Image credit: Daniel Leslie

Embrace the analog.

Long ago it must be 
I have a photograph 
Preserve your memories 
They’re all that’s left you.
-Paul Simon, “Bookends”

“Embrace the analog.” This has become a mantra of mine for some time. More of an aspirational credo than a guiding life principle — something I might put in a cross stitch, if I cross stitched.

The most precious qualities of analog media — their imperfection, roughness, uniqueness — are what, in some sense, define them. And their vulnerability is belied by their longevity.

I work in technology, but I’ve never trusted digital media. I still have a shoebox full of floppy disks holding files I’ll never open again. Even if I had a disk drive, they’re probably unreadable. Even if they were readable, their contents are in proprietary formats for long-deceased software written for forgotten operating systems designed for obsolete machines. To extract their contents would require an effort of computational reconstruction on a massive scale. Optical media like DVDs or Blu-Ray discs might last a few decades under optimal conditions, if you’re lucky. Modern hard disks fail after about four years, and flash drives often fail even sooner. And so we turn to the “cloud” (surely our era’s most insidious euphamism for subjugation by our corporate masters).

Analog media are vulnerable too, but in different ways, and more endearingly. Film negatives and printed photographs slowly fade with the memories of their subjects. Records achieve a kind of auditory “patina.” Analog media require effort, storage space, and a level of personal commitment. Pressing the shutter on a film camera requires a financial investment in the outcome. A typewritten page has a physical linkage to its author. Marking up a good book infuses it with a kind of life no kindle could hope to attain. If you wanted a photograph to last a thousand years, you wouldn’t upload it to Dropbox; you’d print it.

Exchanging information encoded in a physical form today feels, at some level, either quaint or absurd. But tell that to the Japanese, a nation perpetually living twenty years in the future, but which would cease to function without paper money and fax machines.

Indeed, one of our most eternal forms of analog information is money manifested in metal, paper, or increasingly, a type of polymer. Currency — in particular, coinage — represents a kind of multi-dimensional interconnectedness across both geography and time. Borges captures this mystical nature of a coin, in this passage from The Zahir:

The thought struck me that there is no coin that is not the symbol of all the coins that shine endlessly down throughout history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obolus; the alms that Belisarius begged; Judas’s thirty pieces of silver; the drachmas of the courtesan Lais; the ancient coin proffered by one of the Ephesian sleepers; the bright coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, which turned into disks of paper; Isaac Laquedem’s inexhaustible denarius; the sixty thousand silver coins, one for every verse of an epic, which Firdusi returned to a king because they were not gold; the gold doubloon nailed by Ahab to the mast; Leopold Bloom’s unreversible florin; the Louis that betrayed the fleeing Louis XVI near Varennes. As though in a dream, the thought that in any coin one may read those famous connotations seemed to me of vast, inexplicable importance.

Archeologists of the distant future will puzzle over the rapid global disappearance of physical media that began in the early twenty-first century, and extended to whichever epochal marker our species is fated to encounter. That disappearance will appear all the more mysterious, apparently synchronized with the rapid decline of biodiversity, massive climate disruption, and the appearance of glass-covered devices and massive data centers with indecipherable purposes.

Eventually, our analog media will become our legacy. Embrace it.