New York Technology Writing

The Analog Underground = Neo-Luddites?

The July 3rd issued of New York Magazine features an article about The Analog Underground, “[a] new generation of digital apostates rejects zeroes and ones in favor of celluloid, vinyl, ink, paper, and the click-clack-ding-slide of a typewriter.”  I came across the article rather serendipitously online in the course of some research I have been doing for various projects I am working on, including a proposal for a SXSW talk tentatively called “Declare Independence: DIY Design as Social Innovation Movement.”  I have been exploring the idea of expanding design literacy and the practice of “just making stuff” through education (both in the formal and autodidactic sense) as an inherent social and civic good.

The Analog Underground article got me thinking, and made some synaptic connections in my head that I am still trying to full grasp.  The author of the article, Ashlea Halpern, mentions the nostalgia as well as novelty value of anachronistic objects, which I totally get.  But she also labels this analog phenomenon a “neo-Luddite counterculture”.  I’m not sure if that label was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I really don’t think “Luddite” correctly captures the motivations behind this trend.

According to Wikipedia:

The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested – often by destroying mechanized looms – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt were leaving them without work and changing their way of life.

I don’t think the so-called analog underground is rebelling against industrial capitalism.  They aren’t embracing the nostalgic novelty of vintage analog gadgets because the new digital ones are threatening their craft or livelihood.  I think the motivations are more personal, and inward focused.  Maybe it’s just an aesthetic thing.  Many people, from hipsters to old money trustfunders have favored old or vintage things for a long time now.  But maybe there are deeper psychological and spiritual needs too.  A need for a more physical, tactile connection with our objects.  It reminds me of the New York Aquarium ad I have been seeing in the subway that has a picture of a girl petting a starfish and the line “no screen, just touch.”  Maybe in the age of touch screens, we just want to touch something real.  Something analog.  The physical and the analog have a kind of permanence that ethereal and ephemeral cloud-based applications do not.  And we can really own them, hack them, and personalize them.  We don’t really own the apps on our iPhone or any software as service apps we run.  Somehow perhaps, all of these motivations are a reaction against the increasingly black box nature of technology.  We can’t open things up and see how they work.  After the magic and the seduction of these new shiny digital black boxes fade, what is left?  Alienation from our devices?  A desire for the real?  I don’t know, but it’s something to think about.

Other manifestations of this broader cultural phenomenon include the popularity of sites like Etsy and the spread of the Maker Movement.

Slimwhitman’s comment on the article really resonated with me:

The analog will always be more a more complex code than the digital, which has to approximate its curves, where the nearly infinite realm is. Although that sounds like pop-metaphysics, all you have to do is recognize how the record industry collapsed, it made the analog compressible into any digital file system and degraded our relationship to music. We went from live music to analog waves made in vinyl and magnetic tape to essentially finite squares out of binary codes. In order for a computer to synch with a neural net, like a brain or group of brains, it will require waves that cannot make errors or be approximate. The digital will never be the sole entrancer of humans, and probably, we will have to eventually build analog computers to achieve anything of value in the post-PC age.

I think there really is something to that observation. I have been feeling the same way in my own creative practice as a musician, but Slimwhitman’s articulation of the issue really gelled things for me. While I have been making electro-acoustic music since I was a teenager, and digital tools will continue to be important to how I work, I have recently been immersing myself in the analog music world by playing acoustic instruments. Even the joys of playing the humble ukulele has a kind of humanity and expressiveness that is quite different, and in many ways more accesible and immediate for me, the player, than any of my complex high-tech music making gadgets.

I’m still waiting for the analog blogging platform though.  Until then, I’ll still be sticking to my iMac and WordPress.  😉