On Digital and Analog

Just the other day, Jasper and I were discussing buying Amiibos, those character figurines with NFC chips built-in that give little unique boosts in select Nintendo games.

“I don’t want to end up with a bunch of plastic figurines at home.” He was vehemently against them for both lifestyle and economic reasons.

“Why not?” I asked: “even though you want to build a library?” A library, full of real, tangible books made of tree pulp.

If you know anything about me, you know I mostly prefer electronic books over paper. Yet I didn’t find the idea of owning a shelf of plastic figures conflicting. But why is that?

The conversation got me curious: what are the real differences between a digital display and analog book? And in general, how do we psychologically perceive the ownership and consumption of intangible digital goods as opposed to tangible analog goods?

The Battle of E-Books vs Paper Books

When Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011 after e-book sales soared 1,260% between 2008 and 2010, the industry genuinely feared the digital apocalypse. 6 years later, the mere vitality of paper books in 2017 would probably come as a puzzling surprise to the digital advocates at the advent of digital book revolution. Why didn’t paper books go the way of CDs and vinyl?

In a Scientific American journal titled The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens, Ferris Jabr writes:

…evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.

I was intrigued by the studies the article quoted. What exactly is missing in e-books? Are we losing inherent signals in e-books that aid our learning and understanding, or can we just write it off as a case of nostalgia? I bugged a friend of mine to pull out the research papers from some psychology database and took a deep dive into them myself.

A study done in 1971 by Ernst Z. Rothkopf and another one in 1983 by Eugene A. Lovelace and Stephen D. Southall both conclude that when people read paper documents, they can often recall the approximate location of information within those documents. To quote Ferris again:

When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices.

This spatial dimension of text allows us to “know” where the information is instead of relying on remembering. Thus:

When taking the quiz, volunteers who had read study material on a monitor relied much more on remembering than on knowing, whereas students who read on paper depended equally on remembering and knowing.

This is an interesting connection between memory and information medium. The physicality of paper and books provides haptic anchors to which our brains link words and concepts. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We absorb information better when we’re augmented with things like mnemonics and memory cues. Try learning a foreign vocabulary by putting sticky notes with words on the actual objects those words describe and you will see the benefit of memory association.

However, many studies also found other reasons why people are less accepting of e-books. One study authored by Jin Gerlach and Peter Buxmann found that the natural feel of a printed book is mostly based on nondiagnostic cues of that book. The jargon nondiagnostic refers to cues that do not provide objective information relative to product judgment. In other words, we can feel a piece of clothing’s quality by looking at and touching it (diagnostic cues), but we can’t make an objective judgment about the quality of water by examining the plastic bottle containing it (nondiagnostic cues). Based on the recorded age ranges, most of the subjects in the study grew up without e-books, so it’s reasonable to assume that through years of conditioning, the subjects have certain expectations for books. When these expectations are unmet, the subjects experience cognitive dissonance. In the paper’s original words:

​Suppose that an individual’s salient association with reading is “books.” If the individual is reading (printed) books on a regular base, he or she might hold beliefs about how it feels like to read a book regarding tactile perceptions. Those beliefs are cognitions that are preexisting in the individual’s belief structure because of personal experiences. When that person is given an ebook on a dedicated device for reading, the haptic experience might be inconsistent with his or her expectations what reading should feel like. According to CDT, this inconsistency should build at least a slight unpleasant tension during the reading process, which we call “haptic dissonance.”

If we look at the statements made by these subjects, we find something in common among them:

Nearly every single one of these statements of dissonance refers to a nondiagnostic trait. Except for one high-occurrence statement about progress within a book, which again shows the value of spatial memory in physical books.

Going back to our original question: why didn’t paper books go the way of CDs and vinyl? Although there aren’t many studies done on the differences between listening to physical music and listening to your iPod, the answer seems to lie obviously in usage behavior. When we read a book, we interact with the medium (i.e. paper book) as we absorb information. We fiddle with pages and bend and fold and touch them with our fingers. These interactions accompany our journey in a book, much like how some like to spin their pens when writing. But physical music media, particularly CDs, don’t require us to keep spinning the disc or caressing the album booklet when listening to it. There are less nondiagnostic attachments to the object, thus when listening to music on a device that looks and feels nothing like a round, thin disc, we feel less unpleasant tension and cognitive dissonance.

