The analog renaissance?

Richard Polt posted an interesting link to this article about the analog renaissance of communications media on typosphere.net, and I’m curious to know what people think – is this really a rebirth and revival, or just a symptom of Marshall McLuhan’s theory that we’re turning analog culture into art because we cling to a “rearview mirror view” of our world? Or there is a third option: does this article and others like it describe only a very few individuals or retailers, that journalists are falsely claiming is a mass-culture fad? (Or perhaps they are trying to instigate the creation thereof).

People have been fetishizing records ever since they fell from grace in the 80’s or thereabouts. Etsy sellers have been hawking handmade books for years. Don’t get me started on analog cameras (mostly because I know nothing about them, except that they remain popular with a large percentage of professional photographers). What claim does the current day have on being the renaissance moment of analog communications media? Is it just the typewriters? Really?

Pertaining to this question, I’ve been meaning to eventually expand the focus of this blog beyond the noble typewriting machine, and into the general pool of analog writing tools and techniques (mail art, books, pens & pencils, handwriting and drawing, sketchnoting, etc). I’ll get there someday. In the interim, I wrote this blog post on sketchnoting for the University of Washington Flip the Media blog. Can’t seem to get enough of that topic, although so far I have failed to convince anyone in my corporate work environment that sketchnoting is the perfect format for software documentation.

18 Comments

  1. In an interesting turnabout, I’ve seen text creeping into art more and more. So it seems we need both, plus sounds. Eventually white papers will evolve into operas.
    I find this visual note-taking is difficult and a bit hazardous. First, I miss things concentrating on my drawing (need practice sketching), then I find the drawings don’t necessarily evoke memories of the notes, but possibly whatever tangential idea was sparked at the time, or something else related to the picture plus whatever I was thinking when I looked at it again. it’s frustrating.

  2. The fetishizing of handmade items is an artistic thing. Fashions come and go in that realm, but there is something endearing about something that endures. We like to beat the drum about how solidly-made our vintage typers are, but the real issue is reliability.

    We’ve been having chaotic weather for the past month, where I am, half an hour from Joplin, Missouri. When a smouldering, sunny day suddenly gives way to a thunderstorm, I look up from the typewriter and shrug. No lightning strike can stop me in my tracks.

    To answer the posed questions: No, this appreciation of analog tech is not a new thing. It’s just being noticed more as consumer goods become more disposable. And yes, the [very often] clueless media are jumping on this because they see a publishable story, ignorant that we are really not so news-worthy. We’ve always been here, pecking away at the keyboard.

  3. Anonymous

    If there’s an analog resurgence, and there may be in a small way, it might not just be the nostalgia McLuhan implies with his “rearview mirror”. It might be a desire for an individual to have more and personal control over the materials, process and results of their endeavor. When faced with ubiquitous, bloated, counterintuitive and expensive means like MS WORD and Photoshop,they elect for a simpler means that can be better understood and controlled. This can involve film cameras and developing, typewriters, fountain and dip pens, even muzzleloading firearms and associated gear.

    I can’t speak to vinyl records but the growing number of “unplugged” CDs and concerts using acoustic instuments could be another version of the above.

    If the medium is the message, the message might be “I would rather do it myself.”

    Of course this could just be the ramblings of an old coot approaching 60. 🙂

    Hmmm! I feel an essay coming on this weekend. (Written on a manual typewriter.)

    Jeff The Bear

  4. Not, I concede that sketchnoting isn’t always easy. I am currently taking a class from a guy who talks at mach speed and says very complicated things, and the technique isn’t working in that environment.

    MTC, agreed. The trend stories are what’s the trend, not the typewriters. Typewriters, which dominated personal communication for 100 years and knew a stability no modern technology will ever know, can hardly be called faddish even in their afterlife.

