An Ode to Tangible Media
Posted on January 10, 2013
The internet (as we know it) turned 30 last week. 30! Can you believe it? I was alive for one whole year before the world wide web began its journey to omnipresence. And oh, how it has changed everything. It’s hard to imagine a time before Apple and Instagram and Facebook and Google and Yelp and Pinterest and Twitter and…well, this could take all day.
We are living in a remarkable era–things are changing and improving at the speed of light. Blink and there’s a newer, better, version of an old device (is it just me, or does it feel like there’s a new iPhone released every ten minutes?). But what of the old?
I recently came across this box of funny, outdated accessories at my brother’s university bookstore:
Cassette tapes, phone cords, modem lines: all 50 cents, final sale. He’s only nineteen, so I doubt he or any of his classmates have ever listened to a cassette tape or wrestled with dial up internet. (Maybe this box of 50 cent items would be useful for an archaeology project!) How quickly once innovative, coveted technology finds its way to the sale (or dust) bin. My stepdad tells me he paid iPod prices for his bright yellow walkman twenty years ago. Today, its value lies in its ability to transport him back in time.
Nostalgia aside (and there’s sure to be a lot of nostalgia here–can any of you remember recording songs off of the radio to make mixed tapes?), much of the old stuff just doesn’t work as well as the newer stuff.
Tangible media is on the inevitable march to the intangible. Look at music. It’s already made the journey from record to 8-track to cassette tape to CD…and now it simply sits on a computer (or on the Spotify server), ready to play at the click of a button.
There are so many things I’m glad to chuck in the garbage: cluttery DVD and CD cases, useless cords, backup hard drives, giant boom-boxes, bulky, overheating desktop computers. (Hugs and kisses to the inventor of The Cloud!)
But then there are those few things that I can’t quite let go of. And I think…maybe I shouldn’t? As the tangibles become increasingly rare, it feels important to pick and choose which mediums we incorporate into daily life. Because, while some tangibles (like winding unspooled film on a vhs tape) are nothing more than an unnecessary headache, others have the ability to make our lives richer and somehow more….real.
Here are the tangibles I’m holding onto as we speed up, up and away towards the intangible future:
During a summer stay at the Ace Hotel in Portland, my husband and I found ourselves cranking up the in-room turntable every chance we got: Prince, Bon Iver, The Shins. We danced on the bed, we sang loudly, we very possibly annoyed our neighbors. At the time, I thought: we have iPhones and music docks, so why is a record so much more fun than a playlist? We bought a turntable of our very own in order to find out.
Now, on weekends, Grant and I visit record stores, laugh at strange cover art, reminisce over old Smashing Pumpkins songs, and snap up everything from Louis Armstrong to Muse to Mozart. Whenever the mood strikes, we crank up our records and really listen.
The result of this old school purchase? We dance more, we talk about music more, we marvel more. There’s something about placing a needle in a groove and flipping a record over that simply can’t be replicated with a visit to the iTunes store.
While I love the look of film photography, I don’t miss the boxes of negatives, the one hour processing or the limitation of 24-36 shots. Digital photography has opened up a world of possibility to amateurs and professionals alike. No dark room or photo paper or specialized equipment is needed. Just a camera, a computer, a bit of know-how and a good eye, and you can make photographic magic.
There’s just one problem…
We still have to find ways to get the photos off of our computers and into our lives.
After confronting my somewhat overzealous picture-taking habit last summer, I decided to take stock of why I take photographs in the first place. The answer? To appreciate, to remember, to share. So I started making photo books for myself and for my family. I love the company Artifact Uprising, whose tagline is: “Inspired by the disappearing beauty of the tangible.” They make beautiful photo books, and they even specialize in Instagram paperbacks so you can do something with all of those gorgeous, artsy shots besides just posting them to Facebook.
I feel so happy every time I open one of my photo books–they transport me to wonderful times spent with the people I love.
Click, clack, clack. Isn’t that what writing sounds like these days? Going, going, gone are the personal notes, the familiar scrawl of a friend’s handwriting. Even with Christmas cards, the trend seems to be towards photos emblazoned with pre-printed, generic text. “Merry Christmas from the Jones Family!” I always turn it over to see if the person has added a handwritten scribble; it’s a pleasant surprise when they have.
Using a computer is convenient and quick, and I’m certainly glad we don’t have to rely on a quill and ink to write manuscripts these days. But there’s something intimate about putting pen to paper. For me, it feels like a filter is removed and I can say things with ‘Le Tiny Editor’ turned off. I make an effort to write by hand (in imperfect cursive) regularly. I write in my journal, I often handwrite blog post ideas and drafts, and I make a huge effort to send out handwritten cards and notes to my friends and family. The rarer those little notes become, the more precious and worth the effort they are to send out.
The market will dictate the future of the book. And right now, the market is practically shouting: cheap, convenient, environmentally friendly ebooks! But my gut says the traditional book will survive, albeit in a more expensive, covetable form. Like records, we’ll buy special, limited edition copies of popular books. And when that happens, I’ll gladly pay a premium for my favorite tomes.
While ebooks are changing the game and opening up a whole new world of publishing opportunities, I still love the look, the feel, the smell of books. Sure, they take up space. Sure, I have four bookshelves in my apartment and way too many boxes full of stored books. But books say something about a person that few other mediums can. When I enter a person’s house and take a look at her bookshelf, I can immediately get a sense of how she thinks, what she likes, what we might have in common. Scrolling through someone’s e-reader just doesn’t have the same air of romance.
I’m sure I’ll eventually cave and buy an e-reader for travel and convenience, but you won’t find me firing one up before bed. That time will be reserved for my limited edition, $100 paper copy of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Geriatrics.” ;)
Are there any “old school” tangibles you’re holding onto? What advancements are you glad to see, and which ones make you a tad nostalgic for the past?
Pictures or It Didn’t Happen: Thoughts From a Compulsive Photographer
Selective Truth and Social Media: TMI or Not Enough?
No Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto: Fighting the Good Fight Against Information Overload