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Digital Culture, Meet Analog Fever

Analog minds in a digital world 

IN the course of a recent move, I decided to “cut the cord” — that is, walk away from cable television and fully embrace the streamed-entertainment revolution. I felt very digital. Just a few weeks later, however, I discovered something that surprised me: Thousands of my fellow cord-cutters have taken to buying antennas, to pick up the seemingly quaint format of over-the-air television signals. I initially resisted joining those going out of their way to spend extra money on an object that was traditionally part of the default TV apparatus. But of course these are not your father’s antennas, as they say: The new iteration promises far better picture quality over greater range, without constant adjustment (or strategic tinfoil enhancement). Still, the return of the antenna struck me as not just retro, but counterrevolutionary. Could there be a more symbolic manifestation of the analog life than buying a contemporary version of rabbit ears? Soon I got an answer: Amazon, a company practically synonymous with the triumph of bits-in-the-cloud over objects-in-physical-space, just opened a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, The Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world. Since then, I’ve been tuned in to evidence that our digital culture appears to have a case of analog fever. The rising sales of vinyl records, for instance, have been widely chronicled. E-book sales dropped by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, but Amazon’s physical shop has plenty of company: The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2015, up from 1,410 in 2010. You can’t scroll through a lifestyle app without finding news of a precious new print journal’s launch party; Etsy is thick with letterpress-printed offerings; and the digital-only publication Vox recently published an impassioned brief on behalf of the video rental store. The writer and artist David Rees hyped his TV show “Going Deep” by skipping Twitter and Facebook in favor of putting up old-school promotional fliers — an “analog social media strategy,” as he called it. And so on. Just a couple of years ago bits seemed so unstoppable. Does the recent vogue for the physical suggest a decisive backlash — a regression in the direction of wax cylinders and stone tablets? It does not. What’s going on instead is more interesting than that, or than mere nostalgia or even some strain of reactionary Luddism. It turns out that while the digital often comes close to crushing its analog precedents, that process can do something curious to its putative victims: underscore their virtues, elevate their status and transform the formerly workaday into something rarefied, special, even luxurious. The relationship between the analog and the digital is more complicated than its usual portrayal. For starters, the pronouncement that some new technology X will “kill” some existing technology Y is usually just glib and easy hyperbole. This was memorably demonstrated a couple of years ago, when the author Kevin Kelly asserted the opposite: “There is no species of technology that has ever gone globally extinct.” In short: X never kills Y. That argument caught the attention of the journalist Robert Krulwich, who wondered: What about carbon paper, bronze helmets, chariot components? “Inventions, like dinosaurs, can go extinct,” he insisted. Mr. Kelly stood firm; Mr. Krulwich’s readers offered thousands of potential counterexamples. But everything from buggy whips to eight-track tapes turned out to be still in (however small) production. Arriving at a conclusive repudiation proved challenging enough that Mr. Krulwich graciously conceded the larger point that tools and technologies are shockingly difficult to kill off decisively. Now take another look at, say, vinyl records, and it seems obvious that such a truly mass-consumed format would still be around. What’s less obvious is that it would somehow transform into a fetish object. New LPs today are routinely advertised as being pressed on “180-gram vinyl,” or some such. As someone who remembers vinyl’s mass market heyday, when even stores like Sears had a record department, I can assure you that nobody was agonizing over the physical specs of REO Speedwagon’s “Hi Infidelity.” But deposed as a mass good, the record has re-emerged as a de facto luxury good — a boutique version of its former self. What has really changed is not the intrinsic nature of analog objects or processes, but rather our attitude toward them. After all, in terms of pure “democratization” — meaning, in this context, affordability, ubiquity and convenience — digital music really has trounced its analog precedents. Maybe it’s the case, then, that deeper immersion in the digital is precisely what make us appreciate certain superior qualities of analog alternatives. And yet, any argument that analog fever is a purely rational matter — old stuff is just plain better! — seems fishy. There’s a murkier romance involved, a variation on the process that rebrands the dated as “vintage,” “traditional” or “artisanal.” The very marginalization of the analog has propelled it into the realm of luxury, by making its admirers come up with an answer to the obvious question: Why squander extra money and/or time on a less efficient alternative to the digital? Consider the business card. Reasonable observers are constantly predicting its disappearance, or wondering why it persists. Obviously the swapping of contact particulars can be achieved without handing around objects (and, let’s face it, transferring the information they convey into some more useful digital form). But that reality has upped the ante on business card creativity. A card that’s made of concrete, doubles as a cheese grater, or can be reassembled into a toy — all of which exist — sends a message that’s a lot more memorable than a Twitter handle. Even a letterpress card makes an impression no bits can match. Is that about quality and intrinsic superiority? Or is it of a piece with the popular theory that practically all human decisions are mindless signals — of status, taste, distinction — directed at an audience of peers and strangers? Our evolving relationship to the physical and the digital reveals another answer. When there is a bits-only version of almost anything, opting for the analog variation demonstrates what we really care about — to the world and to ourselves. To own or experience the analog version of the latest from a favorite musician, author, filmmaker and so on, is an act both sensual and symbolic. And by now, that applies even to things that were never analog to begin with. The quiet phenomenon of “dedigitization” has demonstrated this, in the form of everything from physical emoji jewelry to pixelated-patterned throw pillows to the Giphoscope, which takes a burst of smartphone video and renders it, flipbook-style, as something that can be watched on a “device made of metal and wood, handcrafted in Italy with devotion.” O.K., maybe those are weird examples. But let’s say you take video games seriously. If so, you are no doubt a supporter of the smart and beautiful printed journal Kill Screen, currently striving to further upgrade its physical manifestation through its second Kickstarter campaign. That’s a perfect manifestation, actually, of the way that analog fever functions not in opposition to digital dominance, but in concert with it. The fresh appreciation of the physical owes a great deal to the new age of bits. I know about David Rees’s amusing “analog social media” tour only because I watched videos about it on YouTube. Also, of course, the new generation of TV antennas that put analog fever on my radar provide better imagery because broadcasting itself is digital now. And when I decided to buy a physical antenna to bring the retro glories of the local news into my modern, cut-cord household, I did all my research online — poring over digital charts and maps matching my ZIP code to broadcast towers, and cross-referencing that data with product specs and reviews. I’m sure I could have bought the physical object that I settled on at a brick-and-mortar store near me. But who has time? I ordered it from Amazon instead. By ROB WALKER

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