Pause! We Can Go Back!

The singer Colette Magny at her house in Tarn-et-Garonne, southwest France, 1982
Martine Franck/Magnum Photos
The singer Colette Magny at her house in Tarn-et-Garonne, southwest France, 1982

Everyone I know seems a little ashamed of the compulsive phone-checking, but it is, circa 2017, our species-specific calling card, as surely as the bobbing head-thrust identifies the pigeon. No one much likes spending half the workday on e-mail, but that’s what work is for many of us. Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.

There may, however, be islands in that digital whitewater, spots where we could haul ourselves out of the rapids and rest, remembering what it was like Before. Or if we are too young to remember, then experiencing it for the first time. David Sax’s thesis in his new book, The Revenge of Analog—and it’s a beguiling one—is that these islands are growing larger and more numerous. He brings us tales of these analog refuges, crankily safe from the instantaneous and universal. Places where we can relax, and maybe even think, as opposed to click. Places where we can touch actual physical objects.

Like, for instance, vinyl records. Sax begins his tour of the resurgent analog in a record-pressing plant in Nashville, where workers feed pellets of polyvinyl chloride into record presses, “great bulky assemblages of hydraulics, heavy-gauge buttons, pipes, hoses, and thick slabs of metal made decades ago.” Even five or six years ago, these presses were almost silent, the workers manning a six-hour shift every few days. After all, first the compact disc and then the streaming Web had digitized the music business; now, for a monthly charge half the price of a single LP, Spotify will deliver virtually every song ever recorded to your phone. By 2006, just 900,000 new vinyl records were sold in the entire United States, or

roughly a quarter of what Disney’s High School Musical soundtrack did in combined CD and download sales that year alone…. Vinyl records were, by any objective metric, dead.

Since then, however, vinyl sales have grown more than 20 percent a year—there were twelve million LPs sold in the US in 2015. Record stores have opened up across the continent and around the world—Berlin alone has more than a hundred. Why?

Sax, happily, avoids a lot of stereophile chatter about compression ratios; it’s not superior sound that has young people flipping through bins. (And it is, overwhelmingly, young people. As one Houston record shop owner said, “There wasn’t a couple days going by where I wasn’t showing kids in their early twenties how to put the needle on the record.”) Instead, there’s something about the tangibility of the actual physical platter that appeals:

Records are large and heavy; require money, effort, and taste to create and buy and play; and cry out to be thumbed over and examined. Because consumers spend money to acquire them, they gain a genuine sense of ownership over the music, which translates into pride.

By contrast, “nothing is less cool than data.”

One could, of course, point out that perhaps “pride” should be reserved for accomplishments somewhat harder than acquiring a stack of records—say, for learning how to play music yourself. (The distance between an LP and a Spotify playlist is much shorter than the distance between a piano keyboard and a phonograph.) Still, there is a palpable sense of ritual that comes with a tone arm and a groove-cleaning brush. “With vinyl, you’re on your knees,” Sax quotes the musician Jack White telling Billboard. “You’re at the mercy of the needle. You watch the record spin and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire. It’s hypnotic.” White has his own record company, Third Man Records, whose motto is “Your Turntable’s Not Dead.”

One analog exception might prove the digital rule, but Sax has a dozen. At Design Week in Milan, for instance, he notices something interesting: every person he meets is carrying the latest-model iPhone, but also a black Moleskine notebook. Once he starts looking, he finds them everywhere upscale types gather:

Nearly everyone I interviewed for this book pulled out a Moleskine notebook at some point, or had one sitting nearby. For a thoroughly analog object, the Moleskine is one of the iconic tools of our digitally focused century.

Indeed, when the company went public, it had a dotcom-scale valuation of €490 million. For notebooks. The reason has something to do with that elusive idea “creativity.” Moleskine’s marketers have played on it shamelessly, contending that these particular paper pads had a part in the success of Picasso and Hemingway. Which seems unlikely—if they hadn’t used Moleskines, they would have used some other notebook, because notebooks were what there were. But now computers are what there are, and Sax manages usefully to contrast a white sheet of paper and a blank, blinking screen:

Creativity and innovation are driven by imagination, and imagination withers when it is standardized, which is exactly what digital technology requires—codifying everything into 1s and 0s, within the accepted limits of software.

