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Forget Your Email: We All Crave The Physical

As the world becomes more digital, are we starting to long for tactile, analog experiences?

In many ways, physical objects are disappearing from our daily lives: stacks of bills are being replaced by their online equivalent, shelves of CDs and records are now accessed in the cloud, and newspapers are read online (the ones that are left, at least). That much is obvious. But perhaps you’ve noticed a parallel trend—as the world becomes increasingly digitized, people begin to crave and romanticize the physical.

In a new trend report, Embracing Analog: Why Physical Is Hot, marketing communications brand JWT and author Frank Rose explore the digital conundrum: "As we buy more apps, e-books and downloads, and as digital screens become our default interface with the world, we seem to increasingly seek out physical objects and experiences."

In a survey of 1,200 American adults over age 18, JWT confirms what we already knew—we live a whole lot of our lives online. But this has left us with an emotional void. In the same survey, 73% of respondents said "It means more to me if someone gives me a physical book than an e-book." And 79% of respondents noted that they "sometimes miss having some memories in a physical form, like photos, letters or books with inscriptions."

These sentiments are true across the generations. In fact, so-called millennials (between ages 18 and 35) say that they "have a greater appreciation for things that don’t get used as much as they used to, like record players or film cameras" than older generations.

What’s going on? "The ease with which we can access anything, anytime, makes digital things feel less valuable and special. It’s not like we’re abandoning digital altogether, but we continue to embrace a more special value attached to the physical," explains Ann Mack, director of trendspotting at JWT, and one of the authors of the report. "There’s a certain imperfection involved in the physical world—a shift away from mass-produced, polished offerings. Millennials especially feel like these things give physical objects more personality."

JWT’s report cites a slew of examples of how clever companies (and musicians) are taking advantage of the trend. Beck’s most recent album, Song Reader, exists only as sheet music—readers have to play it themselves. A company called Playbutton sells albums in the form of novelty buttons containing memory cards. And apps like Postagram let users create real postcards from digital images.

There are some physical realms that digital has yet to overtake. Despite the popularity of online payments (and credit cards in general), survey respondents aren’t yet comfortable giving up cash quite yet. "People are hesitant to do away with paper cash altogether. The more we get digitized, the more it seems like funny money. You forget to attach real value to that money," says Mack.

Nonetheless, JWT has predicted the rise of the mobile wallet for years—and it will become ubiquitous soon enough. When that happens, we can expect a whole lot of nostalgia for all manifestations of physical money.