Your Old Analog Devices Might Actually Be Good for You

And the benefits of an analog world

These days, we aren’t forced to wait for a 90 minute cassette tape to rewind so we can play our favorite Queen album (mine was ‘Jazz’ released in 1978) from the start, or fast forward our worn VCR copy of E.T to our favorite moment in the film … where Eliot pretends to be mourning over his little green (or pasty grey) friend after realizing he/she (was it ever truly determined?) is actually alive thanks to the Chrysanthemum flowers blooming back to life. Nope, these days we don’t have to wait for anything. You can find that scene within 20 seconds … it’s all just one tap away or a voice assisted word or two. We don’t even need to leave the couch … and I think that’s a serious concern.

As a child I grew up in the monochrome 80s and grungy 90s, and I remember an industrial and analog world where every clunky device was like a mystery box waiting to be deconstructed and reassembled, sometimes with disastrous results. It was an era where you were forced out of the house and into the record shop to drool over shiny new gate-fold vinyl. My Walkman became my best friend and my backpack would rattle with the sound of multiple ‘Best Of’ compilation tapes that I made at home; carefully selected desert island favorites. These mix-tapes were love letters to girlfriends, pen pals in Heavy Metal magazines and survival manuals. It was a brave new world of personal computing, Viennetta ice cream, Shark Attack and Tamagotchi. There was Silly Putty, Cherry Coke and Donkey Kong Game & Watch (released in the early 80s but I would play it for hours). There were stereos blaring out Faith No More and Veruca Salt, The Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. There was bizarre makeup, everything was sprinkled in glitter, playgrounds and adventure parks were overflowing with kids, and every guy I knew (no matter their orientation) had an earring, including me … it was a rite of passage.

I used to create my own 4-track music using tape decks

I painstakingly made my own music by piggybacking two tape-deck machines, and dumping down each take in true analog fashion. It took hours, but the joy of creating a finished song was beyond description. If my Walkman malfunctioned or a tape turned into spaghetti spools, I had to try and fix it myself, or take it to a friend and see if they could help. The internet was in its infantile stages, so you couldn’t Google the problem – you had to figure things out for yourself; learn how something worked by sometimes breaking it even more. But there was something special in that, something we’re missing today.

Remember having to do this?

Psychologists are the first to admit that children benefit from playing with building blocks at an early age. For many, play is a way to keep children occupied, but in fact it’s how they discover the world; exploring through Lego, train and car racing sets, spin fighters (Pogs, with Power Rangers versions of the game). I even remember a slightly creepy doll, hand puppet thing I used to own called Hugo – the man with a thousand faces. You could change his look with an assortment of plastic parts (mustache, different noses, chins, eyes, glasses etc). I would spend hours rearranging his face with all configurations available, then annoy my mother for hours. Then there was Operation, remember that? Wikipedia describes the game as:

… a battery-operated game of physical skill that tests players’ hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills.

One wrong move and it would erupt with an angry metallic buzz and a light would blink bright red; too many wrong moves and you’d kill the patient. It wasn’t made for people with anxiety disorders but it certainly kept you on your toes. But notice the phrase hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Board games galore, Rubik’s Cubes galore, Lego galore, action figures galore …. I lived in an age where kids were constantly using their hands to build, destroy or repair things. Actual world-building.

Hugo could be tortured in a thousand different ways too

But it wasn’t really about the products. I was developing important cognitive and fine motor skills which would serve me in life – teaching me about spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination – and in turn, I was improving my reading, writing and mathematics skills. Nowadays, most kids are playing open-world first person shooter games, strapped into their headsets and screaming to themselves — or the more creative thinkers are building their worlds in Minecraft … learning how to manipulate 3D shapes and color. But digital manipulation remains a cognitive function and is missing the physicality needed for a growing, healthy individual.

The Handling of Tangible Objects Is Essential to a Human Being’s Development

I know an 18 year old engineering student who can take apart almost anything and put it back together. But this is rare for someone his age. He was born in the era of smartphones, online gaming, and the internet has always been there. Sometimes they’re referred to as the iGeneration, and for good reason. In a Bank of America survey in 2017, almost four in 10 millennials (39%) admitted that they interacted with their smartphones more than they did with actual people. And in a world where more than 2 billion people own smartphones, with the average user checking their phone up to 85 times a day … you have to wonder … in such a digitally dependent society, what basic skills are we losing?

Human beings have been handwriting since around 3100 BC, ancient Mesopotamia. Every culture has used writing as an extension and expression of their language; the tool by which a society can relate and record information, events and their history. Whether that be cuneiform, mnemonic, pictographic, ideographic, phonetic or alphabetic – the physical rules are always the same: it involves hand-eye coordination and muscle memory, posture control, as well as the ability to grasp a pencil (or a quill) and form letters. And yet, it seems we are slowly giving up this innate ability too. Some teachers believe it will send us back to a time when the spoken word governed all communication. Perhaps handwriting will be offered as an elective in art classes in the future, where it is treated more like calligraphy. But then there have been studies that suggest students absorb information better when they hand write their notes. So what does this say about how the brain is wired to physical interactions? When we have everything integrated into a 4 inch screen: chatting, banking, research, entertainment, applying for jobs, teaching, learning, submitting assignments, shopping … everything … what are we sacrificing in the long term?

