Why I Ignore the Early Adopters of Technology

Exploring the popularity behind all things retro and vintage.

By Anant Deboor, Managing Director, The Partners


Last week, I was shopping at the local supermarket and noticed Kellogg’s had brought in new packaging for their corn flakes. It had a vintage look and Cornelius was looking somewhat different. Upon closer inspection, I realised it wasn’t a card box; it was Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in a tin box with a lid—vintage packaging on sale in a supermarket right next to regular, more modern boxes of cereal, but not as collector’s items.

Psychologists advise that breakfast is a meal that helps people adjust and manage a transformation (from night to day, from sleep to wakefulness) in their environment in a familiar, comfortable way. So breakfast rituals and products are often laden with metaphors and experiences that trigger comfort, familiarity and security. You find far more innovations around lunch and dinner than breakfast.
To me, the idea to bring back these vintage cereal boxes in a mainstream supermarket provoked even more questions around this ‘retro’ wave and why it is doggedly successful in some areas.
Is there something deeper that we are all craving against the onslaught of modernity and technology? Is it something beyond the cyclical nature of things fashionable? Is it simply a backlash to something else?
For Christmas a couple of years ago, I bought my then 20-year-old son a vintage Nikon FM camera , one that shoots film. It instantly upped his cool factor among his mates, who couldn’t care less about cameras with the latest technology. Like several of his friends, he prefers to shoot film and has fun playing with different types of processing and development.
On the other hand, for the camera manufacturers, it seems like there is no greater tech frenzy than when a new camera is launched. The mega-pixels! The dynamic range! The resolution! The sharpness with or without an anti-aliasing filter! The sensor that can shoot in pitch darkness! Whatever.
Each new camera promises to unleash the Mario Testino hidden in every one. People now see a nice photograph and tell me, “Wow, you must have a great new camera.” I feel like replying, “That was a terrific cake. You must have a great new oven.”
But I digress. Another example: Nikon recently stuffed the fanciest sensor they had into a retro-styled camera body, replaced the digital interface settings with analog ones and called it the Nikon Df. They can’t sell them fast enough now.
Instagram is a service that is less than five years old and primarily associated with the younger generation, but its hottest feature is one that evokes the past : filters that create sepia tones and early colour images. When I ask some folks why they don’t bother to learn the basics of camera settings and filters, they complain it is too much work!

Moshi-moshi handset


People buy the latest phones and then set ring tones that are like old car horns or first generation digital phones or even the analog double rings. Now I hear stories of bookshops opening and people reading more print. Several fashion and portrait photographers are getting into medium format film while Newsweek is now relaunching the print edition as a premium version of the online magazine. In India, I hear of temple priests using iPads to conduct ceremonies. As I write this, my Twitter feed reports that Britain launching a new one-pound coin that has 12 sides, inspired by the threepenny bit that was used from 1937–71.
And consider Dong Nguyen. The creator of Flappy Bird was reportedly pulling in US$50,000 a day when he decided he could take the pressure no longer. When he pulled the plug on the game and switched back to a simpler, sparser and presumably less stressful life, he instantly became a hero to a lot of people — yours truly included.
I find this revival of what everyone dismissed as dead or dying—the embracing of styles that are evocative of the past, the adaptation and use of new technologies in more traditional ways—all endlessly fascinating.
IT research and advisory firm Gartner Inc has a model called Hype Cycle. It very eloquently puts forward the theory that all technologies go through a cycle that comprises of a spike in inflated expectations followed by a trough of disillusionment and ultimately rises mildly to plateau at a level of productivity, which is just an increment over where people were before the technology came in.
Every time there is a new piece of technology launched, normal people — not the novelty-seekers—simply want to pull it into their lives with the least fuss. Meaning, the technology itself has little meaning; it is what it does within their lives that is more important. Simpler, more practical, more real ways of adapting it into their lives than changing their lives around the new technology. It seems the more experiences and objects get reduced to zeroes and ones, the more people are searching for the tactility and sensations of life. Today’s sculptor and pottery maker still essentially uses tools and technology to express himself in ways Early Man pioneered. Never mind the evolution of writing material, painting, print, photography, et al.
There is something fundamental in all of this. The more the external environment changes, the more stress it creates among us to keep up — and our hard-wired reptilian brain kicks in to reconnect our everyday practical lives with our deeper subconscious instincts for the familiarly secure, whether it is images, symbols, sensations or experiences from our cultural past. There is an authentic simplicity representing a less stressful time that is an antidote to the change and stress we like to feel we are on top of.
That’s why I couldn’t care less about the innovators and early adopters of any technology. They represent the hype. Not the constant. As the French say, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” The more things change, the more things stay the same.