Analog is a Privilege

I recently posted about my rather recent hobby of film photography. Since I moved to Germany, I’ve been thinking a lot about the current rise of analog technologies and what that means.

I’m from Brazil and I lived there for 28 years of my life. I left for Ireland in 2019 and now have been living in Germany for almost four years, and the culture clash has been a profound and impactful experience for me. One of the things I listened a lot about Germany when I first visited it in 2019 was “take cash with you because most places still don’t accept card”, and when I moved in a year later I could see that it was still quite true. It’s hard not to think that it’s conflicting with the fact that this is one of the most developed countries in the world, especially if you come from a 3rd world country that adopts digital solutions faster. Perhaps that’s a paradox.

See, Brazil is a very digitalized country. It was one of the first countries to use a direct-recording electronic voting machine and still uses it for 100% of the elections since 1996. WhatsApp has in Brazil its second-biggest user base, with over 148 million users, roughly 67% of the population! If you consider that about 67% have a smartphone, it means that literally everyone with a modern phone will have WhatsApp installed. But if 33% still don’t have a smartphone, how can I say it’s a digitalized country? Well, we also have to consider that Brazil is a poor country in terms of revenue distribution. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, more than 74% of the population is class C, D, and E, and the price of the new iPhone is very close to the maximum gross income of class C households. Of course, there are cheap alternatives for about half the minimum wage, but assuming the minimum wage is the minimum one gets paid in Brazil is a blunder. A recent study shows that possibly 30 million people (around 15% of the population) live with less than the minimum wage.

Of course, developed countries such as Germany have a lot more smartphone penetration and access to technology and digital solutions, but they don’t need those solutions as much as 3rd world countries do. Taking a walk in the city, visiting small independent street stores and paying for coffee and cake with cash, are all activities that are not common in Brazil because it’s dangerous to walk around with cash and most independent stores are now online because it’s cheaper to maintain a store without a physical place.

Brazil’s Central Bank recently launched PIX, a digital payment system that allows people to make payments/transactions instantly between banks and is totally free of fees and charges. That was important because of the high numbers of informal jobs in the country, statistics have shown that from 2011 to 2021, about 40% of the employed population had an informal job.

These data draw a connection between the state of the economy in Brazil and its adoption of new technologies. A lot of people in Brazil live out their own small online businesses. They sell from clothes to cosmetics, homemade sweets to cheap electronics. As a sales tool, WhatsApp enjoys widespread usage, while PIX emerged as the official payment method. Fintechs offering online banking for free and credit cards with no fees that let you pay anything you buy throughout up to 36 months are massively being adopted. Also the tremendous success of services similar to Uber and Uber Eats. These exploratory companies are extremely popular especially because it gives more opportunities for those who can’t get a proper job, and since there are so many offer of work in these fields, the prices get cheaper, which makes the services more attractive to users (and thus resulting in lower wages, the cycle of doom). Every new piece of technology that can bring people some money will be adopted to overcome social disparities. Discussions of ethics, privacy, or sustainability are put in the background when people see an opportunity to improve their life quality.

In Germany, however, you can buy film in every cosmetic store all around the country. They also offer lab services for incredibly good prices. You can pay with cash everywhere and many places will still not take cards. Letters are still widely used not only by service companies (energy, gas, internet, etc) but by people to communicate with each other. To set up a direct debit payment, I had to send a letter for the first time in almost 20 years.

Considering all the points above, being analog nowadays can be seen as a matter of privilege. While poor countries will have to adopt new technologies that can help bring the socio-economic differences down, other countries can take their time, after all, photographing with film or a digital camera doesn’t really change the final result, but rather the experience.