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“In a digital age in which everything is available everywhere all the time, where every experience can be delivered electronically and every technology of communication has been puréed into the same universal flow of infinitely reproducible 0s and 1s, the hottest growth is in the market for things: finite, imperfect, irreducibly physical. Rather like human beings,” suggests Andrew Coyne, in an article for Canada’s National Post.
Coyne, like a number of journalists, authors and academics, is fascinated with a counter-intuitive, counter-revolution taking place in the world of technology. It seems practicality and performance is taking a back seat to feel and experience, reinvigorating technologies that seem destined for obsolescence. Amidst their discussion on vinyl records and paper books, some interesting questions arise for the emerging world of smart technology.
“New technologies, it turns out, do not always replace the old. They can sometimes co-exist, as the limitations of the old technology are rediscovered as its virtues,” Coyne points out, giving the example of the typewriter. “You can’t correct or amend what you’ve written, or not as easily as you can on a computer. Good: that means you are more apt to compose the sentence in your head before committing it to paper. Clearer, less cluttered writing is the likely result.”
It is also true that tablets and e-book readers are still someway off creating a reading experience as pleasurable as the printed page. While audiophiles of all ages will often tell you that vinyl records produce a fuller, warmer sound. Admittedly the cost of music digitization, from vinyl to MP3, brings with it a slight yet recognizable loss of data, but there’s more to this counter-revolution.
“There is a more fundamental reason for the analog counter-revolution, and that is simple physicality. We are physical beings. We live in a three-dimensional world. The things we love are not dimensionless bits of data, perfect and indestructible, but things with weight and volume that decay over time: that grow old with us,” says Coyne.
We are not robots; our actions are not always logical. Sometimes pain is a part of pleasure; sometimes impracticality lets you appreciate something more. There is a pride attached to your collection of real books displayed on their shelves, even though they take up space and are laborious to move. When was the last time you showed off, lent out, flicked through or simply admired the cover of an e-book?
“All digital music listeners are equal. Acquisition is painless. Taste is irrelevant. It is pointless to boast about your iTunes collection, or the quality of your playlists on a streaming service. Music became data, one more set of 1’s and 0’s lurking in your hard drive, invisible to see and impossible to touch. Nothing is less cool than data,” writes David Sax in his book: The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.
In a world where technology adoption is not a result of performance, practicality, nor price; where does that leave our search for smartness – Will we one day crave the cold feel of a key for access control? Is there a deeper need to get up and change the temperature dial or open a window yourself sometimes? Will the children of the 2020s all one day be flocking to the realness of the last dumb city?
It has even been proposed that our notion of technological progress is purely a function of chronology. Suggesting that if the typewriter had been released after the computer, we’d be promoting its attributes, “you hit the key, and presto — instant printout!” says Coyne, “to the 30- or 40-year-old, vinyl records and Polaroid photographs will seem irredeemably outmoded. But to an 18-year-old? What strange sorcery is this?”
Smart technology has largely been designed to automate our processes, perhaps the next generation of technology will un-automate. “The ‘smart building’ knows exactly what you want,” we say now; “the real building gives you back control,” we may say in the future. Smart buildings also create efficiency, but efficiency may mean less in our prospective long-term future of cheap, abundant renewable energy.
The topic is not as black and white as our revolutions and counter-revolutions may suggest however, a sizable grey area exists. The kindle attempts to take a position between the paper book and the digital tablet. The laser turntable offers the experience of vinyl without a needle slowly scratching your records to death. There may still be space for analog in a digital world and vice versa. Equally, there may be a greater need for realness in our smart buildings and cities.
One rapidly evolving interface technology may be the key to giving “smart” a sense of “real” – voice control. AI enabled smart assistants like Siri and Alexa are at the cutting edge of technological development; yet they create a sense of “real,” a kind of analog that may just give us the best of both worlds.
The analog counter-revolution is not just a hipster fad; it represents a fundamental human need for substance in our increasingly virtual world. Our dreams of a smart-tech-utopia may be misguided if they do not consider the importance of realness in the human experience.