This seems to be true, or at least plausible: Sax tracks down many architecture firms and even software companies that hand out notebooks and forbid their designers to turn on their computers till the brainstorming and initial design are done on paper. Whiteboards—i.e., paper on a wall—have vanquished digital “smartboards” in classrooms and office conference rooms. The expanse of white, and the pen as a natural extension of your body, seem to offer more of a goad to the imagination than a computer.

They also offer less of a distraction. It’s possible that the real advantage of a Moleskine (or its many competitors) is what it doesn’t do, i.e., let you Tweet or look at Facebook. “You can waste time with all kinds of stuff,” one time-management expert tells Sax, “but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.” A notebook’s selling point is that you can’t use it to look up stock futures or to swipe right or to play solitaire. It concentrates, not dissipates, the mind. What if Picasso had had Snapchat? What if Hemingway had spent half the afternoon writing Yelp reviews of his favorite bars?

It’s not just paper to write on that’s making a comeback—it’s paper to read from. E-book sales have begun to slow, Sax notes, and though almost no one has figured out how to make money from online publishing, many magazines still thrive—The Economist, for instance, has seen its print subscriptions grow by 600,000 in the last decade, despite a $150 subscription price. Both The Economist and The New York Times find that a great many of their new print subscribers are young people, for whom the experience of print periodicals may be novel.

Some of that, as with the Moleskine, may be mere status-seeking: “We assume younger people want The Economist as a social signifier,” says The Economist’s deputy editor. “You can’t show others you’re reading it with the digital edition. You can’t leave your iPad lying around to show how smart you are.” But there’s something deeper, maybe even deeper than the idea that a print magazine, with actual pages, is easier to curl up with. A magazine, says Sax, has “finishability,” “a defined beginning, middle, and end.” It doesn’t spool on forever in the manner of the Web. “We sell the feeling of being smarter when you get to the end,” says the man from The Economist. “It’s the catharsis of finishing.”

So far most of the virtues Sax has listed for the analog world are private and personal—the rush of creativity (or really the rush of the possibility of creativity) that comes with buying a Moleskine, the slightly smug sense that your record collection somehow makes you a curator of your musical life. He’s on even stronger ground, I think, when he takes up the question of connection to other human beings. This was supposed to be digital’s real selling point—the ability to reach out and touch any other human being, to never be alone, to always have a window open to the outside world. The worldwide web replacing the parochial and provincial spaces we used to inhabit. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way; instead it’s turned us more inward. Two people in the same room, each on their laptops, are barely in the same room. Here’s Sax describing the experience of play in our digital world:

Even if you were playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty with the same group of friends around the world each day, talking smack over your headsets, and typing in snippets of conversations, you were ultimately alone in a room with a screen, and the loneliness washed over you like a wave when the game ended.

Contrast that with what he finds at a board game parlor (one of hundreds across North America) that opened in his Toronto neighborhood a few years ago:

It was a bitter Tuesday morning in March,…but Snakes & Lattes was warm and bustling. The espresso machine hissed, and laughter rose up from a dozen tables. By lunchtime, the café, which seats around 120, would steadily fill up, and by six that night, every table would be occupied. At that point, the bustle in here would transform into a deafening tumult: a mix of belly laughs, defeated groans, surprised screams, triumphant shouts, and the click-clack of plastic and wood on cardboard…all set to the soundtrack of classic pop music, which wouldn’t peter out until well past midnight.

Board games are the clunky polar opposite of the shiny digital experience. But Sax demonstrates that even as the Web has risen and the revenue from video games comes to rival the profits from movies, there’s also been a striking renaissance of people pushing little figurines around the tops of tables. Hundreds of new titles emerge yearly (which is why board game parlors like Snakes & Lattes have game sommeliers, who try to figure out which of their thousands of games you’ll most enjoy playing), and some of them, like Settlers of Catan, become huge hits. The reason, Sax suggests, has only a little to do with the games themselves, and more with the desire to do something with other people:

With analog gaming, whether it is an intricate board game or a child’s game of tag, all the players need to work together to create the illusion of the game. It requires a collective investment of your imagination in an alternate reality to believe that you actually own Park Avenue [Place], and the colored slips of paper in your hand are worth something.

