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Young people are turning away from virtual technology and looking for something tactile, something real.

By K.V. Turley, National Catholic Register, 1/17/18

K.V. TurleyThis Christmas, I heard of a teenager being given an unusual present. It was a Polaroid camera.

I thought such items no longer existed; and if they still did exist, I could not see what their attraction would be for a millennial.

By all accounts, the girl in question was more than happy with her Christmas box. And, if the increasing research findings are correct as to what is selling and who is buying, she is by no means alone in this pleasure in the unexpected return of the retro.

Twenty years ago, vinyl records were seen mainly in domestic attics, storage spaces and museums of modern art. Record players, with turntable and stylus, were, equally, figures of an era rapidly disappearing into the past. These items told of a time long ago, a time of LP records, of album sleeves, of record collections, of best-selling charts, of ‘pop music’ and ‘discos.’ The new world that was then fast approaching was one of downloads – even CDs were becoming passé – of massive data stores banked on a file no bigger than a child’s little finger, or even invisible, buried deep on a hard drive.

Yet last year, sales of vinyl were at a 30-year peak. New vinyl records selling in their millions are now the new norm. It is as if we have gone back to the future of the 1980s. And the funny thing is that the purchasers of these records are not nostalgic 50-somethings. No, the people who are buying vinyl are the same millennials who are gladly accepting Polaroid cameras as Christmas presents.

No doubt you will remember someone, somewhere telling you that books were a thing of the past. To be consigned to history along with papyrus. As the 21st century has unfolded, we have been informed that all will be reading online via screens on computers, iPads and phones. Well, this prophecy has not come to pass. In fact, the public has obstinately clung to the paper and paste that are books. A 2016 Pew Survey found the following: Fully 65 percent of Americans have read a print book in the last year, more than double the share that has read an e-book (28 percent) and more than four times the share that has consumed book content via audio book (14 percent).

Yes, there have been some changes in reading habits, even if these have not been greater given the extent of the digital world in which we live today. What the book doomsayers did not bargain on is how much the average reader enjoys the physical experience of reading — not just the pleasure of having eyes upon a page but of holding the book within hands, turning the leaves when ready: the physical action of doing so. It seems it is the physical experience of reading a book as much as the transmission of what’s on the printed page that matters. What is missed, too, in the rush to the digital is that book reading is relaxing in its synchronicity of the physical and mental act. One can get lost or luxuriate in a book in a way that a computer screen, with its constant interruptions and updates, plug-ins and cables, backlights and low battery, won’t allow.

In an age when everyone in general, and millennials in particular, are being offered every possible experience mediated through a digital surface, what is being discovered is that that younger age group is turning away from what’s virtually on offer and looking for something tactile, something real. An experience, dare we say, which is somehow more incarnate and therefore more interesting?

Recently, I sat in on a Catechism class for millennials. The parish to which they belonged was one that celebrated Holy Mass according to the liturgical norms prior to the Second Vatican Council. I was curious as to why they should be attracted to a liturgy of which most of their parents can have had little knowledge when growing up. When I asked them about their ongoing attraction to an exclusively Latin liturgy that dates in places to the 16th century, they said that they valued its ‘sense of mystery.’ To elucidate further what they meant they used such words as ‘transcendental’, ‘authentic’, ‘unchanging’, as well as ‘sacred’ and ‘holy.’ What they were expressing, and, ultimately, what they wanted was an experience that transcended not just themselves but the world around them. They desired to glimpse something of what was being solemnly proclaimed, namely eternity.

On hearing of the Polaroid camera gift, I wondered if this trend among the young — returning to things they could touch, feel and see — was not something similar to what those young people in the Catechism class had expressed? Is there a perennial longing in the human heart for something more than the computer world of flickering lights emanating from a case of hard plastic? As a form of communication and exchange of knowledge and insight, the latter can alone never satisfy a human heart.

The 16th-century Protestant Revolt in its most extreme form denied people icons and statues, holy water and incense, candles, the Crucifix — even the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The Calvinist idea of worship was to put someone in a whitewashed room with little if anything to concentrate their senses upon other than the written word of the Bible. Thankfully, the Catholic sense of worship has always been more holistic. It recognizes that we are not created disembodied spirits, but rather made flesh and blood, mind and spirit, heart and soul.

The move back to the tactile, to the tangible, even to the degradable, on the part of the millennials may be one of the most hopeful signs yet that, no matter how much the virtual is foisted upon us, humanity remains stubbornly human. It is a reminder, albeit an oblique one, that the promise that was given to us is not of a never-ending virtual self or online presence but of our physical bodies being raised in glory to new life.

Thinking of that camera again, perhaps it was no coincidence it was at Christmastide that I was reminded about this truth of our potential risen glory. For it is during that holy season when God became man so that man could become divine that, once more, we relive the time when the eye first saw, the hand touched and heart felt the Incarnate mystery of a God who dwelt among us.