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January 2019

Issue: January 2019

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Welcome to a world of travel, entertainment and culture, curated from a global collective of writers, photojournalists and artists. Each article of our award-winning magazine is sure to inspire, no matter which of our destinations you call home.
            Back to Open Skies

A return to Analogue

1 January 2019

Inside Philadelphia’s sweeping 30th street station, passengers wait for their trains while departure times appear on an old split-flap display – letters and numbers shuffling every few minutes with a distinctive clickity-clack sound

This month, Amtrak will replace its last Solari board, named for its Italian manufacturer, with a digital board. Amtrak claims the boards are difficult to repair, since parts are hard to come by, and that digital displays will be more accurate and easier for travellers – but travellers, for their part, are fiercely opposed. The iconic split-flap, first installed in the 1970s, might be the quintessential symbol of analogue fever: the idea that, even in a digital world, retro technology is emphatically reasserting itself.

Handwritten snail mail, old-fashioned paper planners and brick-and-mortar storefronts may seem like quaint novelties of a bygone era, but many are in fact returning to these services as less complicated alternatives to the far-flung, fast-paced, high-frequency systems of today. And these trends are more than nostalgic tributes to the past: designers, business leaders and consumers alike recognise that certain retro features are more efficient and less cumbersome than their sleek digital replacements might suggest.

Our days may begin with the swipe of a screen, a digital alarm or a microwaved breakfast pastry, yet analogue technologies that were once “obsolete” are suddenly thriving: shops offer handmade leather goods, knitting classes and pottery workshops; neighbourhood bookstores are rising, like a phoenix from the ashes, throughout the world; people are trading video games for board games, fast-food for sustainability, email for face-to-face conversations. While digital still outpaces its analogue precedents in many respects (speed, size), older formats are making a resurgence, perhaps because they embody qualities not found in an electronic realm: people are experiencing a fresh appreciation for the physical, and the symbolism afforded by tactile, vintage, artisanal, or small-batch goods. From Roman-numeral watch faces to chalkboard menus, crank radios and business cards, vinyl records and letterpress prints, there’s a definitive vogue for the physical these days.

Nowhere is this ana-log trend more prominently on display than in today’s hotel room. While a modern, often futuristic aesthetic has reigned supreme in travel for decades, many luxury hotels are casting a decidedly backward glance when it comes to hospitality – reinstalling incandescent lightbulbs (which cast a warmer glow than LED fixtures), in-suite turntables, stovepipe fireplaces, libraries full of books, even typewriters in the lobby. Some brag about deliberately not offering television or Wifi, giving would-be cord-cutters an extra nudge. These touches are arguably more sentimental than functional, but they point to a gaping hole in consumers’ device-dependent lives: time to slow down, examine, savour or enjoy. Wistful though it may be, the resurrection of analogue is also strategic: translating to physical gives brands a toehold in an otherwise ephemeral landscape. Consider the proliferation of intentionally analogue workspaces, with their organic building materials, airy workspaces, sturdy whiteboards and communal tables, all of which are meant to encourage conversation and collaboration. Bright furniture, cozy nooks and coffee-grinders in the kitchen are meant to foster productivity and innovation. Some startups have even experimented with bans on internal emails or the use of computers during meetings, while others are more whimsical in their retro pursuits: Facebook’s marketing team, for example, set up a letterpress printer in the corner of the company’s headquarters so that employees might create art in their spare time, and called the space the “Analog Research Laboratory.” Digital devices and networks often increase the demands made by employers and corporations, while physical outlets arguably grant employees agency over their own time.

Curiously, analogue’s resurgence might be due, in part, to improved technology. A Kindle is made to look like a book, with the sound of a page turning; Instagram offers sepia-tinted filters for photos (analogue photography reveals flaws and idiosyncrasies – the very things digital tries to mask); energy-saving electric candles are made to flicker on the tabletops of restaurants. In other ways, material modes are driven by a thriving post-digital economy. The ubiquity of the Internet means we have 24-7 access to a steady stream of information, people and places, yet these connections are nebulous and fleeting, naturally leaning toward isolation. Analogue artifacts, by contrast, capture a place in time or a shared sentiment: the pages of a book, the worn edges of a photo, the scratch on a favourite LP record, have a certain intimacy that can’t be replicated online.

Physical technology also tends to be of higher quality and have a longer lifespan than its digital counterpart, a distinction not lost on millennials – analogue’s most enthusiastic champions. Teenagers are now buying records and videos in droves, knitting sweaters and pickling their own preserves, visiting movie theatres and libraries, suggesting that both young and old delight in tangible goods, and in their more deliberate acquisition. But analogue’s durability has uses that extend beyond office politics or Christmas gift giving: in 2018’s midterm elections, for example, many voting districts returned to paper ballots in light of concerns about hacking. And it’s been shown that architects and surgeons who use physical models rather than digital simulations gain a better understanding of skills needed and the stakes levied by their work. Rather than an outmoded technology, analogue is in many ways a reanimated technology: an “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” renaissance for our modern times. Fortunately, our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether doesn’t have to define us. In his book, The Revenge of Analog – Real Things and Why They Matter, author David Sax argues that a return to analogue is less a “Wes-Anderson fever dream” than an exploration of our fortitude, our sense of place and community. Paper and pen help us brainstorm new ideas and make mistakes; postcards let us convey sentiment without the organised whimsy of Twitter posts or GPS check-ins; bookstores and video rental shops encourage us to make new discoveries unfettered by algorithms or machine “learning;” an old Solari board conjures the excitement of the imminent journey, and of journeys long ago. In short, analogue technology lets us be our own curator; guiding us away from the ceaseless chatter of screens, toward the stillness of the present.

Words: Adrienne Berhard