Imagine a start-up entrepreneur pitching the traditional milk round to a venture capitalist. “So we’re offering a local, sustainable, subscription-based protein delivery system. And get this: it’s all going to be powered by electric vehicles…” Back in the 1970s, 94% of British households bought their milk this way, but by the 2000s, for the vast majority, it was part of the weekly supermarket shop. It wasn’t technology that killed the centuries-old tradition so much as economic forces: deregulation of the dairy industry and supermarkets pushing plastic bottles. However, milk rounds still account for 3% of milk sales and they are growing in popularity. The revival is mostly down to the “Blue Planet effect” – glass is much more environmentally friendly than plastic. A typical glass milk bottle is reused 25 times. Come to think of it, why aren’t we reusing Coke bottles, too?
Pagers became popular in the 1980s as a fast way of sending a message to someone… who couldn’t message back. You might imagine that the text message would have killed the pager. PageOne, the country’s remaining service provider, stresses that the pager remains the most reliable and cost-effective way of sending out thousands of messages at a time, with far greater coverage than the mobile phone network (including on aeroplanes). Fire and ambulance services use them widely, with the NHS accounting for an estimated 10% of use worldwide – thanks to the 130,000 or so doctors who use them while on call. Many doctors say it’s quicker and easier paging in emergency situations – mobile reception is patchy in many hospitals and paging doesn’t interfere with electric equipment – and if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
No gadget encapsulates the turn against the tech companies better than Glass, the eye-mounted computer launched by Google with great fanfare in 2013. It was sunk almost immediately amid privacy concerns and snarky people calling early adopters “Glassholes”. But it has an afterlife as a medical research tool. An MIT start-up called Brain Power builds software for Glass that helps children with autism and ADHD to build socio-emotional skills. Google also expanded its Glass at Work programme, which seeks business applications for the device.
The resurgence of vinyl is well-documented – records now outsell CDs – but last year, cassette tapes also surged to 19% growth in the US. OK, we’re talking low baseline – from 99,400 to 118,200, a far cry from the mid-1990s when sales hit hundreds of millions. But the magnetic cassette is establishing a niche. The American company National Audio manufactures 18m blank cassettes annually, selling to 3,500 record labels across the world. Cassette Store Day, launched at Rough Trade in London in 2013 in response to the resounding success of Record Store Day, has since become an international event. Tapes are prized because they are affordable, easy to use and personal in a way that Spotify playlists are not. If you cannot imagine how you might have otherwise found a girlfriend/boyfriend without mixtapes, it is cheering.
America is supposedly the world’s leader in all things financial, but its retail banking systems look mediaeval to travellers from Europe, Africa and Asia. Direct bank transfers and online payments have been slow to catch on, chip and pin is seen as witchcraft, and cheques are still widely used. A 2018 study by the Federal Reserve found that consumers used cheques for 10% of purchases – more than electronic payments, which accounted for 8.9%.
The UK government has been more proactive in phasing out cheques – but has still met fierce resistance from banks and customers (elderly people like them, so do charities). Cheques still accounted for £550bn worth of spending in 2018, the year the UK Payments Council had promised to phase them out by. Instead, the UK Payments Council has itself been phased out. Its replacement, wearepay.uk, promises to phase them out under the New Payments Architecture project, due in 2024, at the earliest.
Dictaphones, calculators and maps
The stand-alone dictaphone, ideally reel-to-reel, remains an essential item for most journalists – despite apps that do the same thing on phones. The dictaphone is seen as more reliable. It doesn’t stop recording when you take a call. It’s easier to transcribe. And it doesn’t do that heart-stopping thing where you hit “save” and your file disappears into the Cloud. “Something about the specific purpose of dictaphones, as opposed to a phone’s multiple functions, makes them feel more secure,” says one hack.
The same is true for many of the functions supposedly outsourced to phones. Accountants remain attached to calculators. “Much quicker than opening an app for a quick sum and more pleasant to use,” says one accountant. Walkers refuse to forego real maps – Ordnance Survey reports growing sales for both paper and digital versions – and the London A-Z doesn’t lose reception on the Tube. An actual alarm clock doesn’t bombard you with irritating messages when you wake up.
The Nokia 3310 was the AK-47 of mobile phones – ubiquitous, utilitarian, nigh on indestructible. Introduced by Nokia in 2000, it soon became one of the world’s most popular mobile phones, selling over 120m. Its chat feature and built in “applications” – such as a calculator! – were considered revolutionary. Then it secured affection thanks to the game Snake II. But its week-long battery life and sheer durability made it a long-term winner – until Apple decided to make phones out of glass and overload them with apps so the batteries run out in a day.
The Nokia 3310 was relaunched in 2017 to widespread acclaim and ushered in a new wave of “dumbphones” or “feature phones”. Their cheapness, battery life and durability are key selling points – particularly in India, the Middle East and Africa – while westerners are embracing them as a cure for distraction.
The term “Tamagotchi effect” was coined in 1997 to describe the complex emotional relationships that humans form with machines. It took its name from the Japanese virtual pet craze that inspired millions of children (and adults) to nurture digital aliens on egg-shaped devices in the hope that they would evolve into an adorable Mametchi – and hopefully not a stinky Tarakotchi. At the time, there were reports of bereft schoolchildren burying dead Tamagotchis in graveyards or skipping school to keep their Tamagotchis alive. Recent relaunches have failed to revive the craze, but there remains a devoted Tamagotchi community on the website Tama Talk. “I find that whenever I need to do something a little bit stressful or daunting, I tend to start up a new or old virtual pet as a way of getting through it,” one user told the Happy Reader last year.