Recent studies in Switzerland point to young people being potentially at risk of obsessive-like behaviors with their smartphones, due to a lack of impulse control in their developing frontal lobe. They can experience severe anxiety, distress and irritability if they’re unable to access their smartphone. Smartphone addiction = personality disorder? I’ve even read buzzwords and phrases like Young people can’t live without their phones – and yet this evolution is so indistinct and tenuous, that we really can’t see it clearly when we are also thumbing through our endless apps. Let’s be honest, many of us are constantly checking our phones simply to avoid boredom and achieve a short dopamine reward. But how did we get here?

Could Analog Technology Actually Be Healthier for Us?

“We are analog beings living in a digital world, facing a quantum future …” — Neil Turok

We hear about the dangers of our dependence on technology all the time now, but what does it really mean? How on earth is voice recognition dangerous if it feeds back a Google search in under a minute? No typing, less time wasting– and time is precious in such a furiously fast-paced world.

And yet in this pharmakon of unstoppable tech and ‘on tap’ limitless information, depression is now considered one of the leading causes of ‘ill health’ by the World Health Organization. Psychiatrist and Professor, Patrick McGorry calls it a ‘bio-psychosocial’ problem – where there is a mix of biological, psychological and social factors. Sociologist Hugh Mackay defines our smartphone and social media obsession as ‘social fragmentation’.

“We are a society in the grip of epidemics of anxiety, obesity and depression — 20% of Australians experience some form of mental illness.”

When I was a kid life was an adventure because not everything was accessible. I remember a time when a simple phone call relied on the turning of a giant dial that made a whirring noise with each digit, like a windup toy, and gave a metallic click when you released each number. You never knew if and when you could speak to someone. I would sit on the shag carpet in the hall, my bony knees pressed up to my chest, curling the warped telephone cord around my fingers as I spoke to my friends. I never knew how they were or what they were doing until we spoke, and there was a freedom in that … an excitement in whatever news was told. I hadn’t already read about it in a Facebook post, where it had been whittled down into a slam of ‘I know more than you’ comments … and for that I feel lucky.

And so now … yes, we live in an age of techno-fear and identity theft, where our privacy is constantly under attack. There’s a paradigm shift happening, where paranoia is becoming the norm. A.I now exists in our world, and according to Elon Musk (who is spearheading a campaign to stop the coming A.I apocalypse) and the late Stephen Hawking, it threatens the very fabric of our society; as it gradually seeps into our homes, our work and our lives. But I don’t think it’s as bad as we imagine. I like to think of myself as a dystopian optimist, if there’s such a thing.

“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”
 — B.F. Skinner

There needs to be an equilibrium if we are to maintain sanity, if we are to hold on to our souls. We all know the saying … with great power comes great responsibility. I’m not a Luddite — in fact I love technology. I couldn’t write and deliver this article without the wonders of our digital revolution; I couldn’t go on holiday and carry 1000 books in my pocket.

And there’s nothing wrong with having the best of both worlds.

We’ve seen a resurgence of vinyl and turntables over the past several years, and now 35mm analog photography is making a steady comeback with young people. A group of photographers have even been crowdfunding their Kickstarter project, their own SLR Reflex camera … rejecting their digital counterparts in favor of images with more ‘soul’. Back in 2006 we even saw the gaming console take on a more physical dimension with the Wii by Nintendo. It was quickly code named ‘Revolution’ by the public and featured some incredibly popular games, such as Wii Sports and Mario Kart Wii. It included a remote controller which doubled as a handheld pointing device that detected movement in three dimensions. It got lazy kids off the couch and even had mothers doing aerobics in front of their TVs. Nintendo is still going strong today with the Wii U.

And when I see all this, it fill me with a glimmer of hope, because I think we need clunky, tactile things … we need to turn dials, twist knobs, wind film, punch buttons, pull levers, move our bodies and perform simple rituals … like lowering a stylus over the groves of a record. Perhaps a part of me has one foot in the past, and maybe I’m sinking a little in nostalgic quicksand … and that’s OK with me.

But, here’s a little scenario for you … you’re standing in an arcade parlor and you’ve been given the choice to play Street Fighter II on an iPad, or the real thing. The machine is parked right there in front of you … the striking logo is plastered over its monolith brow, the old cathode-ray screen is glowing in welcoming blue and green hues, the joystick and tomato red buttons are waiting to be gripped and beaten …

I know which one I’m playing.