Our love for lo-tech is born of our disenchantment of digital tools and toys. So, is the fidget spinner another frivolity millennial influencers are pushing? Or is it a pretentious return to analog, a wider, popular hipster thang? Asks Divya Guha

My childhood friend Priyanka Bose, now an actor based in Mumbai, had a severely bad habit of biting her nails nearly to the root and then consuming her cuticles. The first time we met, which was when we were 10, she had a handkerchief pinned to her school shirt. Kids our age hardly accessorised in that way. It was more the vogue in kindergarten, though thankfully I never had a runny nose. The hanky was her diversion—it was what she nibbled at instead so she wouldn’t bite her digits bloody. This trick was only partially successful.  She still has permanently gnarled phalanges.

We all fidget—we touch our hair, we scratch our heads, we doodle while thinking and drum our fingers on tables (you ever beat the devil’s tattoo?). Fidgeting is what we do while trying to focus on doing useful things. Nero fiddled, they say, as Rome burned. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes plays violin while using his deduction skills to outwit criminals. The printed Holmes smoked his pipe.

The yoyo, another fidget toy exploiting the momentum principle, is seen on ancient Roman ceramics. A woman diverts herself with one in a Rajasthani miniature c. 1770, no doubt waiting for her lord or lover. The spinner made it to the stage in eighteenth century Paris. French playwright, Beaumarchais, put it best in the Marriage of Figaro in 1792, where a nervous Figaro playing with his emigrette (called that in France) was asked what the toy were good for. “It is a noble toy, which dispels the fatigue of thinking,” he responds. Napoleon and his army relaxed with their yo-yos before the Battle of Waterloo. The English used the French word bandalore, the term ‘quiz’, and the word ‘incroyable’ which means a French dandy, to identify the plaything. In 1791, a print was circulated of the Prince of Wales, future George IV, whirling his bandalore. It then became an object any person of fashion had to own, according to an unverifiable though fascinating history on yoyomuseum.com.

A woman playing with a yo-yo in a Rajasthani miniature c.1770

Fidgeting is old but the fidget spinner is brand new. And where there were a future king of England and fashionable and lonely court ladies as influencers of olde, now there are YouTubers and Lana Del Rey fidgeting, and recently, Barron Trump. Catherine Hettinger, the inventor of the fidget spinner had it patented in 1997, it was the same year Hasbro—the largest toy manufacturing company in the world—rejected her idea, as they couldn’t see its appeal. But Hettinger knew it was working, “I walked into their headquarters spinning it, it totally calmed me down.” I was advised by one retailer to refer to it as a ‘toy spinner’ as fidget spinner might soon be patented.

But it took almost 20 years for the magic to spin. Even today few people understand the immediate satisfaction imparted by a tiny handheld object that spins and hums. But the lo-tech plastic toy meant to calm restlessness, and purportedly more serious issues such as poor focus levels among children with ADHD, is the hot new geegaw globally. Hettinger’s patent expired earlier this year, so any manufacturer may cash into the trend, But not surprisingly Hasbro is leading sales worldwide.

Even Lana Del Rey can’t resist fidgeting

And the eye of that tempest India-wards comes. First stocked in April 2017, spinners’ sales showed a growth of 10x MoM, said an Amazon India spokesperson. Indeed, the top 50 best sellers on Amazon India earlier this week were all different fidget spinners stocked by various sellers. Okay, there was a speaking toy for infants and Uno cards taking up two coy spots. The fidget cube, a predecessor of the spinner, whose each face had a type of toggling or clicking facility took another place, somewhat basking in its cousin’s glory, but the fidget spinner ruled.

Phone calls round all the Hamleys in Bangalore revealed the toy is stocked but, usually, quickly sold out. People of every age are buying them. Twitter nationalists are jumping up and down comparing it to the Sudarshan Chakra, accusing Westerners of once again stealing from us like they did the design for aircraft from vahanas.

Arjun trying to stop Lord Krishna from playing with the fidget spinner (via @VanDiablo)

It is either a triumph of simplicity or stupidity that kids and adults are obsessing with it in spite of VR and Wii’s. It comes as a relief of lo-tech, low-cost joy when the market is saturated with complex games and toys such as the XBox; but while there is no direct comparison, new models of fidget spinners are becoming snazzier with Bluetooth speakers, and LED lights and this may only be the start. Or a non-start as the root of this toy’s appeal lies in disenchantment with digital miscellany. It is a return to analog, a wider, popular hipster thang. But unlike hipsters, fidgeting is not pointless, and seen in a forgiving light, a digital detox is not a frivolity.

The spinner is small and has the makings of a future collectible, and discreet unlike the freak fad that took hold last year—of bottle flipping, say—that understandably dispelled office and classroom panics and distractions, but proved an obvious public nuisance. Furthermore, the wondrous spinner beat the static cube in sales. A retail expert at Amazon said though the cube and the spinner were introduced together, the latter has seen much more traction.

But if you haven’t heard of the spinner, you may have missed it already. Karandeep Singh – Business Head, Hamleys India, said fidget spinners’ star may be descending. He says they are no longer dominating international charts like they were, as searches for the toy declined on Google Trends over the past two weeks. But India is just about waking up to it.

They start retailing at Rs. 85, and the most expensive ones, sold internationally, can be made of gold and platinum.The latter possibly favoured by well-heeled executives who must keep their vampire squid tentacles diverted as they sit through long, dark meetings ascending and descending the tenebrous spiral staircases of the self. It is already banned in schools in the UK and the US, and looking at the way it is selling in India, it may become a throbbing migraine in schools here, too.

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