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High-Tech, High-Touch: Back to the Future

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

While fetching my digital camera from the repair shop, I noted a bunch of clunky old film cameras and their flashes lining a back table. I thought no one used film anymore. Wrong.

The proprietor explained that a growing subset of young people like to work with old-fashioned film technology. Here are kids who computed by the time they crawled, and they're hanging out in darkrooms with negatives and vats of chemicals.

In his 1982 bestseller "Megatrends," John Naisbitt predicted this kind of thing. The more high-tech there is, he wrote, the greater the need for the antidote of "high-touch." He said, "We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature."

Naisbitt sure got that right. Today's tech giants bear touchy-feely names like Google, Twitter and Apple. Meanwhile, very high-touch women's cosmetics -- basically paint applied by hand -- tout their complexity. For example, Estee Lauder's Idealist Even Skintone Illuminator advertises "Triple-Optic Technology."

As for the cameras, "there are hipsters in Brooklyn that are dedicated to old films and old processes," Steve Smith, who heads the Rhode Island School of Design's photography department, told me. "Those people are true sentimentalists."

Professionals generally work with digital but might switch to film only for large formats, Smith said. However, "there's a huge waiting list" for the Fujifilm FinePix X100, a new camera that combines the two technologies and partly resembles the classically retro Leica.

The renewed enthusiasm for film cameras is part of the larger Slow Movement, which seems to have begun with food in Europe. "Slow Food" is an effort to preserve local varieties of chickens, apples, artisan cheeses and other edibles against the onslaught of multinational agribusinesses selling homogenized products grown and processed to travel enormous distances. The related "locavore movement" encourages consumers to eat locally produced, organic foods.

Look at the popularity of the back-to-the-'50s simple commuter bicycles. Look at the very successful Etsy.com website, on which people can sell their hand-knitted sweaters, homemade jewelry and other crafts.

As corporate consultant Naisbitt wrote decades ago, we want "soft-edges balancing the hard edges of technology."

High-touch married to technology can make big money: Started by a frustrated woodworker, Etsy is now a private business valued at $100 million.

But what about words printed on paper? Can they be saved in a world in which one can download a novel instantly and for less than it costs to buy the paper version? Yes, says former Random House CEO Alberto Vitale -- the first book-publishing executive to insist that contracts with authors include digital rights.

As Vitale sees it, books that do go into actual print will evolve into "much more precious products." They will be "better-printed, better-bound, better-produced and better-marketed, even at much higher prices," he said in an interview with the Wharton (School of Business) Digital Press. The e-books we download on our Kindles, iPads and their like will become something like the paperbacks of the past.

In a similar vein, e-mail has not killed off old-fashioned letter-writing, but set off a counter-reaction. Well, for some of us, anyway. Apparently, precious communications -- such as thank-you notes -- are more often being handwritten on fine paper. (Check out the shop at www.feltandwire.com.) And there is a strong market for vintage and new fountain pens, plus inkwells.

As much as I love my gadgets, I've been trying to turn them off at the end of the day and instead tend to my heirloom tomatoes. Amazing that John Naisbitt had this figured out almost a decade before anyone had even conceived of a World Wide Web.

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