Appreciating the Analog in a Digital World

(image via Artificial Photography | Unsplash)

Are people reading paper books and listening to vinyl records just to impress others?


Over at Christ and Pop Culture, Luke T. Harrington wrote a piece on the new brick and mortar Amazon store, and the hopelessness of Amazon trying to be hip.

I wonder if Amazon understands that hipsterism is essentially performative.I’m not here to go all Judith Butler on it, but it seems to me that a lot of the reason people like unpopular things is so that they can be seen liking them.

The unpopular things he is referring to is what you might also refer to as “legacy media formats.” Included in that category would be physical media such as paper books and vinyl records. His argument is that these formats have no inherent benefit over their digital counterparts, and that people only indulge in them to impress others.

regardless of what we tell ourselves; no scientific study has ever proven that vinyl sounds better than digital.

As far as I know, he is right about this. However, I have to disagree with Mr. Harrington here on his assessment of why people appreciate older media formats. I’m not sure we need science to validate art appreciation, anyway. The Mona Lisa has been studied scientifically, but that kind of scrutiny is hardly the norm for artwork or entertainment.

Luke is not alone in his view that those who proudly proclaim their love for legacy media may be doing so for the cultural cache. Lance Ulanoff basically takes the same position in his piece, Where the #$@&%*! are all the books?! On my Kindle.

Ironically, audiophiles have managed to resurrect the more expensive and probably less environmentally sound vinyl record, but the reality is most people consume their music in digital form. It’s just hip to buy the vinyl and show it to your friends. Like I said, people romanticize physical media.

I actually prefer ebooks on e-ink over traditional books. However, I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who do love their paper books. I do collect records. Nothing about my appreciation for vinyl records is performative.

Most of my records are purchased over the internet, and come in plain cardboard packaging that might as well be the secretive brown paper meant to conceal a dirty magazine.

My records live in three undecorated and far-from-pretentious apple crates from the Harris Teeter grocery store. The crates are located under my pinball machine, in my home office. Hardly anyone outside of my immediate family ever sees them. Most of my records are purchased over the internet, and come in plain cardboard packaging that might as well be the secretive brown paper meant to conceal a dirty magazine. With the exception of their distinctive 12X12 square shape, they could be anything to the mail carrier (or any of the other few people that might see it). When I free the vinyl from its sleeve, no one is there to see the unwrapping. If the record is an interesting color, I may show it to my wife. She usually agrees, with a certain amount of sympathy for my unhealthy fascination with these things, that the color is indeed cool. When I put the needle down on the grooves of a long or short player, I’m typically the only one listening to them. My speakers are a discounted Radio Shack set that were rescued from a Gloria Jean’s coffee spill for a small amount of money and the promise of a good home. They are not impressive or sleek but analog music sounds nice coming from them.

I work in software development. I love software, but perhaps because of the amount of exposure I get to it, sometimes I just want to avoid it all together. I don’t want to pick out my music from a piece of software, especially a clunky one (I think we all know what I’m referring to). Sometimes, I don’t want to look at a screen to listen to music. I find I need a break from screens, after starting into them all day, and I want music without the need to put in more screen time. Sometimes, I just want to listen to music the way my parents and grandparents did. I can feel connected to a form of music consumption that has been around for some time and colored many people’s perceptions of what music means and how it is absorbed.

Most of all, when I take out a record and lay it gently on the turntable, I want to listen to it. Colette LaBouff writes in her piece, The Long Play:

Records obligate a different kind of attention. There’s nothing random about them. They wear out. They’re too fragile to be played without listeners.

The key here is that listening is the primary activity. Not checking email or Twitter while the music plays in the background. Records demand that you put some effort into the experience, and leave you the richer for it.

 

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