The analogue renaissance, or why people like holding things

As a company working hard to be ‘cutting edge’ and keep abreast of the various new media that have revolutionised 21st century communication it might seem strange that we should write a blog post extolling the virtues of analogue. Isn’t the new world of digital communication all about no longer having to accumulate physical stuff? Pretty much all the information and content we could ever need is streamable or downloadable to the various devices we almost all own, after all.

But, there’s a reason that the word ‘print’ is at the heart of our strapline. We are, at heart, a print company, for all our mastery (or at least attempted mastery) of the virtual world, and what we love most about coming to work each day is when we get to make something. Digital media engages with our visual and auditory senses, but leaves our sense of touch unstimulated. A really nice book, full of compelling images or fine writing is a tactile pleasure as much as anything else. We get to hold it, and engage with the physical medium of its manufacture in a way that simply doesn’t happen with an e-book.

It’s not only print where the analogue renaissance is happening, although Jonathan Jones makes a compelling case for it in this Guardian article. Even back in the eighties the musical world was divided over whether analogue or digital synthesizers were better – old school Moog fans versus the New Romantics and their DX7s (yes, I was there; yes, I’m THAT old). When the CD boom started, die-hard vinyl lovers insisted that the conversion to binary data removed the warmth and vitality from the sound of a CD, while the strictly analogue pressing of vinyl retained it.

Now, as Simon Richardson notes in his BBC blog, the analogue fightback is growing. What he calls “the gritty sensuality of old-school tech and media you can hold in your hands” is fighting back against the onslaught of Apple and Android. Maybe it’s a symptom of a wider concern about big business IT dominating arts and culture, but guerilla vinyl meeting, hand copied and stapled fanzines, 35mm photography film and cassettes are all making something of an underground comeback.

Which brings us back to the book, and print in general. Design and marketing agencies haven’t forgotten that print exists, but it has been a less important part of their mix for a while and new designers coming out of Universities have often done all their work online. Slowly, that’s changing, as we rediscover the tactile pleasure of holding something that someone has made. Next time you think about your marketing, or your sales strategy, or even just a birthday present for a loved one, consider the joy of actually holding something in your hand and drop us a line to see if we can help. You don’t need to remember your password to access it (I’m talking to YOU, iTunes) and it’s harder to ignore. Print is analogue, and analogue is cool!

 

1 thought on “The analogue renaissance, or why people like holding things”

  1. What strikes me as most odd in all of this – or silly, at least (not odd, because it’s entirely predictable human nature) – is that we have to have the argument between digital and physical at all. To anyone who stops to think about it for more than the briefest moment, it should be obvious that we need both. Neither on its own is enough (in today’s world, at least), even though the physical/analogue is all we’ve had for most of history. One can’t stand in the way of progress, and the digital/virtual represents technology now; but to pretend that it entirely replaces everything from the past is equally foolish.

    Now that we have digital products to supplement physical ones, they add a new dimension to what we’ve always traditionally enjoyed. Virtual products can, depending on one’s needs, be ignored, be an adjunct to a physical collection, or even completely replace one’s physical copies of things. Why can’t we appreciate and rejoice in this situation rather than pretending that one format has to ‘win’ over the other? Reading the media (either physical or virtual!), it’s as though this thought has never passed through the mind of any writer before.

    There is much tactile joy in handling a real book. One can appreciate the cover artwork (or at least its design); appreciate the quality of the paper; enjoy the finely detailed printed pictures that it may contain; appreciate the ease of being able to turn to the index at the back and look up a page really quickly. The simple act of turning physical pages helps one connect with what one is reading. Also, a physical book won’t nag the reader to rate it online when reaching the last page! Books also look nice on a shelf. These are all advantages that physical books have over their digital counterparts. But then… books take up a lot of room if one is a bookish person, and it’s possible to fill one’s house with them and run out of space for more. Books require significant amounts of paper, which doesn’t grow on trees. (Erm… well, you know what I mean…) Digital books cost essentially nothing in terms of physical resources, and consume no physical room to store on one’s iPad, Kindle or other digital reader. And although ebooks are – I would argue – less easy to find one’s way around than physical books, conversely they’re much easier to search on the computer if you’re hunting for a particular word or phrase, as you might be in a technical reference. So ebooks are not as easy to flick through and look things up in the index/contents as physical books, but they’re much easier to search comprehensively for specific text content. Also, since one can carry around a virtually limitless quantity of books on a single device, ebooks make books far more portable. Moreover, ebooks can be updated with corrections; physical books have to be reprinted and purchased again.

    (As an aside, my one personal major gripe against ebooks is their typical price on release. There should be a very substantial saving, when buying ebooks, because one does not have to pay for the costs of paper, printing, other materials and long-term physical storage in warehouses and shops. What one pays should reflect the efforts of the author, publisher and distributor alone. If these costs are in line with their physical counterparts, then ebooks should be much cheaper than their physical print equivalents. That would be fair. But unfortunately, ebooks are generally the same price as their physical counterparts; even, in some cases, more expensive! To me, this is exploitation, pure and simple. I’m unlikely ever to buy full-price ebooks as a matter of principle, essentially for this reason; but I have no objection at all to the format in principle, and am happy to own both normal books and ebooks.)

    For books, then, I am not surprised that ebooks have not replaced physical books; my question would merely be why we should want them to (other than to save trees; and ebooks will certainly help in that goal). For books that I’m likely to want to read multiple times, or consult regularly, or simply gaze at for the lovely pictures within their pages, there’s nothing to beat having the physical book. For technical books (e.g. reference books on computer programming or similar subjects involving ‘manual labour’ [‘manual’ as in ‘reference book’]), there’s nothing to beat having ebooks at one’s fingertips. And for the most frequently consulted books, having both formats is ideal.

