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Analog makes a comeback – with digital help

Analog stuff – books as opposed to e-books, vinyl records as opposed to streamed music – is all the rage. There’s even a new book about it, David Sax’s ‘The Revenge of Analog’ (PublicAffairs, 2016), a title that is not without its own share of irony. This discussion of the new enthusiasm for analog is available as a physical book as well as an e-book.

Well, a good publisher has to let the market break either way. And it seems to me that if analog is enjoying some kind of revenge, it’s a rather muted one. I don’t see analog things or digital things as exclusionary, and I doubt many of my readers do. But it’s worthwhile to look at what we do with analog and digital objects if only to remember that things were not always as they are today, and some analog things still have their own intrinsic virtues.

Take my Field Notes notebooks. I’ve used them for years, sometimes varying them with Moleskines. Having a physical notebook in my pocket is a memory prosthesis, something I pull out to check a quotation or remind myself of a thought I wanted to write about. Years ago I tried to digitize the process – this was when the first Palm Pilots came out – and I’ve kept trying to digitize it. But even now, I find smartphone keyboards hard to compose with, and voice recognition is awkward because speaking my text is not how my brain tells me to write.

Score one for analog. Another huge category of analog objects comes in the form of vinyl records and audio cassettes. I abandoned my turntable when CDs became the medium of choice, but I could never bring myself to abandon my vinyl. Thank God I didn’t. A few years back I bought a new turntable, one of the best I’ve ever had, though not particularly expensive. These days I play my jazz records constantly, loving their clarity of sound.

You haven’t heard Miles Davis do “Autumn Leaves” until you’ve heard the vinyl “Miles Davis in Europe” album. I can pick this music up for streaming through Spotify or play the CD, but a good set of speakers and vinyl sound notably crisper and more lifelike to me. Evidently I’m not alone in this assessment. With sales rising about 10 percent a year, new vinyl accounts for a small but robust 6 percent of the U.S. recording industry’s $3.4 billion in revenue.

And don’t look now, but we’re seeing the same thing happening in photography. Kodak has just announced (at the Consumer Electronics Show, no less) that it’s bringing back its Kodak Professional Ektachrome color reversal film line, which was discontinued in 2012.

Paper books have never lost their adherents, and I run into more people who swear at rather than by ebook readers – there is something about the tangibility, the texture and smell, of paper, and the lack of connections to anything beyond itself. But I’ll argue that we should work our way through this cultural mix one step at a time. A collector of old books, I’m also besotted with ebook readers that let me carry a library in my pocket and search and annotate books easily.

The pleasures of analog are many, but I think we need to see them in the context of a digital world that has opened up options for enjoying them we’ve never had before. I routinely talk to collectors of old magazines like myself – a very analog medium! – through Internet mailing lists. And I track people who enjoy fountain pens, that ancient tool, on digital bulletin boards.

Revenge? I don’t think so. Let’s call it the “resurgence” of analog. It may be appearing in niche products, but this is a healthy niche. It’s happening now because after a whirlwind courtship, we’re beginning to assess the pluses and minuses of digital life with a bit more realism.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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