There is no escaping the sweeping changes that digital technology has brought about in every corner of the world around us. And there is no sign that it is anywhere near finished yet. Bit by bit, piece by piece, the technologies of the previous analogue age are being swept away, superseded and replaced.
Terrestrial television, remember that? All just a distant memory now – yes, you can still get the same familiar four (ok, five) channels of yore, but it’s all digital. VHS and tape cassettes? Gone, replaced first by DVDs and CDs, and then by online streaming. Handwritten letters? Talking photography film to be developed? And how long before landline telephones slip away, or buying newspapers?
The list goes on and on. And yet amidst all of this, there is still a line of resistance, a certain stubborn clinging to the technologies of bygone days which is defiant in the face of so-called progress. You might call it nostalgia, you might call it the whim of the fashion conscious looking to flaunt some retro chic, but it is there.
Take music, for example. The resurgence of vinyl record sales over the past decade, having looked a dead industry at the turn of the millennium, has taken many people by surprise – except those who listen to vinyl records, that is. Because nevermind all the talk about big 12” record sleeves looking cool – they will tell you that vinyl records simply sound better, with a warmth of tone that digital formats just cannot match.
The same applies to the tube amplifiers first used in electronic sound reproduction – this is still the technology found in the very top end Hi-Fi stereo equipment, because those in the know are adamant it is the best.
There is an important lesson here. We use technology, whether it is driven by physical analogue components or electronic digital bytes, for a reason, to fulfil some kind of function for us. And we should choose the technology we use based on what does that job best when we have weighed up all the contributory factors like cost, efficiency, ease of use, quality, durability and so on.
Horses for courses
It is true that, in many, many cases, digital technology has enabled us to break new ground in an enormous range of use cases, from computers that can sort through and extract relevant information from entire libraries’ worth of data in milliseconds to handheld devices that combine the function of telephone, camera, games console, personal assistant, mobile PC, social organiser and shopping portal in one. It is wonderful stuff indeed.
But is it the best in every circumstance? No way.
An intriguing example here comes from education and particularly the cognitive development of young children. Despite living in a digitised world, we still give infants physical objects to play with over digital consoles, partly because they don’t have the fine motor skills to manipulate computerised systems yet. But it is also the case that young children’s brains need direct manual contact with real physical objects to develop.
This has been demonstrated by research into handwriting. We might all think that, in the age of the keyboard and electronic communications, the days of pen and paper are numbered. But in children, handwriting has been consistently shown to have a strong correlation with improved language and reading skills – the more focus there is on handwriting, the better children perform academically. One theory is that, when you learn to write letters and words, you learn recognition through ‘body memory’ as well as through sight. There is also an argument that handwriting is associated with creative thinking as there is greater freedom to shape a text your own way. Everyone’s handwriting is unique and individual. Every typed text is dictated by the restrictions of on-screen formatting.
In the workplace, typing skills trump handwriting for reasons of speed and universal legibility. But if you don’t happen to have your laptop open, or if there is, shock horror, a power outage or the internet goes down – a pen and paper still means you can jot down that great idea or minute that meeting.
It is interesting that a lot of business-orientated collaboration software nowadays tries to replicate simple tools like scribble pads, whiteboards, post-it notes and so on in digital format. But isn’t the idea of a post-it note that you can stick it anywhere you like, on some other physical object as a reminder? And is it such a big advantage that you can ‘save’ your jottings on a digital whiteboard when all you were doing was throwing around outline ideas ahead of discussion and refinement? Will you ever look at them again?
Instead of looking to replace everything analogue with digital, a more sensible aim seems to be seeking an optimum balance of the benefits of both.