The Children and the Analog

Over on the New Yorker, a thought-provoking piece entitled Spotify and its Discontents recently captured my attention. In it, Mike Spies recounts the story of a potential album purchase at a flea market. The seller refuses the author’s purchase offer, so Spies goes another route: he goes home to download the album digitally. There, an interesting thing happens:

This was supposed to be a victory of sorts, but I was quickly overcome by the blunt banality of the moment. In front of me was not only the album I desired, but also every other Butterfield recording ever made. And once I sampled and sated my hunger for Paul Butterfield’s blues, I could locate just about any recording ever made. But what, I wondered, were the consequences?

That’s a fascinating question. Spies goes on to contrast the experience of buying a CD with the experience of Spotify’s instant, all-access pass, concluding there is something to be said for doing things the hard, old-fashioned, “analog” way.

I remember my first treasured CD- Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’. It must’ve been destroyed three or four times (ten-year-old boys tend to destroy things with much more effectiveness than they preserve them). And every time it was destroyed, I found a way to buy it again. It was a fantastic album, yes, but my attachment to it would no doubt have waned had I not put so much effort into owning it.

We digital savants often extol the virtues of the internet age. It will make things easier, more enjoyable. It will do so by eliminating the time and effort required to perform the menial tasks life has hitherto required, leaving more time and energy for the meaningful. That, of course, is an admirable goal. We must be careful, though, not to overemphasize. There is something to be said for the work that goes into the analog that we grew up with.

In February, Alexis Madrigal wrote a brilliant piece called We, the Web Kids, which opens thusly:

We grew up with the Internet and on the Internet. This is what makes us different; this is what makes the crucial, although surprising from your point of view, difference: we do not 'surf' and the internet to us is not a 'place' or 'virtual space'. The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it.

When I read that piece, I thought merely of the benefits: the magical effect of the internet is so pervasive in the lives of the young. Imagine what that familiarity, that understanding of the technology will allow them to do with it. They won’t be stuck in old modes of thought, bringing along assumptions and prejudices to their contributions to the world; they will see with fresh eyes.

What I missed in that piece, Spies’s New Yorker piece brought to mind.

My daughter will never know the pleasure of doing yard work for two months to earn the money to be taken to the bookstore. She will never know what it’s like to dream of the scent of the pages, the feel of the pages being flipped beneath her fingers. She will never know what it’s like to walk up and down a book aisle, overwhelmed at the thought of all the stories, all the magic, all the humanity that surrounds her in that moment.

She will never know the satisfaction of taking it home, that one special book that she decided was worthy of ownership. The similarities between picking a dog up from the pound and taking a new book home (either way, you’ve rescued what will become a great friend) will be unknown to her.

She will never know what it’s like to take a walk in the woods, alone, with nothing but a pen and paper to talk to. She’ll never know the escape that it can provide, the flow of the pen as the ink spills onto the page while fall leaves come to rest at your feet.

She will never know the power that a simple phone call can infuse when you haven’t spoken to someone in days, simply because instant messaging, and mobile phones, and email, and texting didn’t exist. No, you had to wait for what seemed like hours for your parents to get off the phone so that you can call that someone that you so dearly missed. And, oh, how much sweeter was the sound of their voice after that wait.

This new generation knows the internet, is the internet, and that is a wonderful thing, because they will do things with it that we wouldn’t, couldn’t dream of.

But we are the last generation that knows the value of analog. Whether that is a knowledge, or a feeling, or a intuition, it is something that our children will not experience.

That is, unless we teach them. To value the things that we know, the experiences that an unplugged world can provide. They must know this, if only to contrast it with the world they live in.

More than that, though, we owe it to them to let them feel what we felt when we bought our first CD, when we took that walk in the woods, when we had that riveting conversation about nothing. It’s a joy too wide to keep to ourselves, and maybe... just maybe... if we can make them understand, they will pass that experience onto their kids, and the joy of the analog will survive us and our quirky nostalgia.