Analog and Digital Culture? It's a question of community, not luxury / by Emilia Morano-Williams

Cookbooks of 2014

I want to read a book. Not consume a story on a screen. Adieu Netflix! Ciao ciao Instagram! Tomorrow I’ll leave my kindle lying on my desk, close down my laptop and forget my iPhone. I want the physical world.

But I can’t figure out if I’m alone in my desires. On one hand, there’s Zoe Williams’ article for The Guardian, “Even my Furby knows it: our love affair with shopping is over,” which argues that we’ve entered a post-consumerist age in which the only things of values are personalized digital non-objects. According to Williams, I will be shopping alone at the bookstore this year.

On the other hand, it might not be so bleak. In "Digital Culture, Meet Analog Fever" for The New York Times, Rob Walker advocates for the continued allure of physical media as individuals use it to declare their devotion to preferred cultural forms. Rather than personalize our digital consumption, Walker sees society specializing its material consumption. Modern consumer society is undergoing a paradigm shift that fragments subject identities between physical and mental spaces. 

Digital media orients the subject in a mental realm through intentionally alienating interfaces. We’re supposed to lose ourselves in a warren of links when reading digital newspapers. Amazon boasts that the kindle dissolves the boundary between individual and book. Youtube leases our music listening to autoplay. Digital media isolates the subject as it individualizes our consumption of culture.

So-called analog media roots the subject in the physical world. Materiality limits us. We can only carry so many books. Our evenings can only accommodate so many performances. A band decides the songs they play at a gig, not us. Walker’s analog media reminds us that our freedom is not total.

But Walker omitted an important aspect. As I see it, it’s the defining aspect of physical culture: community.

If the proliferation of technology has generated a discourse of luxury surrounding material culture, this suggests that the marginalization of analog has reinforced consuming communities. Spending on a product for which technology provides a more convenient alternative asserts an identity. Walker understands this. This physical consumption also forces diverse subjects to enter a single shared space: to go to the bookstore or to the museum or to the theatre. These moments provide opportunities for interaction that unite our shared physical world with our individual mental realities. 

Digital encroachments on the analog don’t jeopardize this community. Although buying a book on Amazon is a solitary experience, the item may be shared and unite us with others. Watching a film at the cinema might be estranged from theatre’s immediacy, but the audience unites as they gasp and laugh. Analog culture forces us to interact with a community regardless of whether or not we identify with the product-as-luxury.

Analog media shouldn’t be reduced to a symbolic assertion of identity. It shouldn’t be exclusive. It should be a right and a ritual. It should be a given that reminds us of our humanity as physical beings with diverse perceptions. Let’s act like it