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Thursday
Oct022003

Longing for Analog

Early this morning, I sat at the local cafe, reading the last few pages of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition and realized that I miss being purely analog.

What do I mean by that? Well, I'm old enough to remember the days when computers were laughable little toys, like the first ZX-81 personal computer my father built from a kit. In fact, nothing was really digital until these kinds of computers came along... in the eons of time before computers, everything an average person came in contact with was fully analog.

Anyway, today I finished my hardcover book and started thinking about the work I do and how temporary and ethereal it all seems. I do my daily work on a laptop, which contains thousands of files and many projects. It contains correspondence and websites, source graphics and documentation, music and video clips. But these things are all held together by battery power and little magnetic bits that are either on or off... marked that way on the hard disk inside. They're almost not really physical at all: just magnetic marks on a platter.

What about my work out on the web? Websites I've designed, weblog entries I've posted, emails I've sent to lists or off to other friends that might reside on a server somewhere -- they too are all suspended in a digital state of on or off, kept in place by electrons. If the power plants of the world suddenly ground to a screeching halt, and all the batteries of the world ran dry, all of my work and that of others, would disappear in a poof of electrons.

When I even think back to the days prior to computers taking the design and publishing industry by storm, at least I had physical access to my work, drawn or printed on paper. I could pick it up and hold it and show it to someone else without the need for a special 'viewer' or a network connection. If the power went out, it was easy to keep working (assuming it wasn't evening) since pens and pencils, paint, paper and t-squares required no power to operate. It was all analog.

In fact, years ago, when I worked at the design firm, I still remember feeling different than several of my younger designer colleagues. That particular day, the power failed. My co-workers all sat looking at their blank computer screens, shuffling dead mice or tinkling the keys of their unresponsive keyboards, while I moved to the drawing board and began to sketch out concepts for projects I was working on that didn't need computer input.

I had been schooled in analog design concepts and processes that used pencils, pens, charcoal, paper, paint, wax and other physical items. I learned to draw, paint and conceptualize ideas manually, without a computer, and this was a good thing. Later, the computer did come along and it was also a good thing too... power to the people and all.

However, the computer sometimes has a magnetism about it -- the idea that all problems will be solved with the powerful digital tools it offers me. I find myself being wooed by the computer when I need to solve a design problem. At times it's a real battle of internal will to break away and grab a pencil and sketchpad, but when I do break away and go analog, I am always rewarded with much better design solutions than I could have come up with, working on the computer.

I think it's a sense of freedom when I'm sketching. I feel free to do anything I want with pencil and paper, with no limitations. Meanwhile, with a computer, in the back of my mind there's this subtle pressure to try and fit within the parameters of the tool I'm using, or to fall back into a rut of old tricks you know well in a particular application.

Now don't take me for some kind of Luddite who's turning his back on computers and all things digital. I think computers are wonderful, powerful tools which have offered us all access and capabilities that we would have never imagined years ago.

No, what I am suggesting is, the computer and digital tools that it offers us should sometimes be left alone while analog processes and tools are experienced and enjoyed. Sketching on paper, reading a bound paper book, shooting a film-based camera, writing handwritten letters and so on. I'm suggesting we appreciate the digital power we have, but at the same time, celebrate the joy of analog technologies. After all, we are analog and not digital beings.

Go forth and do something analog today! :-)

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