The Imperfect Traces Left by Human Hands

T. Susan Chang - Leverett, Massachusetts
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, July 20, 2012
T. Susan Chang

T. Susan Chang once embraced the computer age: she even met her husband and bought a house on the Internet. Yet despite the benefits of her high-tech existence, Chang eventually found herself drawn to the tangible simplicity of an analog lifestyle.

Age Group: 30 - 50

I am a child of the digital age, but I believe in analog.

I love the hiss and pop of vinyl, and the black splotch in the corner when a movie changes reels. I enjoy the hushed, uneven ticking of a windup watch. I love handwriting.

I believe in analog because it captures the imperfect traces left behind by human hands — smudges and echoes that can’t disappear with the touch of a delete key.

I didn’t always feel this way. In 1985 my sister returned from Germany with a CD player, the first any of us had ever seen, and I marveled at the slick, featureless disc. I officially went digital in college when I bought my first computer. Mine was a Macintosh with two floppy drives and no hard drive. My boyfriend bought me 1 MB of RAM for my birthday and presented it to me in a jewel box.

Some years later, I found my husband on the Internet. It was 1997 and we were in the vanguard of the cyber-dating scene. We swapped e-mails for a whole month before meeting, which most people found outlandish. We were on the cover of a book. I went on Oprah. We married in a year, left the city and found a house on realtor.com.

But something was changing in me. As the world went digital and the Matrix movies played to packed houses, I found myself drawn to fountain pens, clothbound books and bargain-priced LPs.

One night the fuses blew and my husband and I had to choose between light and music for our one remaining outlet. We opted for music and sat close together in the darkness as the worn out needle brought Art Pepper back from the dead, his saxophone weaving cracked tapestries of sound.

Today I am a food writer. I live in the realm of the tactile, which could be the last stronghold of the analog world. I think that taste, smell and touch are like the armies of the resistance, hiding underground while their flashy audiovisual siblings take the world by storm.

Sometimes, my husband and I hold hands and scan the sky for constellations, roughly sketching the seasons as they pass overhead. “Is it November already,” we ask each other when Orion rises into view. It’s a way of keeping time, inexact at best, but it’s a better reminder than the digital alarm clock that wakes us each day at 5 a.m.

When my husband and I first met online a decade ago, we were digital, virtual and filled with instant certainty. But today, our actual lives are analog by nature. We live in the country, where dial-up is standard and sometimes progress just puts its feet up and takes a nap. We live our lives based on his best guess and mine.

Maybe the digital revolution, like an irrational number, will never come to an end. But for me there will always be a place for the whisper, the crackle, the shades of mottled gray. For the sake of my own imperfect soul, I believe in analog.

T. Susan Chang writes about food and cooking for the Boston Globe, NPR.org’s Kitchen Window series, and other outlets. Her first book is A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories from a Well-Tempered Table (2011, Globe Pequot/Lyons Press). Chang lives in Leverett, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.