When we play video games “we share ownership of that experience with the software. The program and device restrict our ability to shape the experience of play to our imagination.” Whereas analog games, requiring as they do a table full of people, are very different. Sax quotes an academic who coedits the journal Analog Game Studies, a man named Evan Torner:

I can’t invite five friends over to my house and say, “Let’s all play starship!”…But I can invite them over to play a game my friend designed on one card, called Vast and Starlit. It’s just this little piece of cardboard that lets us all pretend we’re on a starship together easily.

Some games were explicitly designed as mere social lubricants: the best-selling Cards Against Humanity, for instance, whose creators wanted something “so stupidly simple, ridiculous, and juvenile” that any group of people could “pick it up and start laughing in seconds.” The game, says Sax, “distills the appeal of the analog gaming experience down to its essence: human contact.”

The notion of imagination and human connection as analog virtues comes across most powerfully in Sax’s discussion of education. Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”

At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.

Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”

The inherent appeal and functionality of the analog world is so evident that Sax has no trouble finding it—indeed finding it rampant—in Silicon Valley. The further up the food chain of the digital economy you go, the more foosball tables and free buffets you find, because those entrepreneurs have figured out that the screens that made their fortunes perform poorly when it comes to innovation. At Adobe Systems, employees with ideas have access to a tool called the Adobe Kickbox. It is a cardboard box. Inside are coffee, chocolate, pens and pencils, a notebook. “It is intentionally a very hands-on, tactile, nondigital thing,” said its “creator,” an Adobe “strategy executive.”

It’s so you focus on the idea, and not get constrained by the nitty gritty of technology that’ll lead you away from your thought processes. Programmers inherently have a bad habit of jumping into code and building when they get an idea…. Once built, they become married to it, and it narrows their horizons.

It is perhaps too easy, after a disastrous presidential campaign carried out via Twitter and featuring cascades of fake news that proliferated across Facebook, to yearn for something more grounded. One could, if one wanted, poke fun at Sax’s earnest examples, people toting their records and playing their European board games. He describes, for instance, various start-ups trying to recreate Polaroid film, “celebrating analog film’s imperfection, rather than chasing digital perfection”; this seems as silly as every young man growing the same bushy beard and every young woman getting a sleeve tattoo.

But back up far enough and many things our species does are silly. The premise of the digital world is that we can do all these silly things…faster and more easily. But why exactly would we want to? Why should efficiency be the standard measure, and not pleasure? I defy you to read Sax’s book without wanting to buy a Moleskine, put an LP record on a turntable, or play a game of Scrabble with your friends. It’s true that he mostly ignores some of the deepest questions raised by the digital age: the obsolescence of human labor against the tide of automation; the endless, uncheckable spread of surveillance. But the small rebellions he chronicles help us understand the general shape of a threat that goes beyond Karl Marx and his nineteenth-century complaints about capitalism; it’s in our digital era that all that was solid really did melt into air. Or into Wi-Fi, anyway.

The virtues of digital turn out to be the vices as well. Having all the music on earth at your instant disposal turns out to be almost the same as having none; Spotify’s playlists show people picking the same tunes over and over. Digital life’s too self-absorbed—either we evolve quickly away from the social primates we have always been or else we will quietly suffer from the solipsism inherent in staring at ourselves reflected in a screen. It’s too jumpy; concentration, from which all that is worthwhile emerges, is the great loss.

Like all respectable commentators, Sax takes pains to assure us that he’s not a Luddite; the correct and responsible deity is Balance, blandest of goddesses. And it is at least possible that digital technology is reaching a high-water mark and might before long begin to recede to a more manageable level, possible that after our initial intoxication we can come down from our binge and learn to handle this new drink responsibly. At the outset of this review I compared the digital era to a fast-moving stream, which theoretically one could learn to navigate. But it’s more likely, I think, that we’re in a permanent flood stage, where we will have to somehow continue stretching and contorting ourselves to stay above the tide or else resign ourselves to drowning in the cascade of data. One is grateful to David Sax for mapping the eddies where we might, at least for a moment, find some stillness, respite, and fun.


Where Are the Smartphones? February 16, 2017