Revenge of the Analog

Over the holiday break, I read David Sax’s Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (Public Affairs 2016). It’s a popular book and Sax is a journalist who write on culture and technologies for a range of periodicals. His book is was intriguing to me not because he has an answer to why there is a persistent interest in the analog (or at least a simulacrum of the analog), but because he identifies a number of seemingly incongruous places where the “analog” practices appear to running counter to the prevailing trends of digital life.

In some ways, his book has parallels with recent popular move toward the “slow moment” as a antidote to the speed of life (and particularly capitalism) in the contemporary world. At the same time, Sax is clear that the analog isn’t a challenge to capitalist practices. In fact, one of his examples in Shinola which is a Detroit based company that specializes in luxury watches, leather goods, bikes, and, now, turn tables (of course). Another example is Moleskine notebooks which he recognizes as both a practical tool for members of the “creative class” as well as deliberately crafted corporate product. While the small time book seller appears in the books pages as does the owner of vinyl pressing factories and entrepreneurs looking to profit on the resurgence of film, these figures aren’t marginal or radical figures looking to scratch out a living at the margins of the global economy, but rather figures who recognize the potential to find profits among communities who embrace technologies and experiences that run counter to prevailing trends in our digitally mediate world.

Sax’s classic example of this is recent resurgence in vinyl records. He looks beyond audiophile arguments for the superior sound of vinyl (which may be valid, but only at price points way beyond the means of the average vinyl record buyer), and considers the rituals associated with the use of vinyl. The removing of a record from its dust cover, the cleaning of the surface, the placing of the stylus on the grooves and the endless fussing with tracking, tone arms, and cartridges. Even the need for separate components and cables and space for the records and the gear involves a spatial commitment to the experience of playing music that goes beyond what is required for digital or streaming music. In other words, the analog, at least for Sax, is physical. Books require bookstores, records encourage record stores and vinyl pressing factories, and film requires bulky manufacturing plants. Sax explores the world of board game cafes, the Detroit based workshop of Shinola watches, and cafes of Milan during fashion week where cognoscenti sip Peronis and sketch notes in their Moleskine notebooks. 

This link between spatiality and the analog while not explicit in Sax’s book got me thinking about my own ill-defined anxieties concerning the growing role of digital practices in archaeology. Increasingly, I have started to recognize that digital practices offer archaeologists ways to de-spatialize both their practices and their objects of study. High resolution digital models, for example, take up virtually no space and can move without particular ceremony or ritual from one computer to the next instantly. The modern digital storeroom is distributed across multiple computers, servers, and disks and is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  The analog, in contrast, whether it’s a physical notebook or an object or a site, is explicitly spatial.

This spatiality gives archaeologists, national governments, and communities a sense of control and command over their objects of study. The analog world described by Sax is one shot through with these moments of control and possession. We can hold a vinyl record, destroy a Moleskine notebook, and watch chemical entropy slowly transform a prized photograph. So perhaps our desire for the analog has more to do with our desire to hold and control and act as physically defined agents in a world increasingly mediated by elusive digital data and technologies and seem to dance just beyond our grasps.

One Comment

  1. I love old brass microscopes and have collected several. There is a disturbing disconnect between the user and electronics in a gray box. Frankly it is more fun with tactile control when you can see gears moving, and have to manually change lenses for example. Not to mention having to clean and polish. Would I want to work with the old stuff? Not against a deadlines of course and the deadlines keep moving up as the equipment gets faster and more reliable. I’m afraid the analog (including old tube component Hi-fi) is now only for hobbyists who “want” to commit cash, time, and effort. Finding a place for the analog in “the field” might be satisfying and even marginally beneficial but essentially it is dressing to make the subject more tactile and interesting (fun).

    Reply

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