I have no idea if this is true for other writers, but when I sit down to begin, I often start with a little ritual. First I light a candle, the lapsed Catholic in me recognizing the power of setting an intention. But mostly I do it because it smells nice, and the little flicker gives me something to stare at while I’m desperately racking my brain for a synonym or waiting for the big mist of ideas to sublimate into a sentence. Next, I grab a standard #2 pencil which I have anxiously sharpened until it would frighten the TSA. The process of beginning ends with the kitchen timer, a dollar-store plastic doodad with buttons and a little digital face. I carefully set it, then panic after I press the start button that I’m not moving fast enough for my designated two minutes of fucking off. By the time the timer beeps in its light, pleasant way, I’m as ready as I’m going to get. I could’ve used the timer on my phone to accomplish this same goal—the delineation of the waiting, the rigid measure of time. In fact, the little square app looks just like the timer on my desk. This is intentional—a designer somewhere got paid a lot of money to design an app that looked just like the thing I already owned and was already using for measuring out little coffee-spoonfuls of my life. When ritual isn’t enough, I grab a crossword from the stack on my desk and stare at it instead of my empty word document until words appear on either one. 

I know that entire careers have been made from doing really great things for the Clock app, of making things that look like other things. There’s the Apple Pencil, and the Apple Watch. Sometimes, they dispense with the brand name altogether. The icon for Calendar looks like, if you tried hard enough and squeezed your fingernails in between the pixels, that you’d be able to tear off one page at a time. Camera looks as though someone sits inside your phone and waits patiently there until you step in front of their lens. We are very good at making things that operate like other things, but more expensively and with more tiny internal parts. We’ve created an entire market to synthesize  things that emulate other, perfectly good things that already exist. On top of that, we’ve created a dedication to Apple and its things-like-other-things that borders on the religious. Which is good, since none of us are going to church. 

But our fervent reverence for the sleek and digital makes it harder to see where the things we use came from. If I look hard enough at the flickering candle (and I do, because I am searching for a synonym for “synonym”), I can see that someone held onto the wick and poured hot wax around it. I can imagine the tree that once held inside itself the pencil I now hold in my hand. I can touch the kitchen timer and know that someone, somewhere assembled it.  I can imagine someone sitting at a desk much like this one, with a pencil much like this one, puzzling over how to get all the letters in a new crossword to line up just right. Like it or not, I could do that ifI got the New York Times Daily Crossword delivered to my inbox every day at nine a.m. Eastern Standard Time. 

This primal, tactile urge is why museums have glass cases. This is also why people collect vinyl records or old guitars. Besides the ostentatious display of social cache, there’s something magical about being able to touch something and feel connected to the material and the people that made it. When I touch a physical thing, it is easier to see the time and effort that someone, or lots of someones, expended so that I could use it. No offense to the fine folks at Apple, but they’re not creating “products”, no matter how much their people call themselves engineers. There’s never an object at the end of the Gantt chart for people to put their hands on. Just a better version of Clock, of Calendar, of Flashlight. 

It’s worth asking, though—who exactly is the better version of the Clock app better for? There’s no freemium version of my crossword puzzles, no matter how often the New York Times emails me about their better, subscription-based model. It would still serve the purpose of delivering me a single crossword a day, but without the satisfaction of my pencil pushing its way across the answers I’ve already figured out. Crucially, I can’t wad up the digital version to keep my cat occupied while I finish typing that last email. I don’t have to imagine a future where I subscribe to an alarm clock app. One where, if I pay extra, I don’t have to watch ads for pencils while I do my two minutes of ritualistic fucking around before I begin using the one I already own. 

I think the reason designers keep calling back to the old way is more than just aesthetic. These choices, to make digital things that look like physical things, usher us into the unknown by giving us something we recognize. They ground us in the vast, ephemeral arena of cyberspace by showing us that we already know the way. They never tell us that this way leads to subscription-based everything. Somewhere along the line, we shifted from paying for actual things, to paying for access to digital things. Instead of paying the twenty bucks for a copy of the Director’s Cuts of all the Lord of the Rings movies, I now pay for access to a streaming service, which may or may not guarantee that I’ll always be able to watch said movies. I pay for the privilege of accessing extra features of my favorite note-taking app, which currently include being able to download my notes for offline use. The irony is not lost on me that had I just used a physical notebook, they would’ve been offline the entire time. 

This shift from paying for goods or services to paying for access has stretched the limits of currency and commodity. Rather than pay taxes, we pay for college studies and surgeries on GoFundMe. We pay for things that don’t exist yet on Patreon and Kickstarter and OnlyFans. Don’t get me started on NFTs and Bitcoin. We’ve found digital synonyms for the things we already love–art, sex, money.  We pay for the privilege of access, not ownership. But in an age where everything else is infinitely parsed for more value, why not our attention, too? Commodifying our ability for cognition transforms us into products, even as we own fewer and fewer of them. But that’s way too much to think about in the two minutes between when the digital timer on my desk begins and beeps. 

In some senses, we’d be better off if more things worked this way. If public land were stewarded, rather than owned, we might have fewer Superfund sites. But on the whole, this shift from definitely owning a physical thing to maybe owning the potential for a digital thing seems to me like we’re being given short shrift en masse. I’m not some kind of Luddite—I don’t eschew technology. It’s just funny to me that I’m typing this on a laptop, which is made to look like a notebook, on a keyboard which is made to look like a typewriter, on a screen that is made to look like paper. The aesthetics of skeuomorphism are at once hilarious and terrifying. Everything old is new again, but this time it’s more expensive and you have to pay separately if you want to fix it when it breaks.  

But much like my brain stubbornly refuses to find the right word for the thing I can see so clearly behind my eyes, it also stubbornly refuses to accept this descent into the Singularity. I don’t want a perfectly-optimized Clock app that caters to my every timekeeping need. I don’t want a pencil with millions of different nub choices that writes in any color under the sun. I don’t want to have to buy batteries to power a piece of beige plastic molded to look like a candle, complete with a different piece of yellow plastic that bobs on top in perfectly-randomized time. I don’t want to own a drawer full of cords that I dutifully pack and move every time I change apartments. If the New York Times sends me one more email, I’m gonna hurl. What I want is to struggle through the ritual of beginning without the dings and beeps reminding me that the gas bill is due, or that my friend is wondering about coffee, or that my boss is sending weekend emails again. I want the ritual transaction of money for goods or services, and then to turn my attention to literally anything else.