Journalist. Author. Analog Avenger.
A revival is making its worshipful round. And with no less fervor than the most devout followers in their Sunday best. In the midst of a full-speed-ahead digital world, we say hello to an analog renaissance. The siren call in this case is the pure longing for the physical connection of experience. This hunger directly relates to what we consume and create. David Sax explores the foundation of this new renaissance and its analog-savvy revivalists in his new book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.
Given the wild success and eager proliferation of the digital world, a question: Why would we ever go back?
Back in 2007, in the throes of yet another book, Sax noticed that digital tools were really having a lasting impact on his life and the way he lived it. Digital was embraced and was becoming more prevalent in every aspect of life. At the same time, there were small pockets of analog resurgence. Record stores stubbornly holding on with new ones opening. Renewed interest in turntables and instant film. And the ever-present Moleskine® journals. Despite the existence of digital note-taking technology, which incidentally has been around for years and is only getting better, these journals continued to grow in popularity. Sax wanted to find out what was behind that. "Why at precisely the point when we no longer had to use these things, that we suddenly had the desire to use them? Why did they become more desirable?"
"Why at precisely the point when we no longer had to use these things, that we suddenly had the desire to use them? Why did they become more desirable?"
The iPhone/smartphones were just coming out. Our upcoming love affair with complete 24/7 digitization around us was hinted at. It was just the beginning. As that became ubiquitous, it became clear that we needed that tipping point before analog started trickling into the mainstream and became a lot more difficult to dismiss. Consider this: When one record store opened up, the reaction was more "oh that was just a silly thing, it's an outlier," recounted Sax. But, of course, as that proliferated into more numerous entities and people started making real profit off that, it was impossible to ignore. You had to acknowledge it.
The Birth of New Craft
The craft movement happened after the industrial revolution. This was the digital revolution. Internet took off. The digitization of society and our lives was so commonplace and ingrained that a whole generation turned back toward a singular creation and the handcrafted. To Sax, there were similarities and parallels. He tried not to equate them too much because a lot of this resurgence was not exactly handcrafted. Many were mass-produced goods. From vinyl records to photographic film to Moleskines® made in a factory in China.
There's no other word for it but the festishization of farmers markets and handcrafted artisanal movement is a different strain. But there are parallels, right? Sax drew one to the food industry in a similar vein. In post-war America, the food industry in the western world created all these great inventions of processing and packaging and preserving of food. Suddenly food was less expensive, more readily available and with greater variety than ever before. Not coincidentally, starvation and hunger dropped from hot button levels. The most significant advance of food and food culture in our generation has been the undoing of that. "We're going back to the more handmade, the more slowly made, the more natural-made that you see now today in the American food world from fine-dining restaurants to Chipotle," explained Sax.
"We're going back to the more handmade, the more slowly made, the more natural-made that you see now today in the American food world from fine-dining restaurants to Chipotle,"
The analog renaissance is very similar to that. It's the notion that yes, there is progress. And this progress is growing the world's technology but we find that we don't only want that. It's not a one-way street. It's not the only story out there. There is another narrative here. It turns out that we want more than just the one solution to various things. Team Human is alive and well.
The Analog Shift
We're seeing a returning to or increasing in use of non-digital. A quote from Sax's book explains the why. "The haptic variation from one printed page to another helps stem the feeling of information overload." An apt reference to having access to reading everything you can imagine online and what it means to hold an actual book in your hand. An artifact that can only be experienced in print, JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst's intriguing book S is part work of art, literary experiment, and love letter to the physical expression of books. [Tsouderos, Trine - November 28, 2013] The authors intended the book as a physical object, and not just a story. Abrams noted that "to physically hold it is kind of the point."
These are the experiences driving print forward for good. Sax, "It's the physicality of it. Something we took for granted until it was challenged." Which is what you see a lot with this re-examination of analog. When ebooks first started coming out [think Kindle], Amazon assumed it would go the way of compact discs and the publishing industry would be decimated like the music business was. Not. Even. Close. Ebooks made a small dent with sales reaching a plateau before slip sliding down. People just assumed that these were words - text on a page. It's not about pictures. It's just a way to transform information. There should be no difference. No reason why people would gravitate towards a printed book or even a magazine article or a newspaper. Right?
"The haptic variation from one printed page to another helps stem the feeling of information overload."
But once we examined the two side by side and tried out the two experiences, for many, the pleasure goes way beyond just the text on it. It is in the object itself. The experience of reading it. And that experience starts with going to the bookstore or a library, peering at the spines, picking them up, examining them and admiring the art and design and the feel of it. It goes even deeper. The weight of it in your hands, the smell of it, the feel of the paper on your fingers. The pure unmistakable physicality of it. Being able to see how close you are to finishing it brings a satisfying sense of accomplishment. That's not a rationale thing. That's not a logical thing. It's a sensory experience. And we're willing to pay a premium for that experience.
Sax used a memorable word in his book: finishability. When reading online, you're not really done, are you? It's not like closing that last page of a book. To Sax, it was the completeness of the experience. Take vinyl records. You know that once side A or side B is done, it's done. It's a complete act. The needle will reach its end, revert back and that would be it. And then there is Spotify. Sax recalled a friend and his Spotify playlist of bluegrass and listening to it for what seemed like hours and wondering when someone would turn it off. It was endless. Whereas with a record, downside and all, if you want to keep listening, you have to be a DJ every 20 minutes or so. It's that contained experience. We want limitations. We want our experiences to be contained. We don't want everything. We don't want it to be one endless all-you-can-eat buffet. We prefer to have limits.
The word of the day is experience.