    Jeff, I find this true of myself, the more virtual everything becomes, the more I want to disconnect from it and learn to do things the tangible way. I think this is why I like to read post-apocalyptic novels… they are a clean slate fantasy, where people can refashion reality in a simpler way — although most post-apocalyptic books don’t turn out quite as well as that 🙂

  5. You’re right, I think the fad is writing articles about fads, whether real or fabricated. There was a stupid article today in the NYT about how watches are the new fad. Really? Did I miss something? I’ve never really stopped wearing a watch, and didn’t realize others had suddenly stopped wearing watches.

    In the article you mention I found interesting that the woman quoted was saying that computers are not good writing tools because they are very distracting, that’s why typewriters are better. But really, if you are working on a long complex document, a computer far surpasses a typewriter. I think what’s nice about typewriters is that they are, well…cool.

  6. Old stuff makes better copy and pictures. If you describe new stuff, you sound like a tech-head. If you photograph it, you just have another black or silver box. And people who are interested in/passionate about retrotech possibly make for better reading too. Having said that I have a long-time redundant collection of analogue cameras – a good digital slr beats the pants off them for ease of use and, well everything. But I can wax lyrical about my FM2 far longer than about my D5000.

  7. I don’t know why, but I am reluctant to accuse the current age to be any other kind of renaissance than a tech one. When folks look back on the first half of 2011, they’re going to be talking about Twitter and Faceplacebookspace rather than Royal 10’s and Dixon Ticonderoga’s.

    THAT SAID: I stand by Eliot’s assertion that we redefine the past based upon how we feel about the present. I, for one, really came by my love for the analog because of my experience with modern tech. All it took was one dead-ass hard drive full of important info for me to take a good long look at data permanency.

    Just sayin.’

  8. I’ve enjoyed Strikethru’s recent interest in media and McLuhan’s work, and have even read some of his books, and written journal pieces years ago about my take on media.

    And yet I don’t feel qualified to comment, except to say that if one were to describe the “technosphere” as encompassing the entirely of human technology, I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game, of limited or finite volume, with the newer technology displacing the older. Rather, I think of the technosphere as constantly expanding in volume to include the historic, the antiquated and also the bleeding edge.

    For instance, you can still acquire newly manufactured buggy whips. You just won’t find them at Checker Auto or Auto Zone, or next to the motor oil at Walmart.

    There is obviously a wide variation in interest in various media, driven in large part by marketing and sales hype of the new. And it’s also true that some of humankind’s oldest technologies – like how to make and move hundred ton blocks of stone in the construction of monuments – are essentially forgotten through the sheer enormity of centuries of time, and perhaps also because technology has often been associated with power (military, economic, religious) and therefore was often guarded secrets; once those civilizations fell to ruin, their secrets were often buried with them.

    Someone was talking to me just the other day about Stradivarius violins, that we know exactly what kinds of wood were used in their crafting, and how they were put together, but we’ve lost the secrets of the special glues and varnishes used in their finish, which plays a large part in their unique sound.

    I’m not certain if there’s a genuine “revival” of interest in older technology, or if the Internet has gained us the ability to aggregate and access arcane knowledge that, prior to the Internet, would be difficult or impossible to easily find. And the ability of like-minded individuals to aggregate online over specialist subject matter, like here in the typosphere, is more about the advantages of a connected world through the Internet than it is about choosing one technology over another. In that sense, it’s a rediscovery process for many of us, rediscovering fountain pens and film cameras and, yes, typewriters.

    I’m also reminded of the “maker movement,” through sites like makezine, where people have rediscovered using hand tools and soldering irons and writing code and programming your own micro-controllers. And making wooden catapults for your grandson, for instance (now there’s an old technology rediscovered!).

    The technosphere is still there, ever expanding, waiting to be explored, more easily accessible than ever before. I’m glad more and more people are exploring its arcane back waters and dusty corners.

