Material Us, Living in a Digital World



When my future husband and I had just started dating, we stumbled upon a treasure: three big boxes of vinyl, mainly classical LPs, collected by somebody with a deep knowledge of music and then abandoned next to my apartment complex’s Dumpster. It should have broken my heart, but we were too busy schlepping the windfall back to my apartment.

Almost three decades later, we still have those LPs, and now and again, we listen. I pull out that thin cardboard square, smile at the album cover, slide out the sleeve, glance at the liner notes, then, with my fingers delicate at the rim, lower that magic black circle of music and wait, filled with anticipation, for the needle to drop. I love the fleeting scritch as it makes contact, the spinning, the crackle from the speakers, the way the sound fills the room.

This is the feeling fashionably dismissed as nostalgia. But Robert Hassan, author of the forthcoming book Analog, says it is not so shallow. We miss vinyl records, clunky photo albums, paper to-do lists, even fat phone books, because all that analog stuff falls into a completely different category of technology. Digital tech is immaterial, rooted in mathematical abstractions. Analog technology is rooted in nature and made of matter—just as we are.

Humans are analog, Hassan suggests. We were formed by the technology we created, the tools we drew from nature in order to extend our bodies and our brains. For millennia, we have connected to, and found meaning in, a material world.

Now digital tech has unmoored us, and “our attraction to retro is a symptom of this disconnect. The malady is a deep void or absence that we misidentify as nostalgia.” To fill that void, he says, we fetishize old stuff, which is “as sustaining as a packet of crisps.” (He is British; he means chips.)

Ah, but here is a twist: in Analogue Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Digital Remediation, Dominik Schrey says it is digital media itself that feeds nostalgia for its predecessors. Artists create installations with old media; avant-garde films quote analog techniques. We have realized that we can go backward while we move forward, and there is no need to bother with context. Instead of learning and imitating history as previous generations did, resurrecting various forms of classicism in a linear progression, we just reach into the past and grab comforting objects or evocative styles. Sometimes we use them ironically, sometimes we intellectualize about them, and sometimes we just soothe ourselves with their presence.

“The moment the scratch is no longer the signal of malfunction but is instead the almost nostalgic trace of a bygone era of mechanical reproducibility, one can say that it has become auratic, and as such it suddenly becomes available for aesthetic practices of all sorts,” Thomas Levin wrote in 1999. Two decades later, here I am, still wistful about that scratch. Even sadder, I do not play music as much as I used to. The playlist, omnipresent, holds half the appeal. Its songs float in the ether, and the most fun you can have is shuffling their order.

As for books, new titles filter through newsletters, reviews, and friends’ recommendations, and while happening onto something I am eager to read still delights me, the process feels far more passive than the hours I used to spend browsing at bookstores, flipping open covers, skimming the dust jacket flaps. The physical hunt has become a fingertip search. I used to smudge notebooks with quotes and ideas. I still collect them, but as flashes of light, sudden as the start of a summer storm, stored (I hope) in a cloud.

It is easier, that should be said. More can be done, stored, sorted, searched, tagged. Even to my ear, all this longing for the clunky past sounds mawkish. Hassan says physical tools “simulate processes we can see in nature or in our bodies,” but I am not sure a black vinyl disc simulates birdsong or a violin tucked under one’s chin. Sound is now encoded as electronic data, and that is the way our minds work—humming along with electrical connections, making associations between ideas and sensory experiences, creating linkages, the search results reinforced by frequency. Our emotions lend weight to certain memories the way emoji reactions lend algorithmic weight to posts on social.

The difference that bothers me is the loss of sensory experience. We are so hungry for the smell of an antique book’s leather cover and brittle pages that companies scent pricey candles with a synthetic facsimile. Much as I love the cool glide of my fingertips, zig-zagging frictionless on a glass phone, I miss the weight of the old telephone receivers, comforting in a sweaty palm. I learn better when I write notes instead of typing them; I think more deeply with ink on paper than when I tap a keyboard. The physical medium slows me down, builds in more time to reflect.

Am I just old? Perhaps. But young people have bodies too, and skin and nerves and noses. There is comfort in something you can hold in your hands. It has more identity, somehow; once you own it, you have a relationship to it that shows up in where you stow it and how you take care of it. We are material beings, and for a very long time, we lived in a material world.

How the immaterial digital world will shape us, with its virtual adventures and untouchable possessions, remains to be seen. Attempts to impose our old world—Metaverse cafés, virtual pets—seem either ludicrous or pathetic. But soon, I suspect, they will stop, because we will lose our need to bridge the transition. We will be fleshed creatures in a fully digital world, with AI writing our books, making our art, and synthesizing our music. Also serving as our therapist, chauffeur, doctor, teacher, companion.

What we will lose, along with nature and history and all that sweet-sad, possibly profound and instructive nostalgia, is the human scale. What is physical, we can grasp. Digital worlds are infinite; it is easy to get lost in there. For now, at least, we need something to hold on to.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.