A daily bulletin of news & opinion

22 March 2012

In a cosy wine bar in San Francisco I had a romantic moment with a senior executive at one of the world’s biggest tech companies. Hold on, it’s not what you’re thinking. Over a glass of nice white we got talking about the Dig wine store in the gloriously named Dogpatch area of the city.

The man in the know was a fan of the whole set up there but particularly loved that the owner’s sound system was a record player behind the counter. I joked that his company had been perhaps responsible for the demise of vinyl – had made people feel no need to own even a CD. What was he doing revering vinyl? “I guess it’s just the romance. Records just have this great romance.”

He’s right but at first it comes as a surprise in a city where people make their fortunes by rushing forwards, knocking old tech solutions out of the way, to realise that, on the sly, lo-fi romance is what even future-focused players sometimes long for.

I have two apps on my phone but I just got a third, the camera application Instagram. I know I am late to this party, but if you too are slow to jump on the download bus, Instagram lets you take a picture and then decide how you want it to look. Pick 1977 and your picture will get a white border and a beige, blown-out glow, “inkwell” makes it look like a black and white picture from the 1960s, “earlybird” shades it like an image from the 1890s.

Why do so many people want to take pictures that look dated, a bit wrong, imperfect – yet on their features-packed phone? It’s romance.

Perfect and shiny technology may be slick and full of utopian promise, but it’s also soulless and too cool for school. I used the Instagram app while in San Francisco – I had a digital camera with me too, but the pictures looked clinical in comparison. There’s something just plain beguiling about the whole thing.

We were in San Francisco to take part in a conference looking at the maker movement and craft in our cities. On the panel was Charles Chi who is one of the people behind the soon to be released Lytro camera that many claim will change photography in dramatic ways – for example it allows you to refocus images endlessly after you have taken them. The camera is shaped like a lipstick case. It’s had an extraordinary amount of buzz. But its very creation will prompt a reaction. It may be daring product design but it will make other people just look at Leicas with even greater warmth.

It’s a conundrum – a simultaneous desire to embrace the lo-fi and hi-tech, the white-glowing future and the buttery brown past – that sets some real challenges for manufacturers of technology.

But, we, the consumers, seem to be oddly adept at living with this instagrammed, nicely framed vision of the present.


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