Analog Thinking in a Digital World

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I’ve written elsewhere here about my interests in futurism and how people respond to change.   As we plunge ever farther into the digital age, it is increasingly evident that old school thinking persists in our culture.  We have industrial age behaviors that cling to us like musty old raincoats: the weather has changed, but still we stay huddled in our accustomed habit.

One of those habits is this:  we offer pdfs to people to provide help online.  As Jack Vinson and Mike Hughes point out in their blog posts on the topic, from manuals to help files to systems documentation, pdfs are everywhere, even when they shouldn’t be.   Users are forced to page through electronic paper lacking contextual help, hyperlinks or other aids that only a digital form can offer. In spite of the abundance of digital tools, there has not been a dash to take advantage of what is offered.


Old Wine in a Fairly Old Bottle

What strikes me here is that we are simply repeating an analog pattern in a digital environment – and most of us do it without thinking, without questioning the rationale or the process.  Pdfs were pretty cool beans in 1990; an innovative office that made documentation “electronically accessible” in that manner was way ahead of the game then.  And where that practice is entrenched (which is nearly everywhere in contemporary business places), they generally haven’t changed that standard during the 18+ years that have followed.

Even eBooks, a booming market on the net, are booming on the strength of people’s habituation to the paper and book form: again, analog carried into digital.  I don’t think there are many who have questioned the basic wisdom of doing so, or conceived of how to do it differently.

Old Habits Die Hard – But They Do Die

Every time there is a pervasive technological advance, old patterns linger until they are forecefully pushed to the curb by new technology.  We are in that transition period now, where how we can handle information has fundamentally changed, and it is now the psychology of people and organizations that is playing catch-up with the technical reality.  

It’s a thing that goes in cycles, or perhaps better said, waves, à la Toffler.   We saw it in the mid-70’s, when typesetters were put out of business by linotype machines that, with the aid of mini-computers, took the typesetting process out of the hands of slow and fallible humans.  Though typesetting became quick and easy to do, for a long time newspaper operations remain structured as if the production cycle still required X hours of typesetting before the presses could roll at night.  In spite of the digital impact, the analog habit remained.

But analog habits were more severely challenged with the microcomputer revolution. That forced papers to move (most, grudgingly) to electronic formats. And today, the social web and the blogosphere has so altered behavior patterns, that newspaper after newspaper is folding up because their still fundamentally analog practices do not translate to the digital information flow today’s news consumer demands.

Continuing Evolution With Blogs

Where will we be 10 years from now? Hard to say, but the Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about blogs over the last 10 years:  they were born in 1997, and in only this short span of time, the WSJ observes that

“The consumption of blogs is often avid and occasionally obsessive. But more commonly, it is utterly natural, as if turning to them were no stranger than (dare one say this here?) picking one’s way through the morning’s newspapers. The daily reading of virtually everyone under 40 — and a fair few folk over that age — now includes a blog or two, and this reflects as much the quality of today’s bloggers as it does a techno-psychological revolution among readers of news and opinion”.

Isn’t that astounding to contemplate?  “[V]irtually everyone under 40”? Thereinlies the basis for a sea change of attitude – the kind that is needed to mindfully transport us into this new era we are collectively free-falling towards, whether we want to or not.

I don’t know what form our information will be represented in 10 years from now, but I’m betting pdfs won’t be part of it.

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