In praise of the analog world

10 August 2017
10 Aug 2017
West Lafayette, IN
7 mins

In 2007, on the MacWorld stage, in the span of a couple of hours, Steve Jobs changed the world of people and information — how we interact with data, and how we interact with each other.

The iPhone wasn’t the only thing he introduced to the world on that day. Alongside the jewelry of a personal computer, he unveiled a new, futuristic way of interacting with a computer — what Apple calls Multi-Touch, or, as Jobs jokingly shared:

Boy, have we patented it!

I’m a designer, so let me nerd out for a bit here: Apple as a company presents a few design principles, by which their designs, both in software and hardware, are created. Among these principles is an idea called direct manipulation. In Apple’s words:

Direct manipulation: The direct manipulation of onscreen content engages people and facilitates understanding. Users experience direct manipulation when they rotate the device or use gestures to affect onscreen content. Through direct manipulation, they can see the immediate, visible results of their actions.

In other words, we interact with digital objects the way we interact with objects in the real world — we touch and hold them, we move them by sliding our hand across them, and we scale and rotate them by holding them with multiple fingers. Multi-touch was a paradigm shift in how we interacted with virtual objects, on screen. In a world innundated with mice and keyboards and knobs and buttons, this opened up a dimension of realism to how we interacted with pixels.

Cheaper, Simpler, Flatter

But the touch paradigm also had a second benefit: cost. Within a few short years, the cost of making a touchscreen panel fell. Meanwhile, the cost of making button assemblies and knobs and dials remained the same. Anyone making an electronic device of any minute complexity could now put a thousand buttons on a single screen, no extra cost. Screens were cheap to use, buttons were expensive. Meanwhile, screens were futuristic, and buttons were old news.

And just like that, the conduit between us and our virtual worlds became flat glass, of uniform, sterile texture, coated in oleophobic chemicals and laminated clean to the display assembly. The world with which we now spent dozens of hours per week became textureless.

Fast forward a few years: Last week, the Californian electric car company Tesla announced their low-cost, affordable electric sedan, the Model 3.

From the outside, the Model 3 looks like a baby luxury sedan. It’s slightly more stout, sitting a little more compact on the road and rolling along just like an average family car.

But on the inside, there are no dials, no gauges, no levers, and no buttons.

No switches, no clicky wheels, no knobs. No speed or fuel level gauges, no rev counts, no blinking indicator lights. Where a dashboard should be, there’s just a panel of plastic and wood.

Instead, above the center console and gear lever, there’s a single piece of glass, covering a foot-long touchscreen display. Beneath the display lives several computers that shine pictures of buttons through the glass, so we can see it. Beneath the same glass are also layers of conductive sensors, so we can press the buttons.

Except the buttons don’t really press. We just touch the glass where we see the buttons, and the computer replaces the pixels on the screen with a new set of pixels.

This car is an iPad with an electric engine. If you haven’t caught on yet, I’m very salty about this.

But I love pressing buttons

Our smartphones are windows into a literally virtual world. There are no pieces of loose leaf paper on which webpages are written. There are no rolls of film from which YouTube pulls their videos. The Internet, the apps, the games, and the messages are completely virtual. Because of that, we have to enter the virtual world to experience them.

And multi-touch is a wonderful way for us to enter the virtual.

But cars exist in our world. Cars are not ephemeral. Cars are plates and frames of steel glued to slices of glass and leather, ensconcing literal cylinders of fire (or electromagnetic motors, if you prefer) beating hundreds of times a second. Cars surround us as we ride. Cars, at least today, are not virtual.

Likewise, when we ride cars, we can feel it. Even on the smoothest Rolls-Royce, we feel the road underneath sliding past, gritting against the tyres and pulling us along the curbs. We feel the inertia pushing us back when we accelerate. The numbers and gauges on the dashboard are not virtual — they exist, and we can feel them in the way they make us feel.

In my last post about flying an old Cessna airplane, I talked about my surprise to the raw, analog nature of the dials and gauges on the dashboard. This car is about as far as you can get from that plane. It replaces analog movement and carved-in labels with software and animation.

And in a car, where analog controls still usually reign, replace buttons and dials and switches and levers with a flat sheet of glass, and we’ve locked ourselves out of touch with the world in which we already live. We’ve put a virtual barrier between ourselves and the car.

A touchscreen can do all sorts of things to give me feedback. It can change color, vibrate, rotate, and glow brighter and dimmer. The glass can even turn to attached speakers to make a tap sound.

_ut the second hands on a virtual clock don’t tick in the way a quartz movement watch does. The light switch under the glass screen don’t click the way my wall switch does as it completes a circuit, letting the electrons jostle their way around the copper wire.

So I praise the analog world, and the way it makes me feel. I love the way the needle whispers along a vinyl record at the beginning of an album. I love the way my door clicks when it locks, as the latches slide past each other to a close. I treasure the sound of metal and plastic settling into place when I switch a lever, and I cherish the way it feels when the tip of my pen brushes along the paper to spill drops of ink to neat borders or racing strokes. These sensations make me feel connected to the work I’m doing, and they give me feedback that I’m creating, not just absorbing, what’s at the tip of my fingers.

The virtual world that wraps around the globe is breathtaking. It scales, as Google calls it, to the planet. It moves information along strings of copper and fiber faster than anything else in the universe.

But it doesn’t exist the way the pages of my book do, or the way the dry paint on my wall does.

When I’m writing, I want to feel what I’m putting down. When I’m driving, I want to feel how I’m moving. The way that tactile, physical, analog interfaces flip and turn and change makes me feel connected to the rest of the world around me.

As much as technology has pushed along how information connects us, the way we connect to it is still ephemeral, stuck on panels of glass. And it seems like we’re not reversing out anytime soon.

But I stand in praise of the analog, of the stuff I feel and touch, the stuff that click and scroll. It may cost more, and it may be less efficient, but what I feel isn’t just light shining through glass. It’s exactly what’s there.

And sometimes, though not all the time, it just feels good to come out of the virtual world behind screens and settle into the analog, where buttons still press and dials still click along.

I flew a plane!

Stay hungry, stay foolish.

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