You are currently viewing Why do we keep coming back to ‘hard-to-work’ analog tech?

Why do we keep coming back to ‘hard-to-work’ analog tech?

I’ve always been very vocal about my love for retro tech. Apart from having emulators of old Nintendo Switch and Game Boy, I still own a flip feature phone with a full keyboard despite having an iPhone 15 Pro Max, arguably the best flagship phone in the market that can do anything you need a phone to do and more; mainly because I love the tactile feedback of the keyboard, escape from modern-day phone’s fragility, and most importantly, a snappy closure. And I’m not the only one. The satisfying snap when you close a flip phone is one of the main reasons, other than the flexibility of the foldable screen, why Motorolla and Samsung are producing high-end, high-spec clamshell folding phones that appeal to retro tech lovers and smartphone enthusiasts alike.

But this is just one example of a hybrid retro tech that merges the nostalgia of the past and the functionality of the present. There are far more cases of analog tech resurfacing, not with a modern take but in its original form, facilitated not just by nostalgia but by the uniqueness of these products. From vinyl records and modular synths to analog computers and film cameras, we are seeing a resurgence from the dead tech that we never thought would come back after we moved to the next iteration of the medium.

Take vinyl records, for example. When I was a kid, I used to see them in my uncle’s home, and even then, it felt old, as it was already the CD era. But now, pop artists are reviving the records for the feel of them, not just for nostalgia. Taylor Swift alone is responsible for millions of vinyl sales in recent times, especially after her live show success, The Eras Tour.

Comedian, former late-night talk show, and now a podcast host, Conan O’Brien has also released his podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, on vinyl records for his fans to enjoy.

A couple of years ago, music industry legends Bob Dylan and T Bone Burnett announced that they were recording their songs on a new aluminium analog disc that, in their words, possesses a depth, resonance, and sonic fidelity that is not possible through any other means.

Film directors like Denis Villeneuve find scenes shot with analog film cameras work better to tell the story in some cases. That is why he transferred his popular film Dune, which was shot on a digital camera, to film and then re-digitised it. He took his fascination with film cameras even further with Dune: Part Two, released this year, where he shot entire scenes with vintage Soviet-era Helios-44 lenses that gave those particular shots a dreamlike bokeh effect.

Contrary to what most people might think, these uses did not stem from nostalgia only. According to a global photography survey by a film manufacturer, Ilford, roughly 25% of people who use films to shoot are not old enough to see the film camera’s prime and have never used film cameras. They use film cameras and films for their aesthetic feel and creative control over the raw photos. Even though film cameras are still considered a niche, the market is growing fast, causing a revival of seemingly dead brands like Polaroid, Kodak, and Leica.

The “aesthetic feel” these films offer and the user of film cameras want are not in their heads only either. Four of the five nominees for the best cinematography award at the Oscars, including Maestro, Poor Things, Killers of the Flower Moon, and the category winner, Oppenheimer, were filmed on Kodak movie film stock. Even though only a tiny portion of the film industry uses films, the ones that do are seemingly getting what they are looking for, as apparent from the nominations from the US Academy.

It’s not just films only. Photographers are also taking advantage of the film feel. In a world filled with digital camera-shot pictures, luxury brands like Gucci are more interested in film-shot photography, which makes them stand out in the horde.

Analog computing technology, which put humans on the moon and designed jet planes, is also being eyed as the new future of computing over digital computers, where everything is in 1s and 0s. After decades of being in the shadow of their successor, modern-day digital computers, analog computers are making a subtle yet impactful comeback for their potential to power smart sensors efficiently.

US-based Aspinity, a microchip developer, is one of the pioneers of reviving analog computing using their new AML100 programmable microchip. Like the tech we have today, this microchip can receive data from the real world. But unlike phones, cars, and smartwatches, data doesn’t need to be converted to binary to make sense. Instead, it uses machine learning to identify the data and context without requiring conversion.

You might be wondering, aren’t these analog technologies complex to work with? Isn’t that why we shifted to digital?

You would be right to think that analog devices are harder to use and mostly out of touch with the world’s “smart” devices.

Then why do we keep getting back to these retro techs?

There are a couple of reasons, but primarily because of our desire to re-skill ourselves.

Yes, the resurgence of many analog techs stemmed from our nostalgia. But the motive has now shifted. Tangible control over the creative is why we keep coming to this vintage tech.

There is no doubt that digital tech has de-skilled us. Take cameras, for example. The invention of the digital camera allowed people to take a photo and work on it later on a computer as part of post-production. However, photographers or videographers must know what they do with analog cameras. They must know what lighting, focal point, and perspective to use as film-shot scenes leave little to no room for post-production. You get what you shot. To get a good shot, the camera user must also be skilled.

Having a film camera with you means you must learn to position your subject, ensure lighting, and capture at the right moment. There is minimal scope for errors, which can motivate you to learn the craft instead of the fix-what-you-have-later approach we take with digital cameras.

The revival of analog tech is primarily driven by consumers wanting to be more active. The more consumers engage in the actual craft using analog technologies, the greater control they gain over the creative output. To work with the difficult analog tech, these consumers first have to learn how to use it, then, using their experience and expertise, break the norm, causing happy accidents where the output is not necessarily something they’ve imagined but turned out amazing. For example, some photographers who use film cameras to shoot sometimes dip their camera film in coffee or lemon juice as part of souping or pre-soaking to achieve more creative expressions in the shots. They go as far as to burn the film itself to give the photos an ashy-grainy vibe. These surprising attempts to create something unique are only feasible with analog tech, leading to “happy accidents” that are different but better in many cases.

The crackling and buzzing of vinyl records, the graininess of films, and the propensity for analog synthesizers to be out-of-tune or simply fail due to power surges can very easily become a key point in the cultural renaissance of art. These imperfections caused by our use of analog tech can rarely be experienced with digital gadgets.

Another appeal of retro tech is its look and feel. The robust build, the butchy machinery, the tactile buttons, and the bold lines with vintage colour pallets are a stark contrast to the modern-day sleek and minimalist design approach for tech, which is why this analog tech appeals to us as something otherworldly.

Another reason for the analog revival could stem from the talk of AI and copyright in art and music. As artificial intelligence improves, it will become increasingly involved in art. The day is close when AI-generated art and copy will be indistinguishable from a human’s. So, to counter that, people are expressing their interest in analog tech, which cannot be affected by this digital presence.

But what’s more important is what this resurgence means. Our desire for a tangible experience particularly fuels the revival of vintage analog tech. As the world moves toward a digital “virtual” world, the emergence of analog technology reminds us how much we need sensory interactions. This resurgence represents a much-needed bridging of generations and a well-timed cultural appreciation of vintage aesthetics.


Author: Rifat Ahmed

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