This might explain the rapid consumer adoption of digital music as opposed to the slow adoption of e-books, even though in both cases there were publisher resistance, disadvantages of copyright protection, and benefits of reduced costs. In the case of digital music, the trade-off between lost haptic signals and gained conveniences (as well as affordability) was a clear one favoring digitization.

The realization that our clinging to the physicality of paper books is mostly a romantic one points to a future of e-book dominance. Especially as authors realize that self-publishing on a digital platform (i.e. Amazon Kindle) is actually much more profitable than the traditional route. As technology matures and younger generations adapt to learning without spatial cues from a fixed, rectangular space, it’s hard to say our children will learn any less efficiently without the nice feel and smell of good old paper books. Perhaps with other uniquely digital tools such as collaborative annotations and inline feedback, the digital-native generation seems to have more tools at their disposal to enhance their learning to replace or even improve upon the loss of spatial memory in physical books

The Dialectics of Digital and Analog

Digitization of popular media forced paper books and physical music, among many others, into a rapid decline. In this process of obsolescence, one might make the conclusion that old technologies will become only another page in history. To an extent, I disagree.

Some say that during the industrial revolution, French city architects dreamed of a Paris with nothing but skyscrapers. During the modernization of China, Beijing city officials envisioned chimneys and factories replacing historic buildings. These ideas may seem laughable now, but they do sound a lot like our collective enamor with digitized products. They are affordable and convenient. And until recently, we did not come to fully appreciate the merits of physical things that we’ve always taken for granted.

A friend of mine recently said something that’s been bothering me: “I have subscriptions to Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, and many other things I use every day. I live in a rented apartment. I get a paycheck every two weeks. I feel like my whole life is on a subscription. And it will expire in less than 125 years. But at least I own my furniture.”

It’s a rather funny observation to make.

Our brain is wired to demand stimulations to our five senses, irreplaceable by digital equivalents–for now. We seem to never let go of the insistence on the distinction that one thing is made of a tangible pile of atoms and another is not. The heft of a book, the different sizes and textures of pages, the grooves of a vinyl, the gorgeous, frame-worthy artwork, the clear sound a nice wood desk makes when you knock on it, the tantalizing smell of a sizzling steak. They are all essential pieces that make each individual object unique.

The affordability and convenience of digital products will refocus their analog equivalents to serve what they are best at: sensory experience, and replace them as the dominant choice in everyday life.

Analog is fun. Analog is experience. Analog is hobby and art. Digital is convenience, practicality, and efficiency.

A really interesting and innovative intersection of digital and analog are hybrid devices that offer the best of both worlds. Amid this Darwinist evolution of the market, the category of hybrid goods is sure to be the fittest to survive.

When sophisticated enough, they are practically magic. There’s a beautiful calendar design that feels like paper but syncs with Google Calendar. On Indiegogo, a pair of sneakers that looks ordinary but can be customized with graphics and animations dynamically was a massive success. They combine the best of digital and analog in a natural, enjoyable, and expected way. It takes deep product insight to understand the strengths and limitations of both digital and analog counterparts. Only then, you are able to combine them in a truly delightful way.

To quote David Sax, who eloquently writes in The Revenge of Analog:

The honeymoon with a particular digital technology inevitably ends, and when it does, we are more easily able to judge is true merits and shortcomings.

And when that time comes:

Surrounded by digital, we now crave experiences that are more tactile and human-centric. We want to interact with goods and services with all our senses, and many of us are willing to pay a premium to do so, even if it is more cumbersome and costly than its digital equivalent.

Society as a whole is undoubtedly moving towards more and more of digital-infused analog hybrids. They just make more sense. Meanwhile, a renaissance of analog experiences is underway. Perhaps Jasper’s conviction to a library of his own wasn’t contradictory after all. At the end of the day, fiddling with plastic Amiibo’s is nowhere as satisfying as rifling through pages and pages of ink and paper. The sound of which alone puts me at ease, and perhaps, that is yet another experience I will miss out on.

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