“Knock, knock, knock, knock.” Ceaselessly, stone hits wood with that same deafening sound. Softer, the surrounding noises are that of the wind shaking tree leaves, a distant animal cry, and sometimes raindrops hitting soil. That’s it. No “hello boys and girls!!!”, no hysterical montage, no hyperbole or orders to subscribe to. There is only someone in front of the camera, but the man who sometimes simply just wears blue shorts is always quiet. Only his hands, either busy with a pile of stones, a heap of clay or even a sharp piece of wood, produce any sound.
That sound is the hallmark of “Primitive Technology”, which is as much an oxymoron as it is the name of the extremely popular YouTube channel, which is mainly due to its very “niche” format. Founded in 2015, the Primitive Technology channel has now almost 9 million subscribers and a total of 600 million views (with 55 million views alone for this video, where our hero builds a hut in the woods). The channel’s creator is an Australian man called John Plant, but apart from that, we don’t know much more about him. We do know that he was a landscape gardener and that he does not live in the forest all the time, he does repeat and echo the fact that apart from his channel he leads a normal life, in a modern home, and shops like the rest of us.
Each of John Plant’s videos follow the same pattern; they are never longer than 15 minutes, and they systematically show him building shelter, tools, and primitive weapons by using nothing other than the natural resources that he finds in the woods. He never speaks to the camera, which he does not deem worthy of even looking at. Instead, he is simply happy with appearing in the field of vision, in shorts, and working with his hands until he has achieved his objective (which is not always clearly explained). The idea behind these videos – which condenses weeks and months of work down to short clips – is showing how to build useful things without relying on modern technologies.
Relaxing in the Woods
Obviously, we immediately think of the survivalist school of thought with its prophets of the apocalypse looking to prepare themselves for the imminent and inevitable downfall of modern society by accumulating tin cans, firearms, and ancestral knowledge supposed to help with hostile nature survival. That is not what this channel is about. Primitive tech’s goal is not to accumulate resources in foresight of modern society’s downfall, but rather to see what each individual is capable of when they are alone in the middle of nature. In any case, John Plant’s videos are not presented as tutorials. Truth be told, we do not think they would be of any help should you find yourself lost in a forest.
In fact, apart from its difference to alarming speeches from survivalist and to YouTube channels’ hysterical montages dealing with everyday problems in a funny way, Primitive Technology stands out because it has gone in a completely different direction. What John Plant simply offers us is calm. There is a relaxing, even meditational effect to seeing this man wander nature looking for the materials necessary for his daily workload. It only takes little to find imagine yourself next to him in the woods, as if the Internet could make hermits of us all.
Striking Global Success
But for all this, John Plant knows how the Internet works quite well and with his millions of subscribers he is able to live off his YouTube activity alone. He has even inspired dozens of other YouTube channels that imitate his creative talents: Primitive Skills, Primitive Life, Survival Skills Primitive. By the way, we only know his real name because he complained to Facebook that people were posting his videos there, which was “costing” him thousands of dollars in YouTube views. To give you an idea of his earnings, he was saying he lost 27,000 euros through Facebook… on a single video. Make no mistake: his videos are made with attention to detail, are written well, even humorously so. Our man masters virality and recording software as easily as he does Stone Age tools.
John Plant is far from being the only one to produce this type of content. Hundreds of YouTube channels are imitating him in the hopes that they can be carried along by Primitive Technology’s success. What’s even more surprising is that for two years now, most of these channels have come from South-East Asia. Motherboard recently spoke of this phenomenon and covered Primitive Technology Idea, a Vietnamese-based channel owned by a 23 old man who is doing much the same things as John Plant in his local jungle. In the region, they are dozens to have gotten into that niche market and are accumulating millions of viewers. Their success is striking: for 18 months now Google’s trend expert tells us that their viewership is doubling with each passing month.
