Are we digitalled out? The retro revolution is here

Boardgames are booming, vinyl sales are taking off, e-reader sales are slowing, and there’s a vogue for retro Nokias among hipsters. Are we ‘digitalled out’, asks Ed Power

IF YOU can tear yourself away from Twitter for a moment, you may notice friends wrestling with an arcane technology: sheafs of printed pages glued together with a cardboard cover. These are ‘books’ and they are the big new thing.

Yes, the book — disdained three years ago as as ‘15th century technology’ — is roaring back. Waterstones has proclaimed the printed word the future, saying demand for eReaders, such as Amazon Kindle, has vanished.

In the UK, the British Library has noted a 10% uptick in attendances. Despite warnings to the contrary, people are doing things other than photographing dinner on Instagram and re-Tweeting the snaps to 150 people they barely know.

This ‘old tech’ boom isn’t confined to books. Vinyl — declared moribund as far back as the mid-1980s — is set to eclipse the compact disc as the music lover’s physical medium of choice. Sales hit 1.2m in 2014, a 20-year high.

Similarly, celebrities such as Rihanna are leading a vogue for ‘low-tech’ mobile phones — that is, handsets that place calls and send texts, but do absolutely nothing else.

In Russia and Germany, fears of post-Edward Snowden intelligence leaks have prompted a boom in typewriter sales, while actor Tom Hanks has published a paean to the technology in the New Yorker. “The tactile pleasure of typing is incomparable,” he wrote. “There is a sheer, physical pleasure to typing.”

“An eReader will never replace that feeling of holding a new book in your hand, the smell of the print and the feel of the page,” says Vanessa O’Loughlin, of the website. “I think even the most enthusiastic readers, who have fully embraced digital, still love a physical book and, perhaps, now the novelty has worn off, are returning to buying them. My daughter orders books for her Kindle and, if she loves them, buys a physical copy, so that’s a double win for the publisher and the author.”

“Most of our releases, nowadays, are on vinyl, compared to CDs in our earlier years,” says Ciarán Ryan, of the Limerick record label, Out On A Limb.

Sarah Davis-Goff of Tramp Pres, says “books are such beautiful objects” that people want to own them.

“We prefer it, personally, as a format, but we generally leave it up to the artist to decide which formats they want to release on; occasionally, we’d put an album out on both LP and CD. Physical sales are still quite important, as we are a label who still very much focuses on the physical releases. They’re also very important to bands, as they generate some income on the road.”

Mr Ryan says that vinyl sales remain dwarfed by digital downloads. Vinyl may be making a comeback, yet it will never dominate as it did up to the mid-1980s.

“CD sales have plummeted in the digital era. However, we are probably fooling ourselves in thinking there’s been a massive vinyl revival. Even at our level, we’re pressing anywhere from a half to a quarter the amount of ‘units’ we were maybe ten years ago, when we focused on CDs. It’s not a case that vinyl sales have replaced CD sales, but that they have picked up a small percentage of the slack from the move to a digital era. I think people place more aesthetic value on the vinyl release; the look and the feel, and the experience of engaging with a record.”

Some of these trends can be attributed to faddishness. It was inevitable that the vogue for vintage would encompass ‘retro-tech’, such as typewriters. However, it is surely also the case that, with the digital world pressing into our entire waking day, more of us are seeking relief via tactile interactions.

This may explain, for instance, the booming popularity of board games. It was reported last month that the Green Bay Packers American football team spend their downtime bonding over Settlers of Catan. It’s a game devoted to the marshalling and allocation of resources and would previously have been seen as the personification of top-button-tied nerdiness.

Ditto the success of YouTube series, Tabletop, in which former Star Trek actor, Wil Wheaton, and famous chums bond over boardgames such as Arkham Horror, Ticket To Ride and Escape From House On The Hill.These games offer a refreshing alternative to Xbox and Playstation: after all, at the end of a long day toiling over a laptop or gazing at your smartphone, would you rather roll dice and push plastic miniatures around a board or squat in front of a television for a retina-sizzling session of Halo?

“There is still an appetite for …beautiful objects,” says Thomas Morris, editor of the Stinging Fly literary journal. “People have told me they bought Dubliners 100 [a lavish anthology in which contemporary writers ‘revisit’ Joyce’s seminal text] just because it looked so attractive.

“I’ve heard many other publishers say they’re making a conscious effort to produce their books more handsomely, to spend more time working on the design.”

“Books are such beautiful objects,” says Sarah Davis-Goff, of Tramp Press, an independent publisher based in Dublin. “Publishers are woking to really ensure that they are gorgeous and covetable, and are investing in quality design and luxurious paper.”

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