  9. AJ

    Ooh, I’d love to talk about analog cameras- they’re actually a good bellwether on anti-tech trends.
    To wit: typewriter ribbons are cheap and plentiful (relatively). But film is expensive, and paper and chemicals more so, plus they are bad for the environment. So film has a much higher cost to hold on to than other “nostalgic media”, so to speak. I, personally, swear by film, but it’s getting harder and harder to buy despite the seemingly endless hordes who claim to love film. Polaroids have been replaced by the Impossible Project, but they’re ~$2.50/shot. Fujifilm still sells professional instant films, for about $0.80/shot (and they’re bigger). So clearly, consumers aren’t buying much film for their Polaroid cameras. I bet the “Polaroid” app for cameraphones does more business than IP.
    So do you like typewriters for the tactile quality or final product quality?

  10. Joe: You raise an interesting point. I tend to think of technology as Darwinistic, with tools better adapted to a contemporary need set replacing tools that work less well. Or perhaps a gradual evolution, with features springing up at a glacial pace, in which case one might consider a computer to be nothing more than a typewriter with an expanded feature set.

    However, the point you make makes me think of invention as one of those big, layered jawbreaker candies. Instead of evolution or replacement, new need sets and innovation simply lay down new strata over time. Interesting stuff.

    Your second point about lost technologies is always one that has stuck in my mind ever since I learned about the decline and fall of the Roman empire, especially in regards to the British isles. I mean, Rome took the place over in the early AD’s, “civilized” it, and then promptly abandoned it to the Germanic tribes when other pressing concerns arose. This led to a bunch of “ubi sunt” (where have they gone?) poetry like “The Wanderer (which was later adapted into a speech in the Lord of the Rings!) that lamented the passing of the world and its wonders.

    My long-winded point? That I agree with your point about the internet. The whole reason that said elegiac poetry existed was because people lacked the means by which to understand the things that had occurred earlier in the cyclopean passing of time and tide. We now have an insanely powerful tool that was rare and wonderful way back then: hindsight.

  11. This is just a note to say I love your site (which I discovered quite by accident), as well as the thinking behind it. You also have some great machines, especially the pink Hermes Rocket. Like you, I am a technical writer; unlike you, I am closing in on the end of that career. This is one reason why I have been trying to get back to composing on the typewriter–for my money, one of the most lovely mechanical devices ever created.

    It’s hard to get used to the typewriter again; years of wrangling with ever-more ugly and complicated versions of Microsoft Word. Slowly, though, I’m getting there, working often on the pristine Olivetti Lettera 22, which was the machine that got me through graduate school.

    The Lettera one of six manual machines I currently own. I’ve had as many as a dozen, among them a gorgeous orange-and-cream Olympiette I sold on eBay (bad move!) for fifty dollars. I guess I’m just retrograde, because I take great pleasure in gridded notebooks and pencils, too. I am irritated that I am expected to be an expert in Photoshop and Dreamweaver to create technical lessons.

    Anyway, keep up the great work, and know that you are not alone out here in the dark fields of the republic.

  12. Well, I am pretty honored that y’all have chosen to have such a substantive conversation in the comments of this post.

    Totally agree, this year will be remembered as the era of twitterface. Tech has really only just begun. It’s way too soon for talk of an analog revival proper.

    Watches, a new fad? Yes, only someone under the age of 30 would write an article like that. Most of us older than that really never stopped wearing them 🙂

    Old stuff does make better press, aesthetically than screen grabs of Twitter, agreed there.

    Joe, some things I’ve been reading in school back up your assertion that it’s sort of a retrospective story about “disruptions” that we paint over the evolution of tech, when it is really more of a continuum where existing tech adapts to new tech, and then persists in the ways that it remains unique (say, the physical or aesthetic properties of typewriters and analog cameras). Yes, Speegle. A jawbreaker!

    The point about the connectedness of the internet creating revivals of a sort is also apt, since without the internet, there wouldn’t be an analog renaissance, yet, would there be a need for one? (Chicken / egg?)