DVDs: who needs them? Well, Netflix announced that it had made $200m from its video rental business in the US, where 2.7 million of its customers still elect to receive DVDs through the post. The streaming giant started life as a DVD rental company in America (LoveFilm, now owned by Amazon, occupied the niche in the UK) and apparently has no plans to abandon the service until at least 2025. One reason is that internet coverage is so unreliable in rural areas. But might the poor selection of films on Netflix and other streaming services also help nurture demand?
DVD rental shops are still relatively common in Paris where JM Vidéo and Potemkine are prized by cinéphiles who point to a lack of decent movie streaming sites. And a few well-loved establishments cling on in the UK. Bristol’s 20th Century Flicks, for example, hires out its screening room for parties and film clubs, and its staff recommendations beat an algorithm any day.
There is still a strong school of thought on news desks that dictaphones themselves are an unnecessary encumbrance – never mind iPhones or fancy AI transcription apps. Pete Clifton, the editor-in-chief of PA, Britain’s largest news agency, recently announced that a shorthand speed of 100 words per minute was an “absolute requirement”. “Any application without it goes straight in the bin,” he told Press Gazette. Not only is it essential for court reporting – where reporters are forbidden from making recordings – but Clifton also asserted: “Any reporter who can take a rapid note on the doorstep, then read it straight back to the news desk or write it into a story, is always going to beat someone who has to listen back to a recording.”
The NHS is reckoned to be the world’s foremost purchaser of fax machines – 9,000 were still in use in 2018. Matt Hancock, health secretary, has demanded that trusts stop using the “archaic” devices by the end of this month, citing inefficiencies and security risks. Still, if you’ve ever sat in your GP’s surgery while they refer you to a hospital appointment, you will know that a fax remains the communication device of choice.
But once a particular technology is embedded, it’s not so straightforward to remove. In Japan, millions of faxes are still sent daily to apply for job interviews, send restaurant orders ahead and RSVP to parties. Japan is a famously tech-forward nation. It also has three alphabets and an ageing population, many of whom find it easier to write the characters out by hand. Rather endearingly, the art critic Brian Sewell wrote all his reviews by typewriter and faxed them to the Evening Standard until he died in 2015.
Kodak is arguably the most famous casualty of the digital era. The once giant company continued to push analogue film cameras long after its competitors had moved on – and collapsed as a result.
Sales of camera film dropped from nearly 1bn rolls per year in 2003 to about 20m last year. However, like vinyl and cassette, the market has stabilised and 35mm photographic film has witnessed a mini-revival among the Instagram generation, many of whom are rooting around in their parents’ attics in search of unused rolls and frantically bidding on eBay for affordable cameras. When everyone else is applying the same digital filters, you can make your photos stand out by using film. “It’s honest and unprejudiced, not simply a part of the batch of replicas that digital photography can produce,” writes one enthusiast. Meanwhile, an unlikely secondary market has developed in used film, which can go for up to £100 on eBay. Fans develop the mystery rolls and share the often disquieting results on the Reddit forum r/forgottenfilm.
Polaroid was the Apple of its day. The SX-70 collapsible instant camera, unveiled by Edwin Land in 1972, was an instant revolution in photography. It was camera and dark room in one. Andy Warhol made Polaroids central to his process, as did David Hockney with Polaroid “joiners”. Until digital cameras appeared in the 1990s, a Polaroid was the only way you could see what you’d just snapped instantly. The original corporation went bankrupt in 2001 and the company that took on the Polaroid brand went bankrupt in 2008. But the technology lives on under the Polaroid Originals brand and has found a whole new audience, especially when rephotographed with a digital camera and popped up on Instagram. The hip-hop photographer @stillz has won an avid following for her Polaroids. Digital age gratification + analogue age authenticity = an irresistible combination.
The basic text message or SMS (short messaging system) has been steadily falling out of use in the smartphone era from a global peak of 8tr messages per year in 2012. We are still messaging each other – more than ever – it’s just that we’re mostly using OTT (over-the-top) services like Messenger, Telegram and WhatsApp.
However, texts have been having a mini-resurgence: Three UK, for example, reports a 30% increase in text volumes last year. With lots of us on different apps, a text message is usually the safest way to ensure your message arrives with the requisite “ping”. It’s one reason SMS is increasingly popular with marketers and businesses. According to one commercial survey, 90% of texts are read within three minutes; texts have a 209% higher response rate than phone, email or Facebook; more people can receive texts than any other type of message; and people are just happier to receive them, too. The Future Laboratory describes SMS as “the surprising underdog as brands are looking for other ways to grab people’s attention”. More personal than a chatbot too. So prepare to receive a lot more marketing texts in the next few years.
There are still 10,000 or so red telephone boxes on Britain’s streets, including Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1924 Kiosk 2 prototype, which you will find outside the Royal Academy on Piccadilly in London. The K2 was voted the greatest British design of all time in 2015. But what is to be done with them in the age of the smartphone? Some have found new life as mini-libraries, many house defibrillators, others are used as coffee stands and most are purely decorative. But given the excess supply and declining demand, why are thousands of brand new phone kiosks being built? InLinks kiosks, which combine advertising screens, CCTV, public wifi and surveillance technology, are now a common sight in London. They are made by a consortium of BT, advertising company Primesight and “smart cities” firm Intersection, which is owned by Alphabet. Archaic planning laws make it hard for councils to object. Citizens may not need phone boxes – but surveillance capitalists do.
Meanwhile, if you’re nostalgic for the days when telephone boxes were handsome, useful items of street furniture, you can buy a K6 box for £2,750 (plus VAT and delivery) through BT’s approved reseller X2Connect.
This Post was originally published on www.theguardian.com