One photographer's musings on the human experience

Do We Still Need Analog?

Sometimes it can be hard to tell when a yearning for something from the past is simply pure nostalgia, or if things really were better ‘back then’. As it turns out, vinyl records really do sound better than CD’s and streaming, especially coming through the right tube amplifier. All things in fashion and our ‘looks’ from the past seem to make another trip around the sun sooner or later because something about them just works. The firm exception here, I hope and pray, is 80’s hair.

I’ve always had an obsession with ‘old tech’. I spent a LOT of time in high-end (and many not high-end) audio stores as a teenager, mostly during the time my family lived in Stockholm. Me ’n my friends would wander into stores and ogle the sleek lines of Bang & Olofson’s latest, all-in-one turntable, tape deck receiver units. Often, we’d ask the store clerk to fire it up and talk to us about frequency response and why one turntable needle was better than another.

As I walked by the boom box pictured above in a store on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, I stopped and stood at the window for a bit after I photographed it. It’s certainly not high end, but it shares one thing with the equipment of the past that I love so much. There is something about switches, buttons, knobs, and sliders that I just LOVE, not to mention the fact that I still have my boombox from the 80’s tucked away in storage.

If you’ve read this far you probably agree that the iPhone and the touch screen revolution that has followed are changing our world forever. I’ve given a lot of thought to what we are gaining and losing as that happens. For one, it is the varied forms of feedback that we get from analog controls - clear and satisfying clicks for example - as we change from two channels to four on a tuner/amplifier. The ability to feel the adjustment (often referred to as ‘haptic feedback') as we are making it rather than just experience the outcome because software makes it happen. But I also feel compelled to ask, does it really make a difference to have the physical experience of cause and effect offered by knobs and switches vs. letting software do the work? 

Capacitive buttons at the bottom of my LG V30 automatically provide haptic (vibrational) feedback when pressed.

I believe that one of the reasons our phones have retained capacitive buttons (the ones on-screen that can give us vibrational feedback) is because there is real value to us as human beings in this type of feedback that echoes it’s analog predecessors. I’ve enjoyed switching from iPhone to Android for the simple reason that I have the option of my keyboard giving me that haptic feedback when I type, and that I can control the intensity. When Lev Grossman of Time Magazine remarked that typing on the first generation iPad’s full-sized keyboard felt like “typing with frostbite”, he hit a nail right on the head. A touch UI cannot entirely replace the analog when there are aspects of the analog that just work. (Don’t even get me started about the headphone jack!)

When I saw the espresso machine below at Cafe Vita in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, I damn near flipped with glee! Then I implored the barista to let me photograph it. It was too busy in the moment, so I went back later that day and managed to grab a few shots in between customers. Despite doing a poor job of the exposure, with the help of some post processing, you can see what I was freaking out about - LEVERS! On an espresso machine!! I mean, it’s like the barista gets the feeling of a throttle every time he or she pulls steam. There are even toggle switches on this thing. It’s basically like a cross between making coffee and driving a finely tuned racing car, or piloting an airplane. 

You likely can’t read it on the first photo in the series above, but the manufacturer proudly proclaims the birthplace of this marvelous feat of blended analog and digital UX under the word Spirit - ‘Handcrafted in the Netherlands’. Their design values are clear, right down to the font they’ve chosen for the word ‘Spirit’.

My well-loved Fuji X-T1, fitted with the XF 60mm F2.4 Macro lens has all of it’s exposure controls mounted right on the body. You know where you’re starting from without having to turn on the camera, and once you know the gear, those satisfying clicks eliminate the need to look at what you’re doing. Shot on my LG v30 smartphone.

In the photography world Fujifilm has had incredible success deploying analog exposure controls on it’s cameras. Thousands of photographers the world over have given their resounding approval - it just makes the camera more fun to shoot! For me personally, I love the fact that I can ‘see’ and feel stops of light as I make adjustments on a physical aperture ring or an shutter speed dial. I don’t have to do the math as I look at numbers on a screen. As some reviewers have said, these controls provide “the shortest path from intent to execution.”

Indeed, the tool becomes more transparent to the senses, where touch and hearing can navigate as much as sight.

It all boils down to this for me. Analog controls are almost always single purpose. I can’t think of an example where they are not, unless there is a secondary control that changes the function of the primary control. It’s my belief that, when combined with the real-time, haptic feedback they allow us to make the mechanics of the chore or skill at hand more a 'part of us'. They bring us closer to the tool and closer to mastery of the chore or self-expression for which the tool was made. Indeed, the tool becomes more transparent to the senses, where touch and hearing can navigate as much as sight.

There will no doubt be advantages to more advanced digital interfaces that analog interfaces will be unable to match. However just as in video, music and photographic editing, where we’ve seen the emergence of very expensive analog interfaces to control extremely advanced software, I hope analog maintains a presence as we march into what seems to be an increasingly ‘virtual’ future.   

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- Brent

My Victory Nox Dual-Time Zone watch. I love this thing. Sapphire crystal, swiss movement, unidirectional bezel. Shot on an Olympus TG-2 point ‘n shoot.

Brent Ross