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Why Low-Tech Living is Back Tags: Science and Technology Social Commentary

Anna Wintour looks at her mobile phone during the 2014 US Open

William Langely
The Telegraph

Books. Remember them? The big lumps of wood pulp that used to clog up your shelves? Well, they’re back, and hotter than vinyl records.

Last week, the British Library announced that the rise of the digital age had, paradoxically, helped boost numbers visiting the British Library by 10 per cent. Meanwhile, James Daunt, the chief executive of Waterstones, Britain’s leading bookselling chain, revealed that sales of traditional books were rising strongly again, while demand for ebook readers had, “to all intents and purposes disappeared”.

This was something of a volte-face for Mr Daunt, who, just three years ago, declared: “Our customers want to read digitally,” while announcing a juicy deal with Amazon to sell the online giant’s Kindle ebook readers. Reports from the book trade speak of a spectacular Christmas with record-breaking sales and packed shops, but ebooks appear to have missed the party.

Meanwhile, Waterstones’ rival, Foyles, says its sales were up by 8.1 per cent on last Christmas, despite fewer promotions, and with traditional books accounting for most of the advance. “The physical book is having a resurgence,” says Foyles boss, Sam Husain. “People still like to shop online, but there’s nothing like being in the bookshop.”

It wasn’t meant to be this way. When ebooks took off in the mid-Noughties, many foresaw the death of the printed variety that has dominated the market for 600 years, and great was the wailing and gnashing of teeth among traditionalists. A slim, six-ounce Kindle could store hundreds of books, and the device was packed with nifty features for tech-addicted customers. The book was clearly headed the same way as the quill. Or the typewriter. Or, for that matter, the vinyl record.


Happily, the ebook pioneers forgot something important. There are some things that technology can’t replace, and readers began to realise that a proper book possessed something akin to a soul. Not just older readers, either. My 16-year-old son begged for a Kindle a few years ago. When I asked him last week if he still used it, he looked up from the hand-bound, folio edition of The Count of Monte Cristo he had got for Christmas, and blinked. “Oh, that, not really.”

Behind the world’s unstoppable technological advance, it seems, is the awkward human refusal to be rushed. Or conned into believing that things that will actually make their lives more complicated will make them easier. Or sold expensive solutions to problems that don’t exist. And from these stirrings of resistance is arising the phenomenon of low-tech.

To the rallying cry, “Old is Gold”, millions are re-embracing technologies that seemed doomed to a cobwebby obsolescence. Clam-shell and “flip” phones are the new height of chic, with the likes of Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, singer Rihanna and actress Scarlett Johansson all flaunting the venerable devices. Good-quality examples of these old phones can fetch over £800 – far more than the latest Apple iPhone 6 – and so big is the demand that Samsung, the Korean manufacturer, is bringing out a new version.

The appeal is only partly faddishness. For the old phones actually do what phones used to do, which is to make and receive phone calls, without depositing your whole life in cyberspace where it can be stolen and used to embarrass you before the entire world. According to the New York Times, one of the main attractions of the retro-phone for celebrities is that it helps keep their secrets safe. And, as rocker Iggy Pop says, “You can drop it and it doesn’t break.”

The same sound reasoning may explain the extraordinary comeback of the Polaroid “instant photo” camera, once the instrument of choice for aficionados of amateur erotic snaps. Last year’s Hollywood nude photo scandal in which hackers accessed Apple’s iCloud storage system and put naked pictures of more than 100 actresses, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kirsten Dunst, on the internet, had a chilling effect in celebrity circles.

It was excellent news for Polaroid, though. Near bankrupt in the early 2000s, the US corporation stopped selling its famous self-developing film in 2007. The rights were bought by a small Dutch-based company, the Impossible Project, which is now struggling to meet demand.

“Last year our film sales were up 60 per cent,” says Creed O’Hanlon, the company’s executive chairman. “We probably sold 1 million packs of film and we sold 3,000 cameras on Black Friday alone.”

The firm is currently scouring the globe for old Polaroids it can refurbish and sell. While celebrities have helped create a buzz, admits Mr Hanlon, the big buyers are teenagers. “Today, the thing teenagers love is taking a picture, hearing a click and a whirr,” he says, “then seeing an image slowly appear in the palm of their hand. People love the tangibility. You can write on it, you can give it to somebody. It feels one-off and more special than just transferring you a file.”

Vinyl-record sales are booming, too. Last year they hit an estimated 1.2 million – the highest for 20 years, and a five-fold increase since 2008. Threatened by seemingly superior technologies, the old discs seemed headed for extinction, but – as with books – it is the “soul” of vinyl that has been its salvation.

In particular, fans like the covers – once an art genre in their own right and now being rediscovered by a new generation. “They are one of the key reasons people are buying vinyl again,” says Gennaro Castaldo of the British Phonographic Industry. “They help to transform a record into an artefact fans like to own and collect.”

Even typewriters are bouncing back. Spooked by the WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden affairs, intelligence agencies and political groups are reportedly returning to Cold War technology to keep their secrets safe. The glamour is back, too. Movie star Tom Hanks recently published a “love letter” to the typewriter, declaring: “The tactile pleasure of typing is incomparable… there is a sheer physical pleasure to typing.”

Dr Mike Evans, a theoretical physicist at Leeds University, believes that the appeal of high-technology is being undone by its constant quest for what he calls “sterile perfection”.

People are naturally curious, he argues, and they like to have some sense of how things work. With, say, a record player it’s obvious; with a shiny plastic stick, it isn’t.

“Devices shield us from reality, only because it is fashionable to do so. For example, when you switch on an old radio – even one with automatic tuning – you hear a few seconds of white or coloured noise as the tuner seeks the right frequency. It’s a nice sound, evocative of the electromagnetic physics of the carrier wave. New models don’t do that until the tuning is completed.

“Modern gadgets are designed not to betray the imperfect physical nature of their workings,” Dr Evans continues. “That is a shame, because imperfections are important in helping us to understand the world.”

Someone should write a book about it.


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