The Future is Analogue
Commonplace Newsletter #010
As I said last time, I am a gambling man at heart. I make it a principle to back up my predictions with cash. So let me tell you today about my major prediction for the short to mid term future. My prediction is this: when it comes to art and culture the future will be analogue.
Allow me to lay down my case.
What They Do, Not What They Say
The biggest part of being a flaneur, besides the walking, is the observing. Do it for long enough and you will begin to see how trends change over time. As discernment grows you begin to be able to identify what is a hyped-up, soon-to-be-gone fad and what is likely to be a part of the cultural landscape for a while. You also see what is perennial and what simply refuses to die.
Now of course, the largest noticeable change from the past decade or so of mooching and loafing and people-watching is the rise of the smartphone- that killer of being in the present moment, that spiker of youth anxiety and depression. Regular readers know my feelings on the subject so I won’t bang on about it now.
The rise of the smartphone and of those (I suspect) brain-frying AirPods seem to undermine my analogue thesis. Surely the world is getting more digital than ever?
Yes, it possibly is. Among average people. My contention here is that tech and the attendant monthly payment plans and heavy, heavy advertising are an example of proletarian drift. These are mass produced goods that the mass educated masses use to gawp at mass produced media. There is no cache in such things anymore. The window of a piece of techs coolness is now even briefer than that of the window in which it survives without spontaneously ceasing to work.
So for a contrasting scene to the above, the flaneur might go to an upmarket neighbourhood or to an art opening or a fashion show. In short, to the places where those who have gotten rich off tech, media and art congregate. And what will he see? Well, I’ll tell you: he’ll see people writing in leather moleskines with fountain pens, he’ll see the exchange of business cards and hear discussions about record collecting and mindfulness and book reading.
He will see analogue.
A cynic might call it a grift. See, if you actually read about the habits of the Silicon Valley guys and the ‘creatives’ you will learn that they live analogue lives as much as possible. They do not get high on their own supply. Steve Job’s kids were not allowed to have iPads. Evan Williams, who cocreated Twitter and Medium has a technology-free house with a vast library of physical books.
These people send their kids to screen-free schools and strictly limit their at-home tech use. All while trying to sell you some app that is clearly nowhere near as good for ‘idea capture’ as the notebook and pen that they themselves use to capture their own ideas.
But, my friends- as with all trends- more people are starting to catch on. More people are slowly starting to come back around to the supremacy of the tangible.
There is Nothing More Expensive Than Free
‘If you’re not paying for it, you are not the customer, you are the product.’
You will have heard that saying before no doubt. And when it comes to cultural products it can sit right alongside its cousin ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ in the pantheon of eminently correct utterances.
What you stream or download isn’t tangible and thus to your brain it isn’t real. The music you play becomes mere background noise, the film washes over you while you multitask, the wisdom in the pirated pdf doesn’t stick.
Ignoring the fact that Spotify and the like pay the artist virtually nothing, even from the perspective of the consumers own selfish pleasure it is a bum deal. You get what you pay for, and what you don’t pay for you don’t appreciate.
(Of course buried in the T&Cs for all digital media purchases and subscription services is the fact that you are only renting and do not own the things in question and so they can be taken from you or altered at any time. But who reads the T&Cs?)
Compare this, to stick with music, to the humble vinyl record. Those who are not extremely online filter-bubbled shut-ins will have realised that the LP has been going from strength to strength for the past half decade or more.
Even visiting some of the small coastal towns in my county I have seen new record shops popping up in recent years. In a time when you can get infinite music for free (if you respect yourself so little that you are willing to constantly listen to obtrusive ads) more and more people are willing to pay £20 for a single LP.
Again, it comes down to selfish pleasure. If you own a turntable you will know why people are willing to pay. The difference in sound quality is negligible. But the sense of ownership, the tactile pleasure (which has steadily been eroded for years in this world of touchscreens), the way the medium actually makes you mindfully engage with the art and the fact that this collection is yours and is unique to you is profound.
This is the difference between real life ownership versus mere hard-drive clogging borrowing.
If it’s on a screen, it isn’t real.
And before any smart-arse comments that this very newsletter is on a screen, know that I will eventually collect these essays into physical books. Which leads me on to my next point.
Body and Soul
In my early twenties poverty forced me to pawn my records and books to pay the rent. Of course, I played this off as being a mindful choice towards Minimalism, but in this case as in most others I believe that Minimalism is ‘cope’ as the kids say. Funny how many tend towards anti-materialism when they don’t have the funds to buy materials.
Unsurprisingly, once I was able to turn my financial situation around I went straight back to buying hardbacks and 180 gram pressings.
Owning a library of books is one of life’s true pleasures. A room without books is like a body without a soul, as Cicero said. Even a single Billy bookcase filled with secondhand paperbacks is a beautiful thing. It’s real, it’s yours, it’s permanent, and it is an edifice that says something about who you are and what you think. It’s a testament to the fact that you are willing to invest time and money into art and ideas. This is why guests to a house will always make a beeline to the bookshelves first. They tell us more than thumbing through a kindle menu ever could.
