Digital Limitations

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The AoM Podcast (which you should subscribe to) recently featured a book by David Sax called The Revenge of the Analog. I haven’t read the book, but the interview was thorough, and I got the impression that author has a pretty good idea of the situation he is describing. The essential point he makes in the book is that, despite the benefits of digital technology, people are increasingly moving away from digital approaches to doing things that can be done by hand. A few examples he offers are:

  • A demand for vinyl records that has caused a rebirth of the record pressing and distribution industries.
  • Paper planners, calendars, and pocket notes.
  • Physical books dominating an industry that was “fated”, according to experts several years ago, to be entirely digital by now.

He made the important point during the interview that these things aren’t simply an example of hipsters wanting to differentiate themselves. Most of these things are being purchased and used by all kinds of people, and the industries making them are growing; a sign that this is a mainstream phenomenon. It’s also a phenomenon the author discovered first-hand.

David Sax relates a story during the podcast about how he and a roommate had set up a digital music system through their home to stream audio from a computer. They suddenly had access to any music they wanted at any time in any room they wanted it with a couple of clicks. Within a few weeks, the amount of music that was actually played had dropped to almost nothing. There was something about the digital approach that made listening to music lose its appeal.

The interview shifted from descriptions of the phenomenon to explanations early on, and I agree with several of the points the author made. First of all, the move away from digital products isn’t caused by a single force. There are all sorts of different reasons and they vary depending on who you talk to. Second, very few people are interested in giving up every digital luxury they have. Instead, it seems that people want a balance that doesn’t exclude physical objects, and that in many cases (but not all), physical objects are preferred.

The motivations for these preferences were described as irrational, which was about the only thing I disagreed with. It’s true that people give up some convenience and features by choosing physical objects instead of digital replacements, but I think the choice is rational. In fact, I think the choice is spiritual. This was an element that I didn’t hear in the interview, but which may be in the book.

From a Christian perspective, I can affirm the tangible benefits of reading a physical book over a digital book, for instance (it’s easier to remember the content when you can imagine the book; books allow for note-taking; books don’t require power). But there are certain intangible benefits that I think are spiritual in nature that I think the Christian worldview can account for.

God created the physical world and He called it Good. It’s His Creation, after all. There’s something in our human natures that makes us appreciate physical objects. There’s something in the nature of men especially, I’ve found, that makes us appreciate collections of physical objects and their maintenance and organization. In a fallen world and with our human nature corrupted so that we can fall into sin by coveting what others have, by being inordinately proud of what we own, by thinking ourselves better than others for our possessions, or by thinking that physical things are ultimate. These are terrible things and we need to carefully avoid each of them. But these are sinful precisely because they corrupt something good. And what is good is human beings creatively making things like their Father before them and maintaining Creation. There’s something about physically sensing a book through sight, touch, and smell which reminds us of the creative process and which lets us maintain Creation itself in a small way. That isn’t to say that digital incarnations are somehow bad or not a result of human creativity, but that physical objects have a benefit that can’t really be transferred to digital counterparts.

I think the “revenge of the analog” is a small symptom of a larger desire that our civilization has to move back to something more concrete, universal, and objective. People have been jaded by promises that we can control everything about ourselves and our natures which aren’t true. The same movement is seen in the increased interest in liturgy in churches, in Christianity in philosophy departments, in more interest being generated for trades than graduate degrees, and even in a booming board game industry.

It seems like we’ve reached the tipping point in our world where enough people are ready to move back to more permanent things that even people not paying attention to them are starting to notice the effects. And this is a good thing.