Recently I was shopping at the local supermarket and noticed Kellogg 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. A set of vintage packaging — on sale in a modern supermarket as regular boxes of cereal right next to the more modern boxes. Not as collector’s items.
Psychologists will tell you 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 familiar, comfortable ways. 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, Kellogg’s idea to bring back these vintage cereal boxes on a main supermarket aisle 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. They couldn’t care less about the camera with the latest technology. He—like several of his friends—shoots film and has fun playing with different types of processing and development. A service that is less than five years old and primarily associated with the younger generation, Instagram’s hottest feature is one that instantly evokes the past—filters that create sepia tones and early colour images. 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.
On the other hand, listening to the camera manufacturers, it would seem there is no greater feeding frenzy than when a new camera is launched. The mega-pixels. The dynamic range. The resolution. The sharpness with or without an anti-alias filter. The sensor that can capture imagess in pitch darkness. Whatever.
Each new camera promises to unleash the Mario Testino hidden in every one. Sometimes 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.
People buy the latest phones and then set ringtones that are like old car horns, or first generation digital phones or even the analog double rings. Several fashion and portrait photographers are getting into medium-format film. Every week I see posts on Facebook from people talking about how wonderful it was to receive a proper card or a handwritten letter.
The American Booksellers Association counts nearly 20,000 independent bookstores among its members — about 20 per cent more than in 2009. 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 pops up saying Britain is bringing back the poly-sided coin by launching a new one-pound coin that has 12 sides. Inspired by the threepenny bit, that was used from 1937 to 1971.
Take Dong Nguyen for example. The creator of Flappy Bird was reportedly pulling in US$50,000 a day when he decided he could take the pressure no longer. 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 dismisses 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.
The IT research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. has a model called Hype Cycle—you can read more about it here. 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’s 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 use tools and technology to express themselves 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 which represents a less stressful time that we yearn for 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.
Anant Deboor is the MD of The Partners-Singapore