Toronto-born journalist David Sax’s latest book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, was published by Public Affairs in November. In it, Sax explores society’s return to analog goods and services once deemed outdated, from film photography to bricks-and-mortar independent bookshops.
Sax, 37, writes for publications such as New York magazine, Vanity Fair and Toronto Life, and is the author of the book Save the Deli.
What prompted the writing of this book?
Back in 2007, when I was researching my first book, Save the Deli, I was invited to attend a summit in Utah that brings creative Jews together to talk about various topics. On Shabbat, they asked everyone to turn off their phones and computers. This was pre-smartphone, yet that one 24-hour experience showed me how dependent I’d become on my digital devices and how liberating it was to release myself from them. When I returned from that weekend, I started continuing that practice on Shabbats here in Toronto. The experience made me think a lot about how digital was impacting my life.
I started talking a lot with my roommate at the time about the difference between using analog and digital in terms of the way people do work and interact with each other. I started noticing a growing interest in analog things that had once been dismissed as dead. CDs were going away, but record stores were expanding their selections of vinyl. Turntables were popping up in many places. At the time, I tried to write a book proposal, but the idea was too nascent. But then it seemed to keep growing: sales of turntables and film cameras kept growing. The more digitally connected we became, the more this seemed to become mainstream.
When did you see this trend start to emerge?
It seems like a phenomenon that happened around 2007 and accelerated in 2009 and 2010. By the end of 2007 came the introduction of the iPhone. After that, the pace of digital interaction in our life grew exponentially. We suddenly had super computers in our pockets. The recession upended a lot of traditional businesses and both created economic opportunities while destroying others. Those factors seemed to have an effect where digital innovation and social networking could be used to fund analog economies. For example, one could use social media to find fellow record collectors.
What are analog economies?
There are traditional analog businesses, like Kodak. These are 20th-century businesses that have struggled to adapt to the digital era.
There are also places that are digitally savvy and use that to sell analog things. The infrastructure was pre-digital, but they’ve had to adapt.
Then there are the new businesses, for example, the new bookstores that have been opening up in the post-digital economy. These places know the market and they’re opening up anyways, so they know what to do to survive.
Why is this turn back to analog happening?
We may say we’re living in a digital world, but that’s a lie. We live in an analog world. We’re physical, flesh-and-blood creatures walking on this spinning rock. The world we live in is analog. The world at its richest and best is analog. It’s the world we can touch and hold in our hands. That will always have a resonance that digital can’t get to.
‘Baby boomers seem to be the least receptive to analog’s revival. For them, the novelty of digital is still there’
Are you making a moral argument in favour of analog, or a practical one?
It’s not an either/or. Each of us has things in our life we prefer in analog. Sometimes it’s for practical reasons, sometimes other reasons. Vinyl records, for example, give me great pleasure. Analog isn’t just for people who are nostalgic for what they had, but also for younger people who grew up with digital but discover analog devices – something like a film camera, for example – and find meaning in them.
The book isn’t saying, smash your computers or let’s burn down the Internet. But we’ve adopted this narrative of Silicon Valley – the digital and smartphone revolution – as absolute truth, as the greatest truth there is. But I’m saying that there’s great value in analog. There’s economic, emotional and practical value. I’m saying analog has a place, even in a world that’s becoming increasingly digital. Analog’s value is increasing in a different way, and it can fit alongside digital. It’s worthwhile maybe not to everyone as a mass product, but to those who care about it, for whom the value only grows.
Isn’t this reverence of, and return back to analog what hipsters have been doing for a long time now?
Hipsters and millennials have been deployed carelessly by media. It’s easy to say, “Look at those f—–s with their tight jeans and cassette tapes.” But unpack that, and you see that hipsters are the leading consumers in urban youth culture. People often try to dismiss stuff as “That’s just stuff hipsters care about – Moleskines and vinyl.” But just because so-called hipsters first adopt it doesn’t make it less powerful or meaningful. What they do trickles down to mainstream culture. Hipsters first bought turntables and vinyl, and now you can buy that at Walmart.
Have you seen older people embracing analog in the same ways?
Not as much. Baby boomers seem to be the least receptive to analog’s revival. For them, the novelty of digital is still there. The wonder over ebooks and iPads is so powerful.
My friend’s nine-year-old daughter really wanted a film camera for her birthday. This Fuji camera – it’s like a Polaroid camera – is apparently the hottest bat mitzvah gift right now. This girl has never seen a film camera in her life, so for her it’s a novel, magical experience. To someone who’s in their 50s and grew up developing photos, for them, tapping on an iPhone to take pictures of their grandkids is still novel.
Are you not just nostalgic for how things were when you were growing up?
Sure. But there’s nothing wrong with being nostalgic. The assumption that we must burn the past and move forward is a ridiculous one. Not everything that’s an “improvement” actually makes our lives better. If I interview someone in person, I use pen and paper because that works better for me.
I’m not saying we should go back to the days of steam power and heat our houses with wood. I’m saying there’s a place for analog that can be blended with today’s technology. n
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.