The Retro-Tech Revival

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The Retro-Tech Revival

Visions of a Less Digital, More Fulfilling Future

A prevalent mythology of the future, pushed by the digital tech industry, assumes it will be increasingly digital. This trajectory is often thought to be inevitable and that therefore individuals and institutions have no choice but to embrace it. I find the books below stimulating because they reject this inevitability and imagine a future less dominated by digital media than it is now. They also share compelling evidence that a movement away from excessive digital dependency already is taking place, that analog technologies are regaining popularity, offering an appeal lacking in our digitally saturated lives. Could it be possible that future generations will look back on this era of 24/7 hyperconnectivity, not as the wave of the future, but as a short-lived phenomenon?

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax
David Sax provides a strong counterargument to the assumption that digital media will increasingly dominate the future and render analog technologies obsolete. Vinyl records, film photography, board games, paper books and magazines, notebooks and stationery are making a comeback. He explores why many people crave and use analog media even if they have to pay more. From record companies to independent bookstores, businesses specializing in analog products have grown substantially over the past decade. Even Silicon Valley companies are sometimes finding analog tools more conducive to productivity and creativity in the workplace. Along with supporting data, the stories Sax shares of successful businesses of analog goods offer compelling evidence that the analog world is here to stay.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Wired World by Cal Newport
Cal Newport, a computer science professor and author of Deep Work, presents a philosophy for technology use aimed especially for those yearning to reclaim balance and focus amidst a digitally exhausted culture. Digital minimalism, a quiet movement becoming more and more mainstream, involves significantly limiting digital use to only those activities that truly enhance quality of life. However, obstacles make such efforts difficult, as profit-driven technology companies intentionally design digital products to hook users for long periods of time. But Newport believes it's possible to subvert the "attention industry" through certain practices. First, he suggests a thirty-day "digital declutter" period, abstaining almost entirely from digital media, then gradually re-introducing the few digital tools that truly enrich life while eliminating all excess use that diminishes it. The new habits digital minimalists adopt vary. For example, some decide to ditch smartphones and social media altogether, while others decide to continue to use them as tools in much more limited ways. Other topics he discusses include reclaiming solitude, examining how social media affects well-being and relationships, and rediscovering the joys of offline forms of leisure. Full of stories of people past and present who have shed distractions to live more deliberately, this persuasive book empowers anyone overwhelmed by constant digital connectivity to make meaningful changes in their habits.

The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist's Companion for the 21st Century by Richard Polt 
Typewriters are experiencing a comeback, especially among artists, writers, musicians, steampunks, makers and kids. Richard Polt, a philosophy professor and creator of the Classic Typewriter Page, documents and celebrates their revival in this beautifully crafted book, complete with a red-and-black bookmark that looks like a typewriter ribbon. Beginning with a "Typewriter Manifesto" for the movement, this comprehensive book covers the history of typewriters and favorite typewriters of writers, along with practical advice for "insurgents" on how to choose and care for one. It also explores public acts of typewriting, the "typosphere" where digital and typewritten worlds collaborate, and their presence in art, literature, music and film. Polt acknowledges computers are useful for certain tasks; even he wrote this book on one. But for those who value privacy, self-reliance, durability, concentration, or artistry, typewriters have attributes that computers lack. Their limitations, such as no delete key and their slowness, can also be strengths. He clarifies that "the enemy of the typewriter revolution is not computers
—it's the all-embracing computing mentality, the Paradigm that threatens to dominate the way we live and think." This cleverly written book, enriched with many photos and typewritten texts documenting the "revolution," will delight not only typewriter fans and those curious about their revival, but anyone grown weary of digital dependency.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle
Uninterrupted conversation is becoming rarer as digital communication increasingly dominates spheres of family, friendship, romance, education, work and politics. Texting, email, social media, and other digital modes of communication have attractive features, such as speed and efficiency, the option to edit, multitask, and communicate with many people in distant locations at once. Yet despite their usefulness for certain kinds of tasks, MIT sociologist and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle argues they fall short of the benefits only face-to-face conversation offers. She shares plentiful research showing how our withdrawal from conversation due to digital connectivity impairs our psychological and societal well-being. Unsettling consequences include: a significant drop in empathy, reduced ability to focus deeply on tasks, weakened capacity to form close and meaningful relationships, and avoidance of the difficult work of democracy. Even when we are alone, we may not experience solitude; our digital connectivity interferes with conversation with ourselves, endangering our capacity for self-reflection and imagination. Turkle doesn't think we need to give up our digital devices, but we can limit their interference into areas of our lives that would be better enriched by the most basic human technology—talk.

