My daughters are archetypal "digital natives" — kids who grew up knowing only a digital world. But while they rely on cyber space for a large part of their social interactions, intellectual development and daily logistics, when it comes to music they have suddenly acquired a passion for the tangible world. Most notably, some of their teen and tween friends have recently started listening to old-fashioned records on a turntable, and the trend has spread (probably via social media, ironically). So my kids now consider vinyl albums to be wildly cool. And retailers have cannily spotted — or created — a new business niche.
If you walk into an Urban Outfitters store (a favourite for teens in New York and elsewhere), you will see an entire section devoted to vinyl records and record players. If you jump into cyber space for your Christmas shopping, you will see websites such as Amazon selling these records too. In 2015, across the industry as a whole, vinyl record sales were at their highest since 1988. While sales seem to have slowed in 2016, what is striking is that it is now kids driving the trend, rather than older hipsters.
What is going on here? Part of the explanation lies with the marketing genius of a voracious retail industry, which has tapped into the fundamental truth that teenagers want to rebel against their parents' tastes. It is also a mark of the consumer psyche that scarcity makes things seem valuable. So the fact that many middle-aged people (like me) consider vinyl records to be irritatingly inconvenient (never mind the issue of sound quality) is apt to make them seem cool to some kids. For digital natives, going backwards leads to a new frontier.
But there is a second issue too: namely the complex interplay developing between cyber and real space, which is tearing us all in two. In some senses, 21st-century humans are besotted with the internet. No wonder: the digital revolution has delivered untold benefits, making our lives dramatically more efficient and convenient while also cutting costs. In other senses, however, we all have reason to be scared: not only is digitisation eroding jobs, it is also tossing us into a universe without constraints, where the rules for social interaction and human knowledge are being turned upside down. As the digital revolution spreads, it is hardly surprising that we are seeing both a shift towards the cyber world and also a backlash.
Take the books market. A couple of years ago, there were widespread predictions that old-fashioned paper books were doomed to inexorable decline in favour of ebooks. But as publisher Adrian Zackheim points out, the story of 2016 is that ebook sales have stalled, because many readers still like the permanency of tangible editions. "Paper books are staging a big comeback, even hard covers," he observes. Similarly, a few years ago there were widespread predictions that videoconferencing would remove the need for people to waste time flying around the world to meet each other. But the conference business is booming today, since many people still want to meet, face to face, in the old-fashioned way. In architecture, Norman Foster has noticed that his clients still want to see physical models of buildings, even if a cyber design is more accurate. Ironically, Foster's clients in Silicon Valley are said to be particularly keen on "old-fashioned" models.
I recently met with a group of cyber-security experts working at the cutting edge of digital technology, who told me they always take vast, rolled-up paper charts to client meetings, since the clients like to see a "map" of an IT system, laid out in ink and paper on a table, rather than just presented on a screen.
Of course, there are numerous counter-examples where cyber is displacing the analogue world. And I fully expect that, by the time Christmas 2017 comes around, my kids will have decided that vinyl is no longer cool and will have moved on to the next fad. But this weekend at least there will be an "old-fashioned" record stand sitting under the Christmas tree for them — with all its inconvenient retro bulk. It is a good reminder that "progress" does not always go in a straight line — for kids or for adults.