It’s not just the hipsters who are doing it. Analog seems to be making a comeback. LP sales are climbing, people are resurrecting Polaroid-style film, preserving wooden type, buying vintage furniture and old-style printing with a vengeance. These are all natural reactions to seismic changes in technology and the ways in which we interact with objects. We can understand these sometimes-oddball interests and activities if they’re viewed through the lens of history. For hundreds — nay, thousands of years, human beings have interacted with physical objects and spaces in a particular way, whether it was hoeing in a dusty Nebraskan field, or signing a paper contract. But then digital devices arrived on the scene, and voila! Things have changed.
The Internet, cloud computing, capacative touchscreen devices, virtual models, avatars, message boards, electronic mail, Short Message Service texting on phones, and many other innovations have served to sever our centuries-old, hard-wired relationship with the good, old-fashioned physical object. But it seems like there’s a cultural memory or vestige of longing for some touch still hanging around, because the desire for analog experiences seems to be on the rise. So, what in the name of Thomas Alva Edison is going on? There are some things that physical objects do very well, where their digital cousins leave us a little cold. Here are a few reasons why yesterday’s gadgets, technologies, and ways of working just won’t die.
Holding something is like a relationship
It’s not just collectors who like to hold something in their hands. Whether it’s a baby, a baseball bat, or a diamond ring, the nature of the tactile experience brings us closer to a thing. Physical touch is a singular experience, creating a specific haptic bond, even with inanimate objects. Textures and touch hot-stamp our memories with emotion, and all of that is stored together in the recesses of our brains. That’s why running a hand over the polished fender of a ‘58 Impala brings some Boomers back to their teenage years. It’s very difficult to create a physical bond with an iTunes thumbnail.
This is one reason why many are experimenting with cassette-only music labels, collecting vinyl, and connecting with methods of creating and playing that date back to earlier eras. Previously it was assumed that to complete a task, to work or play with an object, that a person would have a specific interaction and get particular feedback or influence from a physical object. But with technological sea changes, many of the experiences we’ve had in the past — reading a newspaper, sketching a model, penning a poem, playing an arcade game — now come to us by way of glowing screens and digital devices. (The irony that I’ve written this entire article on my iPad and computer is not lost on me.) That’s not to say that these new ways of working and interacting are bad, but where they excel in efficiency and transferability, they can fall short in connection and permanence.
Old things connect us with history
For many in Generations X and Y , anything that isn’t the newest and shiniest falls out of fashion. To them, old stuff seems lame, antiquated, and worthless. Why watch a “boring” silent film when you can be rocked back in your chair by the sweet strains of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in Dolby 7.1 IMAX? And who wouldn’t prefer a Taylor Swift ringtone to some Stevie Nicks album? But for a growing group on the margins, there is value in connecting with a time period before your own. Sure, some of it is probably a fascination with “otherness” — something we didn’t grow up with has a alien nature to it, a patina of authenticity because it came from a “simpler time.”
But some of the appeal is also true curiosity about how things were done before. And not just for novelty’s sake, but because those experiences offer a time-rooted and unique interaction that modern creation doesn’t always afford us. There is also an archaeological aspect to the search, a seeking for truth in what other generations did — what was it like? How do their creative impulses and executions compare to the way I do things? These are valid questions that need to be worked out, and sometimes the “analog way” might be the best path to explore.
Making something tangible is a richer experience
There is something satisfying about pulling a screen, developing film in a darkroom, or making Super 8 films. The act of connecting to an activity in a physical manner builds a sort of physical memory and satisfaction that mediated experiences can’t match. The output is something that can be held, turned over, cherished, filed, and admired. While we’ve tried to recreate these interactions (like the website page flips or iPhone apps), they come off as pale imitations of analog experiences.
In the end, our parents were right. There is such a thing as sweat equity — and building, assembling, or initiating creation with some physical expression leaves a lasting imprint on the world and the creator herself. I doubt we’ll be auctioning off the digital signatures or iPad sketches of famous people fifty years from now. The connection is not the same when something has never been touched.
They lead us to belonging
Finally, in discovering these analog means of creation or consumption, we seek to connect with other like-minded folks. Not everyone will appreciate these analog experiences, but in finding fellow students of physicality, we are also searching for identification and belonging to a group, tribe, or class of others who fundamentally understand us. Musicians jam together. Knitting circles knit. Audiophiles swap albums. This connection, this very human sense of belonging, seems to be even more fragile and scarce in a disconnected world that offers hollow, one-dimensional versions of “community” at the hands of Facebook, message boards, and LinkedIn groups. It’s a fundamental hunger for human relationship, and shared physical experiences are often more meaty than their appetizer-size digital counterparts.
All of this has to be postscripted with a disclaimer. It’s an ignorant and short-sighted man who scoffs at the future, and we certainly aren’t shaking our fists at the amazing innovations and technologies that tomorrow is ushering in. The future has afforded us amazing abundance, new experiences, and in many cases, deeply satisfying careers. But we’ll miss out on a treasure trove of beauty, creativity, and connectedness if we don’t truly consider all that the analog experiences have to offer.