It's at the core of Sax's book. Although a Moleskine® notebook or film is mass-produced, it's still that hands-on experience that you have when you're using it.
A nine-year-old has grown up entirely with digital photos with parents who are always on their iPads and phones. Give that nine-year-old a film camera … whose time has supposedly come and gone … and … instant discovery. Film has dropped in popularity, sales have gone down to nothing, companies are discontinuing lines and suddenly, it picked up again. Driven by Gen Digital whose love for what they deem are artefacts has re-ignited the once roaring flame of a non-digital world.
Digital natives discovered that you can press a button and an actual photograph can come out and you get to watch the chemistry developed before your eyes. And now it's one of the hottest things on every 8, 10 and 12-year-old's list. Even with the wide availability of smartphones and apps. Even when they're all on Instagram. That magic? Still there.
For the most part, hipsters and millennials have never seen this technology before. No wonder. It's the same discovery that made everyone loved it when they first experienced it. Everyone and their grandmother has one of the two major brands of smartphones. You have a Samsung or an Apple. You're on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In many ways, especially for the younger generation, it's analog. It doesn't mean they're choosing one or the other. Taking photos on your phone is a given. But for the times when you want to care about the picture, discover photography again, and you want to do something special, you'll pull out a film camera. Sax reiterates, "Not to say that you're walking down the street with a turntable or a walkman. No, you're listening to Spotify, a podcast or whatever on your iPhone." But when he's at home and wants to relax in his living room and really listen to music, he listens to records. And that's his personal preference. And joy.
"Not to say that you're walking down the street with a turntable or a walkman. No, you're listening to Spotify, a podcast or whatever on your iPhone."
And in this corner …
Digital's peak of convenience versus vinyl's peak of experience: Can digital and analog coexist? According to Sax, it's digital that's bringing back the analog. Digital is helping to re-engage analog. Explaining further, Sax with "It's not a binary choice. Digital can work in the service of analog in many ways." We live in an era of crowdfunding campaigns. Online video tutorials and social networks are where people can exchange information about products with rabid communities of like-minded lovers.
Truth be told, the real technological marriage is analog with digital. Enter Super 8. It's this interesting hybrid, you see. Want proof? Look at the success of Polaroid. It's analog capture. The light enters the lens, the film is exposed. Behind that are sensors and processors that allow the camera to be controlled better and take better pictures. To Sax, fundamentally, the experience of analog is not a puric thing. Digital is there to aid that. Both tools are available with equal interests in both. They're starting to support each other and it's the right sizing of the industry for the audiences that are out there today.
The film industry is the best example of that. No one really believe that it will be back to the size it was at its zenith in the 90s before the digital camera revolution really built steam. It doesn't mean that industry can't find new sources of growth, stabilize and find itself profitable again. Consider the vinyl record industry. Fifteen years ago, no one in their right minds would believe that any of these pressing plants would still be in business, let alone would be working around the clock 24 hours just to keep up with demand. There is a second life occurring with acknowledgement of where the strength and potential of legacy and products are. Those who create a market for them would be able to capitalize on the fact that they're making the believers devout.
"It's not a binary choice. Digital can work in the service of analog in many ways."
"I got a million pictures and they're on my husband's phone and I'm not sure what's where."
In many ways, the digital life has been more challenging than expected. With analog film, you have the ritual process. You take the picture. You have the picture. The experience of creating, archiving, keeping and sharing. It's the idea of wanting something tangible. Otherwise, what is it? What do we get? Files and more files on our computers that's not even on our computers. Sax elaborated, "It's on some cloud, some server farm like a tax haven that's on license from a software company." At the end of the day, we want tangible things. The idea that a paperless, virtual world where we are distant from the material things is utopian. To which Sax answered with "Great. I have probably 20,000 photos I've taken since I've gotten my first digital camera and maybe I printed off a hundred of them. It took me two years to do my wedding album. I've done one album of my child's first year of life. Now I've just added another kid and I'm already back behind."
With analog, you do the work ahead of time. You get the right shot. You capture it. And it's done. As opposed to post-production or some other unsexy experience later best categorized as behind-the-scene of the perfect #Instagram snap. Analog doesn't take place on your computer. And admit it, most of us are on our computers most days, most of the day. "Do we want everything in our lives to connect work and pleasure?" asks Sax.
We think not. We want to be able to separate them and have distinct spaces for each. The better to enjoy them with, no?
Analog is an intention. You have to really want to go out and seek that emotional experience and be giddily hands-on. You have a better experience. You're paying more attention to it. Because you've chosen to go out there as opposed to it just being there. Analog is a choice now. It's not a default. The default is digital. The default to music is digital. The default for writing and many forms of reading and certainly news, is digital. The default for photographs is digital. That's the default. That's the given. When we opt out of that, it becomes a choice. And because it's a choice, it's not going to be everyone's. Those who do it is are actually those who want to do it. They're not doing it because they don't have a choice. They're doing it because they have the luxury of choice.
Kickstarting the Maker Economy
Enormous amount of analog ideas/projects are being made and funded. Are different business models beginning to form? Is it changing business in the world today? Sax agrees. There's an interest in a niche idea that is analog who now has access to startup businesses in ways that are less traditional. No need to go to a bank for funding with the banks asking those awkward questions - "who's going to buy vinyl records anymore?" Unbelievers. The makers can now take their unicorns out to the wider world and connect with those with similar interests who want to see them manifest for the good of man-made kind.
Sax notes the current business model for legacy analog companies that are challenged by digital technology where the option may not be there to transform themselves into a major digital innovator and company. Most people in