Musings: Step Into the Analogosphere

ImageIn the satirical New Yorker essay "Just in Time for Spring," Ellis Weiner presents the concept of "going outside" to an audience that now lives primarily in the digital world:

GOING OUTSIDE is not a game or a program, not a device or an app, not a protocol or an operating system. Instead, it's a comprehensive experiential mode that lets you perceive and do things firsthand, without any intervening media or technology.

More recently, on the political-humor site The Borowitz Report, a parody piece about preparations for Hurricane Irene suggested a suitably grave official response to connectivity lapses:

At the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA chief Craig Fugate offered these words of advice for those who may be forced into direct contact with other human beings: "Be prepared. Write down possible topics to talk about in advance. Sports is a good one, and of course the weather. Remember, a conversation is basically a series of Facebook updates strung together."

Like all good satire, these broadsides offer a reductio ad absurdam. But beneath the jibes there's a tangible frustration at what's being lost.

Most of us spend more time than ever engaged in digital media: tweeting, updating our status, sharing links and photos and video files. Games and apps morph into carpal-tunnel compulsions. Texts and bleats and alarums from our "smart" phones forestall our dinner orders. In-person exchanges go on only at the mercy of the mobile device, ever belching its pronouncements from the ether. 24-hour news channels, meanwhile, slavishly attempt to stay abreast of it all by ordering their finely coiffed anchor-creatures to read viewer tweets on air. The effect is of a mirror gawking at its own reflection.

This, I write with a heavy sigh, is how we live now. Not that I'm complaining about the myriad gifts of always-on connectivity — being able to instantly look up the Confederacy's name for the Battle of Shiloh or the filmography of George P. Cosmatos, for example. But how will we ever quiet our minds if we're constantly navigating a universe of noise?


Compare the impact of a handwritten note to that of an e-mail containing precisely the same verbiage.

Like a flower growing through asphalt, however, there are signs of resistance to digital domination. Call it the "analogosphere" — the deliberate carving out of off-line space and time. Weiner's article isn't far off, in that venturing into nature (particularly places without cell reception) often tops the list of such activities. But organizations like the progressive Jewish think tank Reboot have gone a step further, organizing nationwide "days of unplugging" in an attempt to re-imagine the Sabbath as a temporary unshackling of the self from the grid.

The prime directive of this ostensibly spiritual venture is "avoid technology." But the analogosphere offers more secular entry points, some of them less stringent. In fact, older technologies can furnish a more satisfying experience than their digital counterparts.

Consider the vinyl record, for example. Its grooves are visible to the eye. The hand must place the needle down (and flip the platter and repeat after 20 minutes or so). The "warm" sound, analog enthusiasts say, is made of waves rather than bits, and it accordingly washes over the ear rather than stinging it like a coordinated hive of data-bees. Attrition over time adds pops and clicks, a direct result of one's having interacted with, even loved, the album, the way a child loves a toy to oblivion.

Perhaps most importantly, the physicality of the medium serves as a kind of hearth, bringing people together. An iPad playlist, by contrast? Set it and forget it.

ImageIndeed, what we now define as "technology" tends to be severely limited. But the word's fundamental meaning is "tools," and those come in many forms. Paper and pen are basic tools; yet a handwritten note, in these deletable days, carries far more weight than its required postage would suggest. Compare the impact of such a missive to that of an e-mail containing precisely the same verbiage and you'll see what I mean.

But paper still holds its own as an informational medium as well as a sentimental one, as was affirmed during EE's cross-country travels this month.

The reassuring availability of an app like Google Maps, with its built-in GPS, gave me step-by-step directions through the labyrinthine streets of a half-dozen unfamiliar burgs during our trip. Sometimes, though, my poor BlackBerry searched for satellites in vain. At such moments I was as lost as any confused visitor through history, my modernity signified only by the way I stabbed impotently at a tiny keypad.

So it was illuminating when, at one point in my journey, a state parks employee handed me a printed map of town, tracing my route in yellow highlighter. That map didn't just get me where I wanted to go — it showed my route in a larger context that my mobile-screen navigation couldn't manage; using it gave me a mental picture of the "east side of town" and the "west side of town" rather than just the left turn that was coming up in 0.3 miles. Though more circumscribed in its application, it was in some ways a more useful tool.

That map was not only a picture of the territory; it was also a welcome artifact from the analogosphere.

How have you stepped out of the digital realm lately? This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and let us know. We promise to print your message and read it outdoors.