As digital technology takes over our lives, we are increasingly drawn to the analogue technology of the past. Vinyl records, physical books and Moleskine notebooks are all enjoying a revival. We might be quick to dismiss this as a fad or harmless nostalgia. But scratch the surface of this phenomenon and what you find is some deep truths about the nature of technology and our relationship to it. We have a deep evolutionary, material, and conceptual connection with analogue technology that is simply lacking in our relationship with digital technology. The more digital technology overwhelms our lives, the more we will crave our affinity with analogue technology, argues Robert Hassan.
There’s an online store called The Electric Recording Company. The website deals in the psychology of fantasy for the many lovers and dreamers of analogue days and things. Google it and you will be transported (digitally and virtually) to a pre-digital world of music that is, (through expertly rendered HTML coding) a curated simulacra of an analogue audiophiles’ wet dream.
There’s been a definite ‘revenge of analogue’ vogue underway for maybe twenty years now, and it shows no sign of running out of steam. From Moleskine notebooks and various board games to Kodak film and, yes, analogue books, all are being sold to millions of people who grew up with their digital alternatives. This isn’t just a shallow nostalgia for old things. These preferences reveal something deeper and more troubling about us and our relationship with technology.
The Electric Recording Company is Nostalgia Central. Click onto it and a soundless website opens out like a creamy gardenia flower, with grainy photographs of John Coltrane’s classic 1960 album ‘Giant Steps’. A Ken Burns effect slowly turns and transitions the album from the front-cover, with Coltrane gripping a golden tenor saxophone that cascades from his lips to his waist, to a back-cover filled by a whole essay, written by Nat Hentoff from the Jazz Review, trumpeting on the ‘exuberant, furious, impassioned, thundering’ music that lies in wait within the sleeve. The vinyl record itself is shot in a sumptuous high-definition, yet moody light, revealing a heavy-looking platter of PVC bearing the words ‘Long Playing - Unbreakable’ printed in silver on a chocolate brown centre label.
Consuming eyes lean into the computer screen, and you feel able to almost touch the thick cardboard album cover with its redolent colours and be-bop significations; and the music is nearly audible from the soundwaves etched onto the clearly visible calligraphy of its grooves. It all conspires to make you want to touch it, to hold it and place it on your stereo player and put the VU meter into the red zone.
Nostalgia can seem a harmless indulgence for the legions of the credulous who will pay to collect pointless stuff that may be cheaper and ‘better’ and more ‘efficient’ in their digital versions.
What is being sold here, really? Many believe that the market in retro material culture, trade is mere nostalgia: think of lava Lamps, 1950s wall-clocks, SLR cameras, Ilford film, 1985 Air Jordan sneakers, automatic movement watches, and kitsch of all kinds that forms a sprawling culturescape of analogue sentimentality. It’s easy to dismiss such superficiality. And nostalgia can seem a harmless enough indulgence for the legions of the credulous who will pay to collect pointless stuff that may be cheaper and ‘better’ and more ‘efficient’ in their digital versions.
But there’s something else going on, something deeper, something psychological and universal—and that’s our human relationship with technology. With the rise to domination of digital we’re now compelled to consider where we stand in relation to technology—a question we’ve never had to ask ourselves before. That point itself is startling. And the choice is stark: analogue and digital are two different categories of technology; the first rooted in nature, the other in mathematical abstractions; the first characterised by (mostly) recognition and material authenticity, the second by (mostly) incomprehension and immateriality. Which type of technology is closest to what we humans ‘are’?
Digital technology, with our generally unthinking collusion, has severed or degraded much of our human relationship with analogue technology. Our attraction to retro is a symptom of this disconnect.
The choice should be easy. But the choice is being made for us practically every minute of every day. Digital technology, with our generally unthinking collusion, has severed or degraded much of our human relationship with analogue technology. Our attraction to retro is a symptom of this disconnect. The malady is a deep void or absence that we misidentify as nostalgia; a space we fail to fill with meaningful relations with the material reality of world, but instead with fetishized analogue commodities that are as sustaining as a packet of crisps.
