Thinking About Digital vs Analog

Paper > Screen

I’ve been thinking a lot about the resurgence of analog technologies : Vinyl, deadtree books, magazines, paper journals/notebooks etc. This is accompanied by a rise in ‘physical hobbies’ : woodworking, film cameras and crafts. Similarly with spiritual activities : Yoga, meditation etc. 

Why now? I want to explore a few reasons why this is the case.

Romanticism

It’s sexy. Owning books, vinyl. Taking film photographs. Writing in fountain pen (I have a fountain pen addiction). 

Let’s take the example of books. I have about 400 books on my kindle. Obviously I love reading, but lately I’ve found myself coming back to physical paper books. Why?

Nostalgia. I vividly recall reading copious amounts of books in my schooldays. I would often spend the lunchtime in the library with my nose deep in either a young adult fiction or whatever interested me at the time (science, philosophy etc). During my one hour bus journey back home, I would find an empty part of the bus and enter the world of Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter. It was like crack cocaine for the mind. I would often stop reading only to start thinking deeply about the characters I read about. Their flaws, strengths and idiosyncrasies that made them so captivating and inspiring. I would use that as a basis to try and understand the world. I would try and embody the virtues that I read about. To be kind, honest, witty, charming, intelligent, brave, hard working, there were no shortage of adjectives. This was all in the paper form. No distractions. No facebook. No twitter.

Similar sentiments are found in people who listen to vinyl, do film photography and those who write by hand. It’s romantic. A throwback to ‘simpler times’. 


The World is moving faster

Many people want to go back to ‘simpler times’, at least ideologically. Technology however favours constant motion and innovation. There is no time to stop and reflect. Atleast that seems to be the zeitgeist of this era. “Move fast and break things”.  Analog technologies on the other hand, bring a slower meditative feel to life. The process is more important than the outcome. 

We live in the ‘attention economy’. Large corporations are vying for attention with supercomputers pointed at your brain with Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram etc. They are all ‘free’ services in the sense that you are the product. They are trying to maximise time on site so that they can sell more ads and they are specifically designed to be addictive. Attention manipulation machines. See Tristan Harris’s work.

Therefore attention has become scarce. A resource to be valued and used sparingly and analog technologies are all about single pointed attention. Losing yourself in an activity. Surprisingly, they also seem to be more effective in terms of retention. 

Studies show that there is poorer  comprehension when reading on screens vs paper. I can relate to this. When reading digitally, I tend to read less deeply. I skim, summarise, skip to the TLDR. In doing this, I miss the context. I’ve since switched to consuming any news (NY times, new scientist, national geographic) to magazine format and then really reading properly. So far so good.  

Reading on paper promotes active reading, making marginalia and notes in the sidelines. For example I recently read a book about Evolution and Natural selection : The Ape that Understood the Universe. Instead of just reading, at the end of chapters I would try explain the concepts in my own words : kin selection, reciprocal altruism, sexual selection etc. These are fundamental concepts I understand at a deeper levels all thanks to reading ‘on a physical book’ and taking notes. 

Similarly with writing by hand. Studies show that students who write by hand retain more than those who type. Anecdotally I agree. The exams I have done the ‘best’ in have been when writing physically in a notebook. (N=1 ) A point to keep in mind when moving forward. 

Digital Burnout

I love technology. I am a real nerd. My childhood was basically video games, computers and science. I learnt C++ and made basic games when I was 14-15 as a hobby. But back then there was a divide. The computer didn’t follow me round in my pocket. There was no centralised force in the internet. It was a tool.

Now its become so much more. A black rectangle has become an access point for limitless consumption of media. You can consume mental junk food. You can check your ‘social life’ (i.e. social worth for many) at the click of button. You can look at others (heavily curated) digital lives. It’s become a race to the bottom of the brain stem. Click bait, attention seeking and novel stimuli over thoughtful delayed gratification.

Society is fundamentally being changed by these forces. One question I think about is :

‘Is social media uncovering tendencies that were already there e.g. outrage, self absorption etc

Or

‘Is social media the cause of these new behaviours’

I don’t have an answer. But what I do advocate is slowing down. Switching off your phone. Talking face to face. Getting together without being beholden to a screen. Maybe its time we prioritise human well-being and flourishing over efficiency. This is at the root of the return to digital I think. The desire to unplug, unwind and slow down.

Stole the topic of this rambling post from a book I read called : The Revenge of Analog : Read things and Why They Matter.