An Anti-Tech Backlash

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Forget the Metaverse, AI, self-driving cars, and aerial drone pizza delivery; there is an emerging movement among customers who are focusing on yesterday instead of tomorrow. If you think that brings to mind a bit of history from the industrial revolution—the Luddite movement—you would be right. There is an alignment between the original Luddites and growing concerns today about the tech revolution and its negative impact on human lives, livelihoods, mentality, social interaction—and even the future of humanity.
It’s too soon to tell if the Luddite trend will grow and stick. However, retailers should be aware of these retro currents, especially among next gens and be prepared to respond in terms of product design, store environments and communications.

Luddites Redux

We are seeing a wave of nostalgia, a longing for the good old days—read that as the pre-digital era—that brings to mind the Luddite movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Last year TRR reported on today’s Luddites LINK, with a club started by a group of Brooklyn high schoolers founded by Logan Lane. The club is still going strong with members who have ditched their smartphones for old-fashioned flip phones. The club meets in green spaces and parks, where members have real discussions, read real books, take photos with Polaroid cameras, listen to cassette players, do sketches, write in journals, soak in the regenerative vibes of nature, and most importantly, turn off their devices to be in the now and to connect with each other. It may sound quaint to the cynics, but it is a real thing. This emerging trend is spreading throughout the country, especially among next gens — Gen-Z and the Alphas. Their numbers are significant, with Gen Z numbering 68 million and Alphas numbering 48 million. If the low-tech trend gets enough traction, the Luddites may cause a dent in the social world. And then there are their parents and grandparents who have weighed in with issues about technology, privacy, addictive screen viewing and the negative psychological and emotional effects of social bullying and shaming.

Downward Spiral

In a counter-tech trend, some next gens today are asking if their smartphones are actually making them dumb. Behavioral researchers have reported that staring at screens all day is making attention spans shorter; making viewers more susceptible to suggestions and less prone to think for themselves; and intensifying negativity, anxiety, and self-dissatisfaction. During the recent Facebook whistleblower congressional hearings testimony claimed that the company knowingly targeted teens and even younger children, with the aim of increasing screen time per user in order to better sell advertising and accumulated consumer data. And Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy issued an advisory about the effects of social media on adolescent mental health.  In a 2022 survey, 42 percent of Gen-Zers said they are dealing with mental health problems. Nine out of 10 are dealing with anxiety, and as many as 78 percent are suffering from some level of depression. Ralph Nader, recently commented, “Corporation predators are separating millions of kids for 5 to 6 hours a day from their parents, communities and nature with iPhones and tablets.”

Longing for Nostalgia

Enter the renaissance of the flip phone. Many consumers are figuring out that they can get by just as well with simpler, less expensive phones; and while a flip phone cannot do everything a smartphone can, for many it does just enough (note: don’t confuse this with the new folding phones). Money is a factor as well. The going rate for a flagship brand smartphone is around $1,000, while a flip phone can be had for a fraction of that price. The International Data Corporation says that the flip phone market is growing rapidly and will attain sales of 27.6 million units by 2025, a compounded annual growth rate of close to 70 percent from 2020 to 2025. But it isn’t just about flip phones. Next gens seem bent on preserving things that they don’t personally remember including iconic everyday items from prior generations.  This can range from manual typewriters, portable tape players, and vinyl LP albums to point-and-shoot cameras and vintage analog watches. And if you think a return to vinyl is limited, customers purchased $1.2 billion in vinyl records in 2022, a 20 percent increase from the prior year, with vinyl albums making up around 45 percent of all album purchases. Taylor Swift’s “Midnights,” leads the current sales record for vinyl with sales of close to one million copies. When it comes to apparel and the home, the nostalgia trend just keeps building. Homes are reflecting Grandmillennial style, Coastal Grannie, Cottagecore, Maximalism and New Traditional. While in fashion, we see a Normcore/anti-style redo; along with Barbicore; Coastal Cowgirl (or Cowboy), with “Yellowstone” cowboy boots and hats; updated Preppy (a la “Euphoria”); and “Quiet Luxury” Succession style.

We Are Responsible for Our Future

It is too soon to tell if the Luddite trend will grow and stick. However, retailers should be aware of these retro currents, especially among next gens and be prepared to respond in terms of product design, store environments and communications. Next gens are pragmatic and situational. Tech isn’t going away. The big brands, Amazon and Walmart are using technology to level up the customer experience. But the cultural conversation has shifted, and big tech is less a hero and more a threat. AI tipped that scale and there is increasing scrutiny into how our culture and values are being affected by technology, how to distinguish truth and reality from what is false, how we form a balance between time spent in the digital sphere and in the real world, how we maintain social skills and positive mental health, and how we keep the best things from our past from being thrown into the dustbin of history.  The point is to be aware of the impact of technology and plan accordingly. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, ”If you do not change directions you may end up where you are heading.”



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