Marx called it alienation, with the machine and the factory and the ‘mode of production’ detaching us from the products of our labour. More recently, the philosopher Jacques Ellul saw the spectre of alienation not so much as the effect of capitalism, but more the logic of what he called technique itself, especially the process of automation, which makes technology more autonomous, more for itself, and not us. There’s merit in both these ideas.
In trying to decipher our relationship to digital technology, and how it’s profoundly different from analogue technology, we can now begin to draw on mid-20th century arguments that only now, in the age of digital, are coming into their own. The ‘philosophical anthropology’ of Arnold Gehlen, for example, a contemporary of Martin Heidegger, suggests that because we ourselves are analogue creatures, there is a startling mismatch between us and digital technology. It’s not just that, to paraphrase Marshal McLuhan ‘we create our tools, and our tools create us’, but that we are analogue, literally. Homo sapiens, through evolutionary drift, were formed as technology, as species that didn’t simply invent or discover tools that we fashioned from nature – we became what we are through the interaction itself. We evolved with technology and as technology - our species did not discover it as something apart from us. The earliest tools were drawn from nature and acted as extensions of our bodies and brains. As they became more complex, they could still be seen as corresponding (analogues of) nature and humans. This, however, is not the case with digital technology.
Physical tools are our natural analogue extensions. And importantly, through our primevally-formed resonance with them, we can recognise the essence of their functioning. They simulate processes we can see in nature or in our bodies.
Gehlen called this formative interactivity in early humans the ‘circle of action’, where the relationship with technology ‘goes through object, eye, and hand and which in returning to the object concluded itself and begins anew’. He continues:
"…the analogous process of the external world bespeaks a ‘resonance’ which conveys to man an intimate feeling for his very nature, by focusing on what echoes his nature in the external world. …the similarities thus evoked are not in the least superficial; they convey to men certain distinctive conceptions of their own essential traits based on ‘resonance’ Through these similarities man interprets the world after his own image, and vice-versa, himself after his image of the world."
In this holistic sense, humans are analogue with nature and it with us; nature is analogue and so are we. Physical tools are our natural analogue extensions. And importantly, through our primevally-formed resonance with them, we can recognise the essence of their functioning. They simulate processes we can see in nature or in our bodies. For example, the aeroplane in the sky does what birds do, and the spectacles on our nose – and even more complex technology such as pre-digital radio and television – all serve to extend our visual and aural and cognitive capacities. These connect and communicate with our material world and our physical bodies in the most fundamental way.
Not so with digital. The smartphone is a radical and immaterial extension into time and space. It transports us virtually to where no man (or woman) has gone before. But we have no real recognition or understanding of how it does what it does, or how we came to be in cyberspace (and what cyberspace is).
The “smartphone” is only the most salient aspect of the ubiquity that underpins digital economy, culture and society. No need to list them; we live and breathe them. Moreover, a persistent and generalised connectivity is forming a universal logic of which Mark Zuckerberg’s ridiculous ‘metaverse’ is but that platform’s arrogant summons to an increasingly inhuman near-future life. Some version of the metaverse will be a virtual reality sometime soon. Frenetic competition in today’s most important industrial sector ensures leap-frogging innovation in computation from Silicon Valley to Bengaluru, and from Shenzhen to R&D in university labs in dozens of countries across the world. Computation will be increasingly supercharged by processors that will shortly and exponentially surpass the limits of the silicon chip through new quantum and chemical technologies. The age of digitality is only just beginning; an age where nothing is certain, or clear, or recognizable, beyond the inescapable fact of a relentless connectivity that colonises every register of existence.
In this new world, and when we find a little time to decompress, we might pull out Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ and try to relax and reflect on what we are actually doing. Maybe skip over the ‘exuberant, furious’ tracks such as ‘Countdown’ and ‘Spiral’ and drop the tone arm at the more contemplative ‘Niama’ on Side Two. As you listen, reflect that what you’re experiencing is not nostalgia, but the crackly analogue sounds of a lost world (not just a past world) created by analogue humans who could resonate (mostly) with the technologies that once filled their lives and were analogue with their lives. Reflect too that this listening is a symptom of your alienation, and that the vinyl disc and stereo player and the lava lamp and so on, are only depthless simulacra of a dead world that was colonised and destroyed by a different category of technology with an anti-analogue logic, that is pre-programmed to produce its own world of automation, virtuality, abstraction and alienation.