    Thanks Randy! I’d take the Lettera over that Rocket though. IMHO, Rockets are no good (aside from their cool looks). Lettera 22’s are the best small portable, hands down.

    I love how people always trash Word as the opposite of the typewriter (being that I work at the Deathstar itself, although not in the Office division).

    Closing in on the end of a techwriting career doesn’t sound like an entirely bad place to be, from where I’m at 🙂

  13. So you’d rate the Lettera over Olympia SM-9 or the Hermes 3000 as the best manual portable ever? One of the latter two seems always to be cited as the best of breed. I’d like your take.

    Not to belabor the point, but I don’t think Word is evil incarnate. My main gripe is that since the Office 2000 version–the first, I think with AutoCorrect– the program has grown ever slower and more cumbersome, but without any corresponding benefit.

    Given your interest in combining text and graphics, you might want to check out Gay Talese’s manuscript page in the online Paris Review Interviews series. He writes/charts in multiple colors on old shirt cardboard and has been doing so for 40 years. What goes around comes around . . . that, or good ideas never die.

  14. I don’t believe overall that it is a fad. Or an artistic fetish. Although there are always a number of people who will approach it as a fad, simply because media claims it is so.

    What I have found, is that I think differently when I am writing by hand, than when I am sitting typing in front of a keyboard. So I do a lot of writing by hand. Which led me to fountain pens, because they require far less muscle/arm pressure, and provide less fatigue. As an added bonus, there are a huge variety of ink colours, and types of nibs.

    I recently picked up a typewriter. And wrote a couple of letters on it. And found that there is a rhythm to using a typewriter. And a similar thought process to writing.

    So I picked up another typewriter. And discovered it has it’s own personality. As do the 4 others I have recently picked up. (That’s a fast slide in 2 weeks.)

    What I like about less technical, more analogue items, is that the fact they are a tool is much more inherent. I find that many people these days see technology as a solution, as opposed to another tool, and expect that it will do everything for them, and provide all of the answers.

  15. I’m a wooden pencil blogger, and while I wouldn’t say the pencil has gone away any time in the past, I do think there is enough passion for it to sustain several blogs. Some of that is due to the efforts of specialty pencil companies like General Pencil Co and Pencils.com (full disclosure — I’m a contact employee of Pencils.com). Moreover, though, I know there are many like me who spent all of their college and professional lives on the computer. We search for a personal, physical connect to our writing, and find it in things like typewriters, fountain pens and nice wooden pencils.

    If anything, that’s the renaissance. I don’t want to be overly poetic here, but sometimes I do feel like what I write (and with artists, draw), has more personal meaning when it doesn’t come from a keyboard or tablet.

  16. Messiah, that slide is actually about average speed, which is to say, the slide from one typewriter to many is always fast.

    And Andy, I have always been wanting to ask you how you got a job doing something you love to do. How DO people manage that?

    The Lettera is smaller than the Hermes 3000 and the SM9 so it really doesn’t compare — it’s in a different size class. It’s a travelling typewriter, and within that class, I think there is little dispute that it’s the best one of that size class. (If anyone wants to dispute me, you’d just be wrong, is the thing). As far as full-size portables go, the SM-9 and Hermes 3K are said to be the best. I would take the SM-9 ANY DAY over the Hermes. I think Hermes typewriters suck. I have three and they are all terrible.

  17. Randy Schwartz

    Thanks much. Opinions like yours–and, believe me, I’ve heard several–make me wonder how Larry McMurtry has made it for forty years and about that many books using only a 3000. But, then, maybe he’s just kidding us, and he’s gone through several.

  18. The tech industry has evolved so quickly over the past 20 years that people haven’t even had a collective moment to stop and think about what is being abandoned. I love physical objects – books, typewriters, vinyl – they will never be replaced in my heart or in my use of other technologies because it is “in thing” to do. Twitter leads to short attention spans. Typewriters lead to infinite possibilities for the written word.