decline in people actually paying for their music and films. Most of us probably assumed that this was the end for the music and film giant. After all, these aren’t the kinds of trends that reverse. 

But this year, HMV is making a comeback. Among the arsenal of changes made to its business model lurks an unlikely secret weapon: vinyl records, which the store wants to “take back to the masses“. This may seem a little improbable to anyone used to the decline and fall of old formats, but, based on numbers alone, it could well be a savvy move – sales of records have climbed steadily in the US and Europe since 2008, after they declined to almost nothing in the mid-noughties. 

Waterstones should, by rights, have been struck down by the rise of Amazon and the e-reader long ago, and yet saw an upturn in the 2013/2014 financial year after years of losses. This month, the retailer announced it will stop selling Kindles in its stores following “pitiful” sales figures, and plans to fill those shelves with physical books again. Last December, print sales were up 5 per cent on the previous year.

A not insignificant number of people, it seems, want to go into bookshops and buy  books they can hold. They want to scratch large, delicate discs with a needle to hear their favourite albums. And judging by a clutch of recent book releases like the Art of Typewriting or this new Comic Sans typewriter, they want to punch out their thoughts on paper-and-ink pre-computers, too.

Even tech start-ups are cashing in on throwbacks to near-obsolete technologies. Inkpact allows customers to order handwritten letters through a web portal, which are then written by the company’s army of letter-writers (who work from home) and posted to the recipient.

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So why the affection for the old, the physical, the clunky? The blog Cyborgology has run several pieces about hipsters and their “nostalgic revivalism”, which hypothesise that those searching for the new and cool aren’t content with things which are actually new – to move backwards in time with your technologies is, inherently, to go against the flow. It’s notable, too, that this trend mostly applies to luxury products, rather than functional ones. There’s no sign of a revival in landlines, nor of vinyl-loving music fans rejecting other new technologies like laptops for the sake of nostalgia. Instead, it seems that if someone has a passion for music or writing, they want to indulge it using less functional, more romantic tools.

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These older technologies also cater to a notion of uniqueness and individualism. No two photos on a film camera are quite the same, and they’re far harder to replicate than a digital file. A document from a typewriter is always unique. As PJ Rey writes at Cyborgology:

The fetishization of low-tech is about the illusion of agency; it provides affirmation for the hipster whose identity is defined by the post-Modern imperative to be an individual, to be unique.

Nostalgia and individualism certainly account for part of the trend towards low tech and new surges in old technologies. Yet that still doesn’t explain the absence of of other, potentially romantic and defunct products from these revivals: it’s hard to believe we’ll ever see a sudden demand for videos or cassettes. Instead, it seems that those technologies that survive have genuine advantages over their replacements. The technology that came next didn’t quite tick all the boxes. 

Digital cameras, for example, offer none of the quirks of individual film cameras – but old film cameras, or Instagram filters which replicate them, do. E-books haven’t quite managed to replicate the visual quality of physical books, in terms of cover illustration (most cheaper e-readers are still in black and white) or fonts, still carefully chosen by the publishers of physical printed books.

So it’s not clear that records and attractive hardbacks will hang around forever. After all, there’s no reason why new, experimental technologies (like, say, e-readers or Spotify) would engage the whole market, especially if it involves a leap from physical to digital. It’s easy to put the popularity of low tech down to a society-wide nostalgia, but it’s perhaps more accurate to park it at the door of pure capitalism. People buy products they like, and which fill their particular needs – always have, always will.