The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World by Christina Crook
While the Internet had positively influenced her life in some ways, Christina Crook increasingly became concerned with how much it had interfered with living fully in the present. So she decided to take a month-long Internet fast to explore her dependence on it. A complete fast was easier for her than embracing moderation afterward. She found it difficult to use the Internet and social media as tools for certain tasks within limited times, without letting it disrupt her attention, quietness of mind, and quality of her relationships. Through typewritten letters, research, personal stories, inspirational quotes and chapter challenges, Crook explores how we might achieve more balance and discipline in the role of digital technology in our lives, thereby enriching our everyday moments.

The Retro Future: Looking to the Past to Reinvent the Future by John Michael Greer
True believers in the mythology of progress assume newer technologies must be an improvement over older ones. But as people find newer consumer products more shoddily made or the latest computer upgrades less user-friendly than before, they are increasingly questioning this assumption. Greer argues that technological progress has reached the point of diminishing returns: by and large, newer technologies have more externalized costs and cause more problems than they solve. "When you've driven down a blind alley and are sitting there with your bumper pressed against a brick wall, the only way forward starts by backing up," he analogizes, advocating for deliberate technological regression. Older technologies often have advantages, not just for our personal well-being, but in our adaptation to a lower-energy, resource-constrained future. He outlines seven sustainable technological suites in which their revival now would provide much value to our descendants rebuilding societies in a post-industrial world. Those who embrace the heresy of technological choice—the ability to choose or refuse technologies pushed by corporate interests—and are rediscovering the joys of retro technologies, are not "stuck in the past" or "behind the times." In Greer's view, they are the ones embracing a more exciting, livable future.

Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto From Music and Fans by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike
As digital downloads and streaming became the most popular means of getting music, some forecasters predicted vinyl records were a dying technology. But instead, numbers of vinyl record sales and record stores have trended significantly upward every year since 2007. For example, in 2016 vinyl record sales increased by 53% from 2015, hitting a 25-year high. In the same year, spending on vinyl outpaced spending on digital downloads. What makes vinyl so appealing and why is there a major revival of vinyl in a digital era? In this manifesto, pop-culture writer and historian Jennifer Otter Bickerdike interviews over 25 artists, including hip hop stars, DJs, producers, album cover designers, photographers and record store owners, on their personal experience with vinyl, the virtues of the format and the importance of its re-emergence. Illustrated with photos, album covers and quotes alongside interviews, this delightful book will appeal to vinyl fans.

Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels by Richard Heinberg
In Chapter 13, "Our Evanescent Cultureand the Awesome Duty of Librarians," Heinberg discusses the ephemerality of electronic media and the need to conserve essential cultural knowledge in non-digital form for future generations. Drawing from anthropological and historical research, he mentions examples of past civilizations that lost much of their cultural achievements during the process of decline and collapse. Even though the volume of contemporary society's cultural materials is unprecedented, Heinberg thinks we are no less vulnerable to a similar outcome. Currently, digital media and most production processes of print media depend heavily on fossil fuel-generated electricity, other non-renewable resources, and a highly complex web of infrastructure. The pursuit of economic efficiency has reduced overall long-term resilience. Energy shocks, resource shortages, natural disasters, war, economic and social turmoil may increasingly affect delivery of electric power and Internet service in the coming decades and centuries. Failure of reliable, ubiquitous, 24/7 electricity should exist as a contingency in our long-term planning, argues Heinberg. For those who recognize these risks, the necessary task will involve triage, the sorting and evaluation of value of materials to future generations, as well as their preservation in non-digital form.
 — Rachel W.