The format remains scrupulously the same: a fixed camera, a man in front of the screen (very rarely a woman, though there are exceptions), and no speech. That last one is surely as much to copy John Plant’s format as it is not to scare viewers that don’t speak the language. However, these Asian YouTubers are distinguished by a weird trend: building crazy swimming pools in the middle of nowhere, doubtlessly to show that they are capable of doing it. This in turn has fueled suspicions of cheating, which is to say the use of modern tools and plastic materials. We have to say that, spontaneously creating a swimming pool in the middle of mosquito-infested jungle is an idea that not many would have.
“An increasingly paranoid relationship with technology”
To understand the success of these primitive tech channels, you simply have to look at the comments on these videos or even go on dedicated threads. Many internet browsers share feelings of relaxation, well-being, and calm at the exploits of these new cavemen. To this end, the sounds of birds and stone hitting wood act just like an ASMR or the crackling of burning wood in winter for millions of people.
“There is an obvious contradiction which happens when we watch these videos on YouTube, which is to say on a modern platform and through a screen” explains Media and Culture Sociologist Expert Eric Maigret. “But this increasingly translates itself as a paranoid relationship with technology. People fantasize so much about the past that the promise of a radiant future has crumbled with each year’s passing. Nowadays, the future brings with it thoughts of an apocalyptic scenario like those in Terminator and Black Mirror. For my generation, technology was a holy grail which guaranteed collective emancipation. For the younger generations which are practically born with smartphone in hand, a return to the Stone Age takes on a fantastic aspect. For them, emancipation is more about rejecting technology than embracing it. Paradoxically, these YouTube videos give them the impression that they are disconnecting from technology.”
In Search of a Lost Paradise
We didn’t have to wait for Facebook or 4G to feel nostalgic about a “purer” relationship with our environment. For centuries now, humanity has fantasized about a return to nature, from “Robinson Crusoe” to “Cast Away” and going through Thoreau and “Into the Wild”. That being, Eric Maigret reminds us that “in modern society, we pass more time thinking and on tasks that use our brain more than our body, and these videos remind us that we can use both to create something concrete. Turns out we are not so different from the thousands of senior executives that quit their jobs each year to become full-time bakers or carpenters.”
We find in that an idea that is shared with survivalist’s speeches: that technology’s progress does not necessarily lead to happiness for all, and that we are more and more conscious that everything could collapse tomorrow between economic crises, climate change, and threats of cyber conflict in many parts of the world. It is then becoming more and more important, in the collective mindset, for each of us to be able to create something ourselves without relying on others.
If we want to be more romantic, we can also put forward the hypothesis that some of us are, through these videos, in search of a lost paradise which existed in a time before our dependence on smartphones and experts, and before a society where the division of manual labor and the sharing of technical skills has never been this low. John Plant and his imitators promise a pure connection with our environment, without any middleman. They are promising a return to essentials. Their main resource then is our nostalgia of a fantastical time, before screens, before deforestation, mass tourism, globalization and the cult of instantaneousness.
The More Concrete Low-tech
Some people are simply not happy to just be watching videos on YouTube or even to be building huts in the woods. Their objective is much more concrete: to allow everyone, and particularly disadvantaged people, to support themselves thanks to natural and recyclable resources.
Corentin de Chatelperron has made this his lifestyle. The thirty years old man from Brittany is permanently traveling the world, especially in developing countries, to promote the use of “low-tech”. This represents the use of recyclable materials which are accessible and useful anywhere and allow everyone to be self-sufficient by consuming less energy and respecting the environment as much as possible.
Alone on a platform in Thailand, Corentin lived self-sufficiently for 4 months by combining promising low-technologies.
Recently, Corentin spent 4 months living in self-sufficiently off the coast of Thailand, while touring the world on his “Sea Nomad” catamaran, which he sails with other low-tech enthusiasts. Together, they created the Low-Tech Lab, a team project aiming to promote low-tech and spread knowledge to the masses, by making a log of the low-technologies spread around the world. To finance this project, they recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on Ulule.
“The idea is really to develop and propose sustainable solutions that are useful and accessible to everyone, which could range from Indian fishermen to a family in the suburbs of Paris all looking to reduce their energy consumption, explain Corentin de Chatelperron. You don’t need much to live autonomously, whatever your social situation or location.”