Four physical media: postcards, Polaroids, vinyl records and printed books. About all of them we have heard the prediction that they would vanish in a ‘digital world’. Yet all of them remain vital elements of our cultural lives and even enjoy growing popularity - especially among young people, who are increasingly discovering the delights of the analog realm for themselves. What exactly are its charms and promises?
Dublin, autumn 2007: I’m working in Dublin, a city with a booming international tech scene. It is a kind of ‘European Silicon Valley’ – these days, the city is home to a lot of small businesses as well as big players such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. As exciting as this situation may sound, the tiny room I reside in looks rather bleak. Barren white walls, a bed, a traveling bag with clothes, a laptop. One single Sigur Rós CD, strategically placed in a somewhat misguided attempt to impress a woman.
Essentially, I’m living the consequent end result of digitization: What used to be a variety of different media, with many dissimilar appearances, has now merged into one single device. My music, movies, books, photos, messages and notes: They all sit behind one small screen. This makes moving easier, but it also sterilizes my immediate surroundings. My empty room reminds me unpleasantly of one of those isolation tanks that have been specifically designed to deprive a subject of all sensory stimuli.
Vienna, fall 2016: Black and heavy a record spins in its place. Warm afternoon sunlight filters through the window. In the yard the chlorophyll slowly fades from the oak leaves, causing them to blush in shades of red and yellow. Every now and then, Miles Davis is joined by a gentle undertone: the distant surging and fading of the Doppler effect, emerging from the noise of passing cars. The valve of a Thermos flask with hot tea is chirping softly as my fingers fumble with an old postcard – the memory of a love affair preserved in this precious item.
I’m standing in front of a table, looking down at it. I see: a white tablecloth; in the left half of the table: an array of open books and notes; in the upper right corner: a few Polaroid photos. The arrangement kind of looks like a big postcard: words on a white background accompanied by a Polaroid stamp.
I’m wondering how to start this blog post when I suddenly realize: We are already in it. And I should take a little time off because I’m apparently beginning to see postcards everywhere…
Studying the Arts & Culture sections of European papers, it is easy to get the impression that total electronification of all areas of life is imminent. The days of the last printing press seem to be numbered and, as soon as tomorrow, the world will only be made of bits and bytes. Or so you might think. A closer examination reveals a more complex picture of the present, as the first title of this blog entry – borrowed from the Financial Times – indicates.
It actually turns out that I have not moved towards digital media but away from them. During the years I have turned to physical objects. If you apply the term a bit more loosely, you could say that I have begun to favor ‘the analog’. Surprisingly, I’m in good company, part of a big cultural movement even: In our digital era there are plenty of people who consciously choose tangible media.
In a bout of unreasonable and boundless overachievement I have read 100 articles on this fascinating topic, for you. I have driven all my close relatives to despair with ‘why?’-questions. And I have, in the shadow of my bookshelves, conducted a merciless self-analysis in the vein of the Ancient Greek aphorism ‘know thyself’. Below I would like to present you the most significant insights and what they mean for postcards in one compact essay. Therefore, this time, I want to ask you, dear reader, to put your trust in me and to be open for a bit more reading than usual because, to do the analog diversity justice, multisided considerations are in order.
Right now, let’s look at three astonishing examples for the perseverance of the analog:
1.) Vinyl records:
In times of music streaming and downloads, revenue from freshly manufactured vinyl records is on the rise. Since 2007, every year, more records are being sold in the U.S. and the same trend can be witnessed all across Europe. For a while, vinyl was mainly kept alive by aficionados and indie musicians – today, major labels have rediscovered the ‘black gold’ for themselves. The massive demand has even lead to bottlenecks in supply, despite the fact that many pressing plants are being operated 24 hours a day. Therefore, producers have begun to open costly new factories.
While we are still talking about a niche market, in 2015 U.S. vinyl record sales have brought in more earnings than advertising on streaming platforms like YouTube, Spotify and SoundCloud. Nowadays, vinyl records are again being bought by a healthy mix of people from all age groups and genders, with a notable popularity among younger generations.
2.) Polaroid and instant photography:
The allure of Polaroid photos, with their characteristic white frame, and the thrill of being able immediately to hold the picture you have just taken, have not disappeared. Analog photography is booming.
After the company ‘Polaroid’ announced their decision to cease the production of film, a group of private investors around the Viennese Florian Kaps acquired the last remaining factory in the Netherlands. In the process of this buy-out, they received a little help from the FBI, who happened to arrest some of the Polaroid management for tax evasion and thus paved the way for new negotiating partners. Ever since, the adequately named ‘Impossible Project’ has been successfully catering for a large community of analog photographers.
Interestingly, Polaroid inventor Edwin Land was a big inspiration for Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Already decades ago, he used to stage product presentations as elaborate shows with live music and generally strived to connect technology and art. His vision of a camera that everybody could easily carry around in their pocket, so that they would be able to snap a picture of an important moment at any time, is remarkably reminiscent of the concept of the smartphone. Land thought that Polaroid cameras as a means of artistic expression could motivate users to observe their environment with heightened curiosity.
Besides the ‘Impossible Project’, Fujifilm also currently produces film with a quick development time. Their well-liked series of instant cameras, called ‘Instax’, at times even outsell their digital models. The fascination for the analog doesn’t stop there, however - it has even found its way into the digital realm. Many apps imitate the effects of analog photography, the popular Instagram, for example, owes much of its attraction to its convenient mechanics that allow the user to manipulate “clean” digital photos with various filters.
Even in a techno-enthusiastic country like the USA, there is still significantly more money being made through printed books than e-books. In fact, statistics published by the Association of American Publishers for the first half of 2015 go so far as to indicate growth in the print media sector and a decline for e-books. In techno-conservative Germany the numbers are yet more drastic: According to the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, in 2014 e-books only accounted for 4,3 % of profits generated through books sold to private customers.
While the accuracy of this data is contested, one conclusion seems safe: Currently there are no serious reasons to believe that e-books will replace printed text.
The same can be said about postcards, of course. They are still cherished and a lot of people even actively link them with the internet, instead of using digital media to substitute for postcards. One impressive instance is a website named ‘Postcrossing’: Several hundred thousand users across the globe send each other millions of postcards every year. The project has been so well received that various European postal services have issued special editions with Postcrossing stamps.
So, now you know a few facts about the current situation of analog media. But what exactly are they offering that a fully digital life doesn't provide? Well, we will delve into that next time.