Yearning for an Analog Life

It usually takes years for people to develop a nostalgia for some technology, but in the age of the computer and the Internet, everything takes less time.

"Nostalgia," says a definition in Israel's Even Shusan dictionary, "is embracing the memory of days gone by." It can be a longing for people, a period, or even technology. It usually takes years for people to develop a nostalgia for some technology, but in the age of the computer and the Internet, everything takes less time. A decade has yet to pass since electronic mail became available to the majority of people, but some already miss letters written by hand and posted.

Embracing past technology is a strange thing. Exactly 10 years ago, the capacity of a hard disk was 120 megabytes. Now there are disks the size of a key chain that contain 10 times as much information. Does anyone long for old hard disks? One can safely say no - but there are still technologies that continue to survive only because of such yearning.

An obvious example is the horse and carriage. A couple sets out for a walk in the park and, to lend an air of romance to the outing, they might hire a horse and carriage to take them down the boulevard.

And what about the phonograph record? Records were easily scratched, warped if you left them in the sun, and were, in general, hard to preserve. Yet, in recent years, more people are buying LPs, 45s and old record players in second-hand stores. The CD may have more accurate sound and easier upkeep, but people miss the large album jackets, and yes, even the scratches.

In the computer world the popularity of video games from the 80s is particularly noticeable. These were simple games, without any real graphic dimension, but people still spend long hours searching for them. Some even prefer them to the spectacular graphic advances on powerful machines that one might have dreamed about a few years ago.

The longing for an analog life in a digital world has recently been seen in a world completely taken over by electronic typing - letter writing. Michael Kanellos, an American technology writer, wrote recently about people who have rediscovered writing letters the old way - with pen, paper, stamps, and envelopes. When was the last time you wrote a two-page letter, put it in an envelope, licked it, and sent it in the mail? Bet it's been a long time.

The reason for this is manifold - the computer became less expensive, so the word processor became more popular, and the printer also became less expensive. Indeed, it is often cheaper than the ink to run it. These advantages persuaded people to print letters and send them in the mail. A few years later, the Internet took over the world, and with it came electronic mail. Suddenly, there was no need to wait days for a response, and no need for an envelope. All that was required was a click of a Send-Receive button, and the response was there.

The change was so profound, that people couldn't even bother to address an envelope by hand. Programs which printed addresses on stickers to be stuck on envelopes made an envelope addressed by human hand as rare as a letter to go in it.

Kanellos says there are those who resist these advances. E-mail is starting to lose its glamour for a large portion of the population sick of spam. Letter writers have found their e-mail is read only by administrative assistants in the work place, but individuals take their old-fashioned letters home to read themselves. Corporate headhunters have told Kanellos that the best way to get the attention of candidates is to write a letter by hand. Could anything be more personal?

However, nostalgia has limits and the past is almost always, seen through those rose-tinted glasses. Does this perhaps suggest we need a more accurate definition of "nostalgia?" Have we forgotten how irritating it was to rewrite the same letter over and over because we made a mistake in the last sentence and didn't want to send it with ugly erasures? Time has passed and we no longer marvel at the efficiency of the Delete button and its clear advantage over Tipex. Then there was that quite tiresome business of buying stamps, sticking them to an envelope, and then hoping the post office didn't lose it all somewhere along the way.

The yearning for the world of the handwritten letter must be seen in the broader context of just yearning for a simpler world - a world in which a pen and paper were all that was needed to send a message to another person.

It was a world without a sophisticated operating system that always crashes, without "user-friendly" programs no one can understand, and without the long wait for an exhausted technical support person to explains to us, one more time, that the high-speed Internet is "stuck."