Vinyl LP records are back. A lot of people I know own typewriters. Many musicians, photographers and other artists record their work analogue and then transfer it to digital later for distribution. Examples include musicians recording to old fashioned tape machines and photographers using various film cameras, working in the darkroom and then digitally scanning their work. What does this mean? Why do people continue to use obsolete forms of technology? The answer that I’ve often heard when discussing this with people is that these technologies still work well, they still exist and are in fact better suited to certain uses and forms of expression than more recent inventions. I will try to summarize here some of the ideas I’ve heard knocked around lately plus add in some of my own thoughts that I’ve hatched while trying to write this article!
There is a dual relationship developing between the physical world and the digital world. People obviously want to go into the digital world, but they want to leave it too, out of a pure physical and psychological need to see, hear and touch something plain and simple. On a personal level and on a cultural level people are also judiciously considering their notions of technological progress. Practically speaking, through a process of trial and error, they are finding out what forms of technology work best in different situations.
Digital: Looking at information on a computer screen, or even typing in album titles, pressing play and listening to music on a computer – all of this is like looking through the glass at a diorama in a museum, with the feeling that if you stepped through the glass it would all come alive.
What’s the difference between digital music in a computer and a vinyl record with its sleeve? I think that CDs will eventually die out, and in the short term will be used mostly to transport music from a vendor to one’s computer. Most people will get and listen to their recorded music digitally, and some smaller number of people will gravitate towards vinyl records. These people will use digital music to some lesser and practical extent, such as when traveling, listening to internet radio or to something unavailable on LP. For myself, if I hear something I really like and treasure I’d want to own it as a physical object on LP, where as something I were only lukewarm about I might want to just have filed away digitally.
Why are these music lovers attracted to this older form, why has it been selected? Yes, records do sound better than digital, sometimes surprisingly better. It’s a warmer sound, fuller – not so cold, hard and matter-of-fact as digital – there’s some surface noise and a crucial bit of remove that is desirable in a recorded medium. But there’s more to it than that, having to do with the physical object and the process by which you play it.
In a world where you could have nothing in your home but a computer, mattress and kitchen appliances, you have to ask yourself, “how do I want to fill my personal space? What objects do I want around me?” Digital, the internet, etc. is a dizzying array, total information awareness as the government puts it. Nearly anything you would want to see hear or know is available – music, literature, visual art – billions of people, overwhelming, static. But what and where is home? It has to do with physical objects, a shelf of records, a stack of books, a real painting, an instrument you don’t have to turn on. There’s something to that, a question of feeling adequately stimulated physically, culturally, neurologically on the most grass roots level. Its at that point, with that grounding that I for example feel comfortable interacting with the larger world of media and the endless world wide web.
Whenever you go somewhere, say somewhere that’s pretty far, you have to make a decision about how fast you want to get there. You could fly and go real far real fast and not see much (although flying way up high is an incredible sensation), you could walk every dusty mile and be barked at by every dog, hope it doesn’t bust its chain (that’s good too) or you could drive (or take a train). Driving is plenty fast, 60, 80 miles per hour, that’s fast – that’s the way to travel, feels good, gets you there, see the land, takes an appropriate amount of time. Vinyl records and even typewriters are from the same period as driving a car. Technology is getting old enough that certain elements are starting to stick – get stuck in human psychological, cultural evolution – things that work well. Objects from the height of the mechanical age have assumed a classic role in human society by fulfilling certain basic needs. Like a guy that can fix a simple old car when it breaks down on the dirt road that’s nothing but two ruts running by his house. He does this using nothing but parts that are lying around and some tools he knows well – that simple mechanical car is a piece of technology that is adapted to regular human use, it works well and is an integrated part of society. This is in contrast to computers which are still very much in the process of being perfected for regular human use and smooth integration into society.
The internet is good for research, getting all the facts and hearsay. Digital devices for cultural production and dissemination have their objective artistic strengths like anything else and are incredibly useful, practical, time saving and handy. But if you want to spend some time with something, that’s a different operation with a different schedule. So pick out a record, put it on, look at the big cardboard sleeve with the artwork printed on it, that’s an LP. 78s and 45s are great too, they each have their own matter-of-fact merits based on their physical nature. Cassette tapes, cylinders too! Wire recordings, why not? Film photography has its merits, typewriters are a nice medium between hand writing and computer typing… People are taking stock of these characteristics and making choices based upon them. These older mechanical forms of technology for the production of cultural and intellectual goods are demanding and winning a place in humanity’s future world, based upon their objective merits.