Analog and Digital

In the last decade or so, there has been a resurgence in the use of analog tools, such as paper notebooks, pens, stationery products, board games, film photography, turntables and vinyl records, reading physical books, etc. despite the modern conveniences of their electronic counterparts. More and more people are now looking for something more than the mere convenience of a digital purchase, such as a music file or a monthly subscription, for instance. They are buying physical things because they get something tangible and real with it. It’s not about the sound fidelity (in the case of vinyl records), but engaging with something real (not virtual).

In his book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, reporter David Sax says that the attraction to analog is about the totality of the experience. In other words, we buy these physical things so we can more fully engage with them. I wrote in my draft on Signal vs Noise:

This example reminded me of days when you had a turntable and you would hold the cover and listen to the vinyl record while going through the cover. You weren’t doing anything else, but listening to music and engaging yourself with the artist one on one. If you don’t know what a turntable is (if you weren’t that old), try a CD player in this example and the rest would still hold true.

With the advent of Napster (and the MP3 format) in the early 2000s, it’s been a while since I’ve listened to an audio CD, with my car being the only exception, which has a CD player. The only CDs I have in the car are those I made years ago.

Another example: I prefer getting physical game cartridges or discs for my video game consoles and handhelds over getting their digital counterparts for the same reason. Of course, there are times when physical copies of some games are not available, in which case I reluctantly buy the digital versions or wait for independent publishers to bring those digital games to a physical medium.

I have a toy-like pencil sharpener that is at least 30 years old and still runs well to this day. Ditto with a clipboard I got in high school for writing my exams. I still use it today to make edits or to review documents.

I love wearing mechanical watches (collecting timepieces can be an expensive hobby, but it doesn’t have to be). This is coming from someone who has been the biggest fan of Apple Watch when it came out. Suddenly, there was no reason to buy a smartwatch, but I found myself increasingly using a mechanical watch as time went on. By the way, you don’t buy a mechanical watch for precision or to tell time (if that’s all you want, just use your phone and save the money as no other thing will give you that kind of precision as it’s synced with the atomic clock). You buy a mechanical timepiece because you love the visual aesthetics, you love how it makes you feel, you connect with its history, and you love how it becomes a part of you. While some people think of it as men’s jewelry (which would be narrow thinking), I think of it as part of your self-expression. One of the reasons collectors buy watches (apart from wearing it, of course) is because they can pass it down to their children later in life. It’s another way to bond with your children, particularly after you’re gone.

Here’s the thing. No matter how many features a digital watch might have, it can never truly replace the experience of wearing a nice timepiece on your wrist — one that will likely outlive you and your children (if cared for properly). For instance, there is something real and smooth about the sweeping hand in a mechanical watch that no digital watch (even with their computer-aided 64-fps second hand) can match.

Book lovers were worried about the original Kindle release because they assumed it wouldn’t be long before the physical book was irrelevant, but that hasn’t happened (yet). For instance, I use both physical and Kindle books for different reasons. So, in my world, there is a place for both the physical and the digital.

I also like using my fountain pen. For the last few months, I had been journaling with it until I finished my journal about a month or so back. Nothing comes close to the feeling of putting ink on paper, as “primitive” as those tools may be. There have even been studies where they found students retaining information they learned in school better when they took hand-written notes rather than when they used a computer. Not only that, it was found that students not using computers in the class were distracted by others who were. So, it seems evident (and ironic) that computers can inhibit learning in classroom more than they enable it.

My father prefers using Field Notes to jot down things even though he obsessively uses his phone all the time for everything else. My mother finds it more convenient to jot something down quickly on paper when making a grocery list rather than using something like Workflowy, which she also has on her phone. Sure, it’s great to have all these apps on all our devices, in perfect sync with each other, but it will never replicate the experience of having a pad or a small pocket notebook to quickly jot things down.

I often find myself using pen and paper (think tools) while working on my notebook (computer) because I need to capture something on paper quickly in order to think it through, even if for a moment. It’s hard to capture things on an electronic device in the same way with no friction. While this experience could be replicated on an iPad with an Apple Pencil, there is some friction involved. Pen and paper require zero friction. You can use them anytime, anywhere. The whiteboard is a distant second (of course, you can’t carry it with you).