    Much the same can be said of music. As a classical musician with a CD addiction that’s been established for about as long as the CD format has existed, I have a houseful of CDs and really no room for any more. I could save vast amounts of space by getting rid of them, but I don’t want to. It isn’t just about the music on them; it’s about the CDs themselves. Like books, they have nice cover artwork that one can appreciate best physically. More to the point, I’m one of those people who actually reads cover notes. (Indeed, I’ve even written some…) If I got rid of all my CDs, I might still have all the music from them in electronic format, but I’d lose all that wealth of (usually) expertly-written booklet information accompanying it. Also, there’s something about the physical CD and its technical limitations (i.e. not more than 80 minutes of music per disc) – like the LP before it – that helps define each release as a memory in my head. There’s no theoretical space restriction on a digital ‘album’, but in the case of a CD I find it easy to remember what music comes from where because I associate it with the ‘unit’ that is the particular CD (with its cover artwork). And that’s part of a physical connection with my collection; I doubt I’d feel the same way if all my music were digital, bought ‘by the song’. (UGH! I *passionately* *LOATHE* the term “song” to refer to any piece of music. Whichever moron thought that one up should be shot.)

    Films and TV programmes? Again, it’s nice to have attractive physical media, especially of things that one is going to watch many times (here’s looking at you, Yes, Prime Minister – original series, obviously; not the appalling recent travesty). But mostly, one watches a film once and then doesn’t care to see it again for years, if ever, so there’s limited point in building up a huge library. So in the specific case of feature films, more than anything else, I’d say that the digital (virtual) option has a lot to commend it: one can pay a modest amount (much less than the price of a cinema ticket) to stream the film to one’s TV and watch it at a convenient time, and that’s ideal. If you love it so much that you want to watch it repeatedly, you can still buy the DVD or Blu-ray; if not, you haven’t wasted a larger amount of money on something that will just gather dust on a shelf. And again, if you really want to for whatever reason, you can have both physical and digital formats. Maybe you only have a DVD player (and thus no high-definition video on your TV), but can enjoy HD material on your computer. Of course, technical problems that make streaming films difficult (such as broadband connections that aren’t quite fast enough, or patchy coverage etc., not to mention the possibility of the provider’s servers suffering down-time) are all arguments in favour of owning physical discs that doesn’t depend on factors outside one’s control to play. But as time passes, such technological problems should gradually disappear.

    As for format wars…

    I have a very good musical ear. My pitching is better than most other people I know (and it’s been remarked upon by fellow singers and by fellow music students when I was doing my music degree). And I adore classical music.

    Yet I am NOT an audiophile and would never make any such claim. When I got an SACD player (when my ancient CD player physically wore out!), I bought a few SACDs, expecting to hear an obvious difference in sound quality. Yet I could discern no difference whatsoever. As for the so-called difference in warmth etc. between CDs and LPs… I’m sorry, but I think it’s in either the imagination or the mastering. I can certainly accept that there can be differences between the two, but the source of those differences is an open question for me. I think that a perceived loss of quality is more likely to be the result of either (a) a poor-quality transfer from LP to CD (i.e. poor mastering), (b) differences in the physical equipment used to play the recordings, or (c) a perceived difference (i.e. wishful thinking) on the part of someone who’s spent an absolute fortune on high-end audio equipment and is determined to hear an improvement whether it’s there or not. In the end, the most important thing for me, in these terms, is the quality of (a) the original recording and (b) its transfer onto the final medium (be it LP, CD or something else). Incidentally, the single best recording I have ever heard in my life (speaking as someone with thousands of them) is this CD (specifically the Britten Violin Concerto): http://occds.org/cd/cd012.html (I should declare an interest; I design the printed material and website for OCCDs, though the recordings themselves are nothing to do with me – and I mean what I say about the quality of this one). Even if the LP format does have some additional warmth, it’s more than offset for me by the pop and crackle one gets from the effects of dust etc. over time.

    Maybe I just haven’t listened to the right recordings to tell the difference. Maybe I can’t tell the difference between my music equipment isn’t good enough to reproduce it. Either way, I can’t say it really matters to me because I’m a musician, not an audiophile; that is, I listen to the sound of the music, not to the sound of the hifi system.

    Not that I have anything against LPs as such; on the contrary, I’ve always liked LPs. I just prefer CDs because they’re smaller, more convenient and more robust. (And I for one don’t discern any quality degradation in them.)

    What I do have something against, though, is cassette tapes. I hadn’t heard that they were making any kind of resurgence, and I very much hope that isn’t true. They’re utterly foul things with almost no redeeming qualities. They’re inherently a lower-quality medium for making recordings, they fade over time, sound ‘bleeds’ through adjacent pieces of tape over time and pollutes the whole recording, they’re serial-access (which is very inconvenient), they break and stretch easily and are subject to very variable playback quality, and they can easily turn into spaghetti inside your expensive equipment. Horrible things.

    Getting back to the original point, though, I see no harm in a return to analogue media if there’s some kind of benefit in it. If some people really believe in the superiority of vinyl LPs over CDs then that’s fine by me. Let them have their LPs, as long as they’re not trying to ban my CDs! There ought to be room for both analogue and digital in the world, as well as both physical and virtual. Each has its own set of positives and negatives, some of which will be more appropriate for some particular people than for others. Some of us even want both! There’s no reason at all why multiple formats of differing natures shouldn’t coexist happily. Why should there have to be just one winner in the end?

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