The emergence of the expression “get a handle on” as a more modern version of “get to grips with” is an apt linguistic reflection of the history of technology. Putting handles on things is more modern than gripping them – 2.1 million years more modern, apparently.
That sounds like a dizzying amount more modern to those of us living in this era of fast technological change. Can you imagine something 2.1 million years more modern than the latest iPhone? What would it be like? Some lights in a cloud of semi-opaque gas that follows you around sending all your data to the giant gas god in space that feeds on it and defecates long seasons of high-budget quality drama that trail down on to the Earth like goldfish poos on to gravel?
I feel like it would be even weirder than that and any future-people who read this, maybe as part of some internet archaeology module, will laugh scornfully at my temporal parochialism through special new mouths they’ve swiftly evolved so they don’t have to endure even a momentary pause in their ingestion of delicious morphine pistachios.
But most ages aren’t as fraught with science as ours. 2.1 million years more modern than a hand axe is just an axe with a handle. That’s how much later the first tools with handles were than the first tools without them. That seems fairly slow going and makes me feel better about having taken several years to think of putting a shoe rack by the front door.
Handles, according to a Liverpool University study published last week in Royal Society Open Science, were a massive breakthrough for humanity, arguably more significant than the wheel, which didn’t trundle into existence for another 500,000 years. Tools with handles were much handier than those without – though the word should surely be handlier. You could apply more force to objects without expending more energy.
Not every human invention has the resilience of handles, though handles aren’t always resilient. They often break but, in doing so, only reinforce the soundness of the concept. Does anyone fully appreciate the handles on a plastic bag until they snap? You don’t think: “There must be a better way!” You just want a new handle.
Not so CDs. Their annoying unreliability, their propensity to get scratched and skip, to become grubby and then get further scratched when you wipe them, their maddening, clattery, self-disassembling boxes and, worst of all, the blood of the cassette tape that they have on their metaphorical hands, have all contributed to their decline. Some analysts were predicting that the CD market was about to be overtaken by vinyl. What a humiliation for the younger format! It would be like Steve Davis beating Ronnie O’Sullivan.
It didn’t happen. It was announced last week that CD sales rallied in 2021, spearheaded by the new Adele and Abba albums, reaching £117.2m, a rise of 1.4% and the first increase in four years. Meanwhile, vinyl only reached £116m, though that represented growth of 34% and happened despite a global shortage of PVC (one of the few global shortages I hadn’t previously heard of, thanks to my unimpeachable private life).
The bigger picture here, according to the British Phonographic Industry, which released the figures, is that physical music sales grew faster than streaming revenue. That’s a bit of a blow for the current economic orthodoxy. People still want the old breakable objects, not just weightless data. They’re bored with playing on their computers.
What is behind this crazy new spending pattern? Is NHS prioritisation of physical over mental health to blame for this irrational Luddism, this spurning of our wondrous devices? It can’t be, because it’s happening in America as well. CD sales up, ebook sales down – it’s hard to get a handle on it.
I reckon the explanation lies in a human invention even more powerful than either the handle or the wheel – an innovation that has enormously magnified our capacity for economic growth. It’s the gift. The gift, the present, is the thought that counts financially. It has supercharged capitalism. On top of the other reasons to spend money – because you need something, because you want something, because it’s cheap so you’ll get lots of it, because it’s expensive so you have to pay lots to get one of it – there’s this extra element: buying something you don’t want for someone else who probably doesn’t either.
The social conventions surrounding gift-giving are strict. Aside from occasions when you might genuinely want to give someone something and have a reasonable idea of what they’d like, there are many many others – Christmas, birthdays, weddings, etc – where you have no idea what they want, other than the dozens or hundreds of things they already possess, but nevertheless absolutely have to give them something.
When you can’t think of anything, books, tunes and films are perfect. There’s no limit to the number that it’s deemed appropriate to own and it’s easy, by your choice of title, to demonstrate the obligatory level of thought. “You’ve got a dog – here’s a book about dogs!”
Ask any publisher and they’ll tell you how vital this is. The printing and selling of books exclusively to those who want to read them doesn’t constitute a viable industry. It relies on the giving of vast numbers of the things to people who may not even open them. And the same principle used to apply to films and music until the internet, in its diabolical folly, developed an unwrappable delivery mechanism: streaming.
That was never going to work. It risked restricting album and video purchases just to the people who actually wanted to consume those albums and videos. Some will fall for a lame sort of emailed token, perhaps with an animation of a present on it, but normal people know that’s like a drinks party on Zoom – it doesn’t count.
The invisible hand of the market is at work and it’s only taken 20 years, not 2.1 million. If a commodity can’t be gift-wrapped and put under a tree, people will only buy as much as they need. That won’t keep the lights on at Amazon, let alone Westfield.