There are times when digital tools cannot only be a distraction, but also a hindrance. For instance, when making presentations, our first inclination may be to open up Keynote or PowerPoint and start creating slides and selecting typefaces, but it would serve you better if you first figure out what you really want to say using pen and paper. Once you’re clear on your core message or messages (along with the flow), then the presentation software can serve you well, but until that point, using it would be counter-productive.

Ditto with making movies. You don’t start out shooting films. You need a story, a script, and then storyboards about the movie you want to make. You work on it tirelessly before getting a cast and crew for it. This is to say you do a million other things before you start shooting. It’s only when you use analog tools to help you think things through that the digital tools can work great for the execution of those ideas.

I find analog tools to be perfect for all kinds of meetings, yet it’s the first place we bring our smartphones and computers. Think about it, why do we have meetings in the first place? So we can work together and think through stuff collectively, not as individuals, to bring about some change in the world (Is there even another reason?). Digital tools often get in the way by their very nature because they require our full attention.

In design school, we frequently used tools such as pens, paper, sticky notes, whiteboards, dry erase markers, etc. These tools allowed us to capture ideas and action steps in a meeting for problem-defining (and problem-solving later). We found them to be indispensable in our daily creative process. For our meetings, we found it best to use a combination of whiteboards and sticky notes for ideation and mapping. Later on, we would move our work to computers to make our project high fidelity, but until that point it was analog driving the process all the way.

Having said that, using analog tools doesn’t always serve you. There are times when you’re better off using digital tools alone from start to finish. For instance, when you’re writing a letter to someone directly on your letterhead (let’s say), you’re forced to think about what you write, since anything you write will have to be perfect (to avoid any errors), so it doesn’t give you the freedom to make mistakes. But with writing it first on a computer, you have the freedom to make those mistakes and to write exactly what’s on your mind without feeling the pressure of writing and thinking at the same time, which otherwise can be limiting. In fact, that’s not much different from how most meetings work (or I should say, don’t work). So, writing on a digital device can indeed serve as a great tool for something physical in the real world. It gives you the permission to be truly divergent.

The same goes for doing creative work in my case. I don’t recall using pen and paper to write my drafts. Sure, there have been times few and far between, where I’ve used those tools to ideate or to think about things, but for the most part, for my use case as a writer (and I suspect, for most writers), my workhorse (yet minimal) tool of choice remains to be a text editor, which I have used in writing the 200+ drafts (as of this writing).

Apart from that, there are a variety of tools I use on the computer to make sense of ideas and to get work done. By that I mean writing, researching, ideating, managing projects, communication, scheduling, and many other things.

In particular, I use mind maps on my computer all the time to come up with ideas for things and to find the connection between seemingly unrelated things or ideas. Sure, you could do the same on a whiteboard or on paper, but there are many advantages of having it on your notebook computer. For one, you could take it with you anywhere. Second, you’re not limited to physical space as you would be with a whiteboard. With a mind map application, there is no limit to how you use it in terms of capturing. What you’re limited to is viewing one part of the map at a time, but you also have the ability to quickly zoom in or out of the map to view a different part.

There are times when you need to think things through, and sitting in front of a computer simply won’t cut it. At that point, you need to get away from the workstation to think. Some of you even have dedicated areas for analog and digital tools. It puts you in a different frame of mind, so to speak.

I don’t work in groups any more (though I help others work better together), but I still use a variety of tools to produce my work. I use these tools to capture, ideate, sketch things, to define problems, to solve them using a creative process, and to evaluate current processes, systems, or workflows. In other words, these tools help me think out loud.

I think there is a place for both analog and digital tools in our lives. Neither are a true replacement for each other; they were never meant to be. There is a spectrum with how we do work — all digital, all analog, or somewhere in between. In this day and age of digital life, we should not forget the value of analog things and the role they play in helping us create art, shape our thoughts, help us think, etc.

I’ll close the draft with this story. There is something magical about getting a hand-written note from your loved ones in this day and age. When my cousin sends me a hand-written letter once a year on an Indian festival (which I otherwise don’t care much for), there is nothing quite like it. It’s hard to articulate the feeling. I wait all year in anticipation of that letter and it has never ceased to make my day. Coming back full circle, I think analog tools have their place in an increasingly digital world, and at least for my money, they aren’t going anywhere.

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