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"...and yet radio ... continues to flourish."

Postby jon » Sun Dec 20, 2015 6:38 pm

Andrew Coyne: All things analog are making a fierce comeback among baby boomers and millennials alike
December 19, 2015 5:05 pm
Edmonton Journal

As you stumble through the malls this Christmas season, chances are you will come across an unfamiliar sight — vinyl records. Once near extinction, vinyl has made an astonishing comeback: sales are up 50 per cent this year, 120 per cent in the last two, more than tenfold since their 2007 low.

To be sure, this is growth from a very low base: vinyl still accounts for just two per cent of all album sales, about where it was in the mid 1990s. But considering the format was supposed to have been long dead, its resurgence is fascinating. It’s not just nostalgic Boomers, if that’s what you’re thinking. Half of all vinyl buyers, according to industry data, are under 35; a quarter are under 25.

Nor is the retro trend restricted to vinyl. Print books, also supposed to have been replaced by now, have more than withstood the digital onslaught, with a market share of 80 per cent or more. Sales of e-books, indeed, have begun to decline, down five per cent this year, while print sales are up about the same amount.

The hottest thing in cameras? Polaroids. The company itself may no longer be in the business — it now licenses its brand to other companies — but the “instant-photography” technology it pioneered is on fire, with sales up 60 per cent last year. Again, younger consumers are said to be leading the charge.

Call it the revenge of the analog. And it doesn’t stop there. Typewriters. Cassette tapes. Spoken word performances. In a digital age in which everything is available everywhere all the time, where every experience can be delivered electronically and every technology of communication has been puréed into the same universal flow of infinitely reproducible 0s and 1s, the hottest growth is in the market for things: finite, imperfect, irreducibly physical. Rather like human beings.

What accounts for this? Is it mere hipster revivalism, second-hand nostalgia? That seems hardly necessary: if there is one observable trend in popular culture over the last 20 or 30 years it is stasis. I can look at an album from the Sixties and tell you within six months when it came out, just from the hairstyles. Whereas there are kids walking around today with exactly the same hair and clothes as their parents wore at that age.

Movement through time has been replaced by horizontal dispersal. Where in the past everyone was part of the same culture and everyone changed together — the Beatles grew their hair long, so everyone grew their hair long — today there are 50 different sub-cultures living side by side and none of them ever changes.

But I think there are more substantive reasons for the tenacity of these old technologies. This is not the first time, after all, that we have seen this played out. Television was supposed to have replaced radio decades ago, and yet radio — even the old-fashioned, over-the-air kind — continues to flourish.

New technologies, it turns out, do not always replace the old. They can sometimes co-exist, as the limitations of the old technology are rediscovered as its virtues. You can’t watch radio, it is true. But you also don’t have to. You can listen to it in the car.

So it is for, say, the typewriter. You can’t correct or amend what you’ve written, or not as easily as you can on a computer. Good: that means you are more apt to compose the sentence in your head before committing it to paper. Clearer, less cluttered writing is the likely result.

Indeed, in some of the present cases the new technologies fall demonstrably short of the old. Audiophiles will tell you that vinyl produces a fuller, “warmer” sound, without the loss of data, however slight, that is an inescapable cost of digitization. Tablets and e-book readers have yet to engineer a reading experience as pleasurable as the printed page.

Still, there is a more fundamental reason for the analog counter-revolution, and that is simple physicality. We are physical beings. We live in a three-dimensional world. The things we love are not dimensionless bits of data, perfect and indestructible, but things with weight and volume that decay over time: that grow old with us.

As tangible things, books and albums are objects of veneration that their mere contents cannot fully explain. Possibly that is connected to their relative scarcity. The collector of records or books in physical form enjoys a thrill unknown to the digital downloader, of the prize that is won through adversity: the discovery that comes only after many hours of searching through dusty store shelves.

But also there is the fuller menu of senses they engage. Among the casualties of the digital music revolution was one of the great 20th-century art forms: the album cover. You can see millennials almost swooning at the world they have lost.

Or perhaps there is a simpler explanation still. I forget who it was who theorized that our notion of technological progress is purely a function of chronology: were the typewriter, say, to have come out after the computer, we’d be exclaiming at its advantages (you hit the key, and presto — instant printout).

To the 30- or 40-year-old, vinyl records and Polaroid photographs will seem irredeemably outmoded. But to an 18-year-old? What strange sorcery is this?
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