There has been a bit of a buzz recently that the sales of vinyl records are on the increase, and what does this mean. This isn't a 'the joy of vinyl' post, but rather that the rise of vinyl has some interesting lessons for what happens to an industry or artefact after the arrival of the digital, networked version. I think there are three main lessons:
1) The arrival of digital highlights the real value in the analogue version – in this case the vinyl wasn't about being a music distribution platform, but rather a complete art object. Its physical presence was its value. People now say that they value the limitations vinyl puts on the listener, so you have to listen to a whole album and don't simply shuffle. These are qualities that are brought into focus by the presence of the digital alternative.
2) It is more complex than simply digital replaces analogue – let's make no mistake here, although vinyl is on the increase, it is dwarfed by digital downloads. The monopoly of the old system is nearly always overthrown by the arrival of the digital, networked version. But it oversimplifies matters to say "X is dead" now.
3) The analogue becomes a specialist, hobbyist pursuit – digital and networked nearly always trumps analogue in terms of convenience. But the new values we've come to appreciate in 1) mean the analogue version moves to becoming a monority interest, but of great value to that group. It increases in (maybe financial, but certainly emotional) value, but decreases in reach.
The same has happened with nearly all analogue artefacts where a digital, networked version has come into existence. Think paper and online newspapers, maps & GPS, digital and film photography, and so on – books are in a similar transformation process now.
What's perhaps more interesting is whether the same applies to activities as well as artefacts. Shopping has seen some of this, although not to the same extent – the activity of shopping has often moved online (see reports about the death of the high street), but it hasn't quite become a hobbyist pursuit. But the convenience of online shopping has meant it has lost its monopoly and people have become to realise what it is they like about 'real' shopping (for me, nothing by the way), which is the social side. So city centres have become a greater mix of coffee shops, restaurants alongside shops.
Now here's a couple of activities to consider in the light of the three vinyl lessons:
- Academic conferences
Maybe that's for another post…