Retro Sentimentality: Analog Balance in a Digital World

In "Jurassic Park" Michael Crichton has a passage that illustrates a fascinating new phenomenon. Speaking of the park’s creators, character Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum in the movie) says,

“They don’t have intelligence. They have what I call ‘thintelligence.’ They see the immediate situation. They think narrowly and they call it ‘being focused.’ They don’t see the surround. They don’t see the consequences." 

And it was that very thintelligence that led to the eventual collapse of the park. Fiction, yes, but it's a concept that weighs on many as we chart technologically unprecedented paths in today’s real world.

In any given week, there are no shortage of articles questioning the moral and ethical implications of artificial intelligencegene-edited babiesdata privacy, and on and on. We’ve transitioned from a question of if we can do something, to whether we should.

In full transparency, this is much of my daily world. I've worked in the tech sector for over a decade, and I feel great purpose in moving our world further with the tools at our disposal. However, I've been thinking regularly about what makes us human, and contemplating how technology affects (and reflects) our beings.

I noticed something interesting when I went back and looked at 2018. Over the year, I’ve purchased over a dozen physical, hard copy books – sometimes in-person, sometimes over Amazon or Etsy. A few of those were gifts, sure, but many were for my own pleasure, and it begs the question: in a world of e-readers and tablets and smartphones and audiobooks, why do I still place such value on this object?

The French have a saying that loosely translates to, 'a house without books is like a man without a soul'. To me, a book feels more than the sum of its words – it communicates emotions and textures and a certain place and time that appear markedly difficult to digitize.

And I'm all for digitization in our lives, but perhaps that transition has its necessary and healthy limits. Whether it's words on a page, art on your wall, or music in your ears – we can digitize them all, but at what point does the shallowness of those digital forms begin to weigh on our humanness? On our spirit?

Whether an active or latent choice, collectively many of us make these analog decisions each day. It’s why we write a hand-written note when a text or email would have been easier. It’s why we still go out to eat, when GrubHub or DoorDash could have brought the meal to our home. It’s why many of you reading this are still wearing a mechanical watch, when a FitBit or Apple Watch would offer exponentially more functionality and durability.

It's because we're more than the sum of what we do. The expanse of our being, (as in human being, versus human doing), means our spirit craves more than shallow digitization. This retro sentimentality leaves our humanness clamoring for nourishment, that our souls feel nostalgia for experiences of depth and texture and feeling...particularly the kind that can't be erased when a server goes down or a website crashes.

Smart companies in recent years have recognized this. It’s why Analog/Shift has built a fantastic new marketplace for mechanical watches. It’s why Moo sells some of the more gorgeous personal stationary you can find. And it’s why the restaurant industry isn’t just growing, it’s growing with a focus on personalized and localized experiences. Our thirst for the analog hasn’t gone away in the era of digital. If anything, we’re returning to it in the context of what is most meaningful to our persons.

Perhaps the finest example of this has been the recent and unwavering resurgence of vinyl record sales.

Once considered a dead medium for music distribution, vinyl has been absolutely flourishing. In the decade ending in 2017, vinyl sales had grown fourteen times over! 14 TIMES! And that’s not including the resell market which makes the sales numbers even more incredible.

Somewhere in there, e-readers not only came, but they also began to go. A recent report shows the steady decline in sales over the same years and the continued strength of hard copy books. There could be a variety of reasons for the analog resurgence, but let me posit a thought.

We're approaching a collective digital awareness. And that awareness, I believe, is the understanding that everything, always, everywhere...is shallow. It works, it’s very convenient, it dutifully gets the job done. But it leaves us longing for something more intimate, more selective, more fragile and human.

And if you doubt me, let me jog your memory on what it's like playing vinyl records...it's comically burdensome! They need to be stored carefully, handled delicately, you can't skip songs or repeat tracks. And every so often, a side ends. The music just stops. There is no Netflix-style ‘auto-play’ that moves to an AI-generated ‘next-best-album’ queued because of your listening habits. You have to make a choice: do I flip the record, do I put something else on, or is that it for now? You must physically and intellectually engage with the medium, which both demands more of your attention, and perhaps gives you more back because of it.

And people want this. They’re paying for it. That’s why even modern tech publications write articles extolling the virtues of vinyl and offer tips on how to get your collection started.

In an era of digitization, the right analog experience – a book, a letter, a watch, or an LP – can be more meaningful to a consumer's soul than the virtues of simplicity, speed, or ubiquity.

And maybe that’s the point. Just because we can digitize every aspect of our lives, doesn’t mean we should.

(Special thanks to Susie Schmank for editing and consulting on this piece.)