And I, like all writers, want to be a part of this collection. I want my work to sit on your shelf and not merely on your screen. I want the words to be made tangible and to be able to sit in your home, the way that the works of independent writers currently sit in mine.
You see, as much as I moan about tech, it is largely out of disappointment rather than knee-jerk Luddite reaction. Technology can be great but we use it for boring things that benefit people who themselves shun their own creations in their private lives.
There is more to life than apps and feeds.
I believe that what tech is great for is distribution and this is what will push the analogue future. Print on Demand has completely changed the game. And yet many are still shortsighted enough to either pay for nothing or to only purchase overpriced, intangible and falsely scarce digital ‘info products’
The coming Renaissance will see more people thinking bigger and actually parting with cash to own physical books and music. All of the elements are there. And if this pandemic year has done anything it has made people take stock of what matters in life and it has broken the celebrity-driven cultural stasis of the past decade and more. The world is ready for new art and new culture.
I’m excited to be able to play a small part in this. Even more than the prospect of writing these newsletters, I look forward to the future of being able to order print-runs of my limited edition, numbered and signed novels and stories.
Rather than being a homogeneous mass produced lump, the art of the future will be limited, unique, bespoke and crafted with care. Owning it will mean something. All of the ingredients to bring about this future are here, for both creator and consumer.
All we have to do is seize them.
Until next time,
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Great article here Thomas!
You did not mention the fact that not owning your products (merely "renting" their digital form) means someone else has a right of life and death upon them: As we've seen recently, Amazon editing or deleting books from their Seattle HQ and your very own (purchased) copy that you're currently reading in Nice, France gets purged from your Kindle. Same with Music providers, Netflix etc. People who give a damn about what they are consuming begin to realize the danger in that - inherent to the digital form.
On a broader scale, this is also an issue of identity: imagine if your average Joe's phone, computer and external hard drives were wiped out. What would be left ? No more music, movies, books, but also no more pictures, memories, correspondance; who takes pictures on film anymore? Who writes letters? If your digital devices were lost (and trust me, I have countless stories of crashed HDDs and stolen phones with no/partial cloud backups), would there still be any footprints of your life left ? If that doesn't frightens you, you haven't thought about it enough.
This is an idea that I've been discussing with people a lot of late, ever since I came across it on your old twitter feed I think, and it's one that I wholeheartedly agree with.
In fact, for Christmas this year I got my father hardcover books (Cicero and Dalio - Principles), both of which he absolutely loved, and then for his birthday I went ahead and got him a proper vinyl player, with Coltrane - A Love Supreme (classic, and an easy choice), and Pearl Jam - Ten (another favorite of his, and an incredible rock album in it's own right).
The impact of the vinyl player on the front room was immediate, and in the weeks since getting it for him the room seems to have taken a new life honestly. He comes in, has dinner, and then goes in to the front room, with the fire on, tea, two biscuits, and puts on an LP.
Like you mentioned above, it's the tangible aspects of this that make it so appealing - he isn't just going in and turning on the music - he's somewhat symbolically taking the rest for himself through the physical process of putting on the vinyl.
For a textbook type-A workaholic, this has been huge for getting him to relax more in the evenings, which obviously delights me to no end - there is nothing better than seeing your family happy and enjoying life.
But what's been interesting is how he seems to have fallen into having a relaxation ritual he completes every evening, without really ever intending to. I'm going to try emulate the old fella and see if I can get myself to do the same.
With regard to the supremacy of real books over digital I agree, but I also find it hard to beat the ease with which one can highlight on kindle and save notes. As a completely obsessive note taker (to the point of being detrimental, as at times it prevents me from enjoying what I'm reading), the ability to highlight in 4 different colors (I have a system, which everyone I say it to laughs at), save them for reference, export etc. has become essential to my process of learning new material.
That being said, anyone who pirates fiction and reads it on a laptop/phone screen is probably a psychopath.
"You see, as much as I moan about tech, it is largely out of disappointment rather than knee-jerk Luddite reaction. Technology can be great but we use it for boring things that benefit people who themselves shun their own creations in their private lives."
True. Absolutely true, and I wish more people would realise this. Technology is at it's best when it's in the background, making life easier, not to be seen, not to be heard. It just does it's thing.
Automation is going to be the greatest gift to the artists of the world. Wilde mentioned it first in his essay on Socialism, about the ideal world being one where robots do all the work and humans spend all their time on the important business of creating art.
I'm not a socialist, but I think that's an idea that were likely going to see coming into fruition very soon (UBI anyone?), but whether or not this is a good thing is another debate altogether.
Anyways, loved the article, and I enjoyed your piece on Charlie Bubbles as well. It's one I'll have to check out this weekend. Looking forward to your next piece.