I realise everyone’s desperate for good news these days, but even so, there was something startling about the elation that greeted reports of the relaunch of the Nokia 3310 phone. (You know the one: that iconic plastic brick with 12 pressable buttons, and a screen you couldn’t crack.) Partly, no doubt, this was simple nostalgia. But it was also because the 3310 “just worked”.
You hear that phrase so often these days, in praise of some old-fashioned bit of tech, that it’s easy to forget how strange it is: why would there ever be a market for gadgets that didn’t just work? Yet many don’t. Apple’s fingerprint recognition doesn’t really work. Nor does autocorrect. Few smartphone batteries work, if “works” implies a long day’s use. And why do we tolerate iPhones not being waterproof? Measured by the usual yardstick – how much you can do with it – consumer technology keeps getting more amazing. But, judged by how reliably it does it, we seem to be heading backwards.
The 3310, being digital, has no place in David Sax’s new book, The Revenge Of Analog: Real Things And Why They Matter. But the fondness for it echoes the trend he documents. In all sorts of industries, Sax shows, analogue products are either making a comeback, or defiantly refusing to die. Vinyl records are on the up; paper books are still way more popular than ebooks; and every startup founder he interviewed seemed to be carrying a Moleskine notebook. More than mere hipsterism, this is an appreciation for devices that do less. Unlike a tablet, a book can’t tempt you to click away to something else during the slower bits. It’s harder to rephrase things in a Moleskine than in Microsoft Word, so you stop second-guessing yourself and keep writing. Non-digital photos are more difficult to touch up.
Analogue, in short, demands that you make a decision – to read this one book, write this sentence, take this photo – while digital keeps luring us on with the promise of perfection and infinite choice. So it’s not just that Apple hasn’t got fingerprint recognition (or whatever) right just yet; it’s that the trajectory it’s on – toward a device that does everything, perfectly – is unattainable, and thus doomed never to satisfy.
Lurking behind this is the fact that while we tend to believe we live in a “materialistic” society, we are, in the words of sociologist Juliet Schor, “not at all material enough”. In fact, writes David Cain at raptitude.com, “We have very low standards for what physical objects we trade our money for, and for the quality of the sensory experiences they provide.” We live more and more in the world of the abstract – thanks to the internet and the rise of branding, which sells promises of happiness and attractiveness, rather than things themselves. The things themselves are often crap. Cain’s friends mocked him for buying a well-made £50 stapler; but now, he reports, “I enjoy every single act of stapling.” And wouldn’t it be great to be able to say, on your deathbed, that you even savoured the stapling?
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