This is Part 2 of a three-part series. To read Part 1, please click here.
Journalists often like to polarize: “Either vinyl or MP3s”, is the apple of discord that is sure to get the blood of readers boiling and to divide commentators into two opposing camps. Consequently such a way of looking at media lends itself to catchy headlines and also comes in handy for tech companies, who can utilize this separation into two poles to label their side ‘progress’. However, as you can see from my report of a widespread ‘mediacultural renaissance’, the realities of people’s lives are more colorful.
Reports of the death of the analog have always been greatly exaggerated. Rather than replacing the analog, digitization has created a desire for it. The future isn’t solely digital: It is digital and analog.
More and more, electronic and physical media are being used alongside each other because both provide their own merits and opportunities. These benefits can conveniently complement one another: Only thanks to the internet am I in the position to speak to you about postcards right now. Oh, and what a pleasure that is!
So media usage really doesn’t evolve in one single direction. People listen to albums online and afterwards buy them on vinyl. Pictures painted by the artist Christine Eder on watercolor paper, become digital images on this website, which in turn might end up in your hands as postcards printed on cardboard. The very same postcards peacefully coexist with e-mails.
Through technological innovations and enrichments we learn to appreciate the analog from a new perspective. We gain a better understanding of its unique strengths. Precisely in comparison with the invisible MP3 a vinyl record reveals its full beauty. Only in the blue light of our screens can we sense the ‘analog warmth’ more clearly than ever before.
Here are three essential characteristics of analog media and what they mean for postcards:
(Note: When you read the following analysis, please keep this in mind: I take it as a given that we all enjoy the wonderful advantages of a variety of digital appliances on a daily basis. So my critique of the digital is never meant as a suggestion to give it up. Rather, I think that we should use both digital and analog media. And here is why...)
1.) Physical media have their own aesthetic. They are works of art.
A postcard is a brilliant medium for carrying a message, but it is also more than just a tool for something else. It is beautiful on its own.
By sending a postcard, you gift a small painting. The picture actually becomes the property of its recipient. This is not the case in a digital version where you merely distribute a ‘fictitious’ copy. You are welcome to share the motifs of our postcards on Facebook, but this won’t match the feeling of handing on a tangible item.
Being real objects, postcards are a step towards an active shaping of your personal surroundings: art instead of white walls. Therefore, by choosing your media, you are also making a decision about the kind of world you want to live in.
Like book jackets, the covers of vinyl albums are often designed by imaginative illustrators because – similar to the postcard – they are seen as works of art that possess their own value. Therefore a good many covers have achieved cult status – legendary examples are Andy Warhol’s creations that involved real zippers or peelable representations of bananas.
In stark contrast are digital audio files which are simply invisible. If you look at postcards this way, it becomes obvious that they and other analog media essentially can’t be replaced at all.
Curiously enough, the importance of an aesthetic appearance of physical objects was also recognized by a person who is an icon of digitization: Apple’s Steve Jobs. Jobs’ notorious obsession with well-designed tech products was in fact an all-encompassing mentality: Selecting a new washing machine and dryer would also require a few weeks of family discussions. In his opinion, this decision necessitated a basic contemplation of one’s personal values and outlook on life. After Jobs finally had settled for his preferred models, he stated in an interview with the magazine Wired: “I got more thrill out of them than I have out of any piece of high tech in years.”
2.) Analog media are linked with actions and rituals. They are integral parts of a rich way of life.
This is the sound of opening an e-mail: click. This is how it sounds to play a song: click. When you access this blog: click. The digital sits in a display case, behind a glass pane, and basically always demands the same handling from a distance. The analog, on the other hand, is diverse, close and lively.
Psychologists and designers employ the term ‘affordance’ to describe the ‘stimulative nature’ of objects. It means that things have an ingrained capability to motivate people to use or ‘activate’ them. They usually ask for specific actions. In other words: There are certain rituals tied to all analog media. For instance: In the case of vinyl records such a ritual consists in the act of carefully pulling the LP out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, dropping the needle, and the moment of crackling anticipation right before the music sets in. For postcards it is the concentrated writing, the affixing of a stamp, the sliding of your card into the mailbox.
Many people cherish the experience of performing these rituals and of the preceding rummaging through book or record stores. We would like to provide these pleasures to you through the design of this website: We hope that you enjoy browsing the motifs of our postcards as you would enjoy a stroll through a gallery and that you take delight in reading the poems we have selected and the blog articles we have written for you.
Since analog items are always connected to actions, the conscious decision about which media you want to use, is closely tied to the question of how you want to live. The act of card writing – like putting on a record or shooting a Polaroid photo – is essentially about living a good life. It is about doing things with care and love. (So now, even the slightly paradoxical phrase, “doing things” suddenly makes more sense!)
Three concrete examples:
- Vinyl records are frequently listened to as whole albums, in the order of songs the musician envisioned. In contrast, the popular shuffle feature on iPods fosters a habit of experiencing music in arbitrary, unconnected fragments.
- Printing out a digital photo is hardly an event you would look forward to. But to watch an instant picture develop together with your friends, and to then hand it on to one of them, has an air of Christmassy festivities.
- To gift an e-book: click. To read it: click. A printed book, however, offers its own variety of passionate actions. It seductively whispers of possibilities: You can write a personal dedication in it; you can toss it out of the window when the story upsets you; or you can use it to craft book sculptures.
3.) Digital means: mass production and throwaway content. The analog is unique and has quality.
Ok, this may sound a bit harsh. Keep in mind that our photographer, Clemens, loves digital photography too. But for the sake of this analysis, consider the following:
When photographers take analog shots, they have to be mindful of the film’s limited capacity. A film holds a fixed number of pictures, so the cameraman is motivated to make each one count. Every little shadow matters. This is the antithesis of digital photography where you spend whole evenings deleting unwanted material. (That is, if you actually bother to look at the photos at all.)
The same can be argued for communication: An e-mail disappears into an archive or gets deleted. A postcard, in contrast, is stuck on the fridge. As a physical thing it is a homemade remedy for forgetting: What exists as an object can never be fully forgotten. Sooner or later it always resurfaces.
As an affectionate medium the postcard allows for sincere feelings instead of monotonous standardized communication. Pick a card that suits the taste of a loved one or an image that speaks to you personally. Then figure out what you would like to express. Sit down for a bit and devote your attention to the card and its recipient. Share this intimate moment with the addressee by mailing the card.
Being a small piece of fine art, the postcard is a unique object that gains the ‘aura’ of a living thing through your handwriting, the particular stamp and a postmark that specifies where and when the card began its travels. In this regard it differs from the mass production of online communication that constantly uses the same design.
For the conclusion of this essay, let us consider this point a bit further…
- End Part 2 of 3. To proceed to Part 3, please click here. -
Next up: Every story needs its big showdown. So the hero's journey of the postcard as a champion of analog media comes to its epic conclusion when it must confront its own digital reflection: the e-mail. Of course we all love them both. But this suspense-packed comparison has to happen. If you would like to give the card a few nice words for the road or some jewels of wisdom to prepare it for this challenge, possibly even hold it one last time, you know where to find it. (Hint: In our collections.)