Vinyl records, film, board games, notebooks, tangible books: All of these things have a digital counterpart that’s faster, easier to use, sleeker, and capable of so much more. And yet, humans still remain stubbornly attached to these “old-fashioned” products. Why?
Canadian author David Sax is obsessed with this paradox. It’s the subject of his newest book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, which explores why analog equipment and ideas — commuting to physical offices and classrooms, visiting brick and mortar stores, playing board games — survive. Sax investigates what has caused these things to not just persist, but be embraced. Sax offered Inverse some perspective as to why we love analog so damn much.
What inspired you to discuss the resurgence of analog in today’s world?
Two things happened about ten years ago in my life. This was a time when a lot of people I knew were getting BlackBerrys. I remember one dinner at a friend’s house where all of sudden, my wife and I were the only couple who weren’t heads down instant messaging [during] the entire meal. I had never experienced something like that. There were eight people at this dinner, and nobody was talking to each other.
It was a watershed moment — seeing the real impact that this tech I grew up with still had. Instant messaging had always been this interesting thing. But all of sudden it was so impactful, so present, and has just continued to grow.
Around the same time, my roommate’s parents had given us an old turntable and their record collection. This was just after we had digitized our CD collections and figured out how to stream. It was funny because as soon as we did that, we stopped listening to music, because it wasn’t in the living room through physical CDs. It just kind of disappeared. My interest in music rapidly diminished, and music had always been something I’m very passionate about. All of a sudden, I stopped giving a shit about it.
These were old records — a lot of Streisand, Neil Diamond — and we started adding to that, often the same records I already had on my computer. But it was so much more engaging and fun to listen to them [on vinyl]. It sparked a discussion about how the nature of digital technology is very different than analog technology, and how we interact with them is very different. Even though analog was becoming totally disruptive and we were getting all these new iPhones and networks and apps, I was noticing a counterpoint to that.
It was the beginning of the growth of vinyl record, the blossoming at Moleskine notebooks and other paper products, the marketing of old film products to photographers. There was something there, but it really took a couple more years to see how much it would grow.
What were common threads you saw in the resurgence of these things?
It’s almost like these are all post-digital movements. Digital is now the common technology in XYZ field, but that’s allowed the analog to repurpose its value to create a new narrative to display itself in a new way that doesn’t make analog worse.
There is this assumption that the movement toward analog is driven by a sense of nostalgia and escaping technology, but it’s largely being driven by a younger generation, millennials, and even younger people who are looking for a new technology. It’s not that they think things were better then and don’t want to adopt this new technology — it’s that, “Yeah, I have all this different technology in my life, but this provides me with something different and I’m gravitating to it.” It could be the tactile sensation or something else, but it’s in a way that is complementary [to a digital lifestyle].
What were some of the more surprising things you learned while you were researching for and writing the book?
It didn’t make it in the book, but the resurgence of cassette tapes, which has grown in the past two to three years, parallels vinyl. The vinyl I can understand — I buy it, I live in it, the tactile physical pleasures of the album and the artwork. But cassettes? [The rise of cassettes can be traced to how] vinyl has become expensive and costly to produce and manufacture. Musicians and bands who are looking to create physical music in things can rely on cassettes. Every object that can be displayed and valued can find enough people as consumers or entrepreneurs to give it new life.
Did you find the effect of analog trends to be, compared with the advances brought by the digital world, overall positive or negative?
Technology is neutral. It can be used for all sorts of things. The recent election has shown us the downside in many ways that the socially connected utopia isn’t what we thought it was. There was a tendency for a long period of time to think of this utopian ideal as a great leveler of economics.
Now, we have all sorts of digital technology: Personal computers, three decades of internet, two decades of cell phones, and one decade of smartphones. We knew what the consequences were with analog. I think now that digital has become so dominant, people are reverting back to analog because it provides a counterbalance or works in a way that the digital simply can’t. So I think it’s coming from that critical thinking and examination of the nature of the technology.
Do you have any major predictions or ideas of what we might expect in the future?
I believe the popularity in analog will continue to grow just as digital technology will continue to grow. As the power and speed and quality of digital goods and experiences continue to expand, inevitably the desire — and power — of analog will also increase.
I think we will see a mixture of both of them as people continue to decide what is best for them. More digital technologies are creating more digital goods because it provides them with something they can’t necessarily provide in any other way. I think analog will continue to [grow] because it provides something digital can’t. It’s a blending of the two, a balanced approach. Deciding between one or the other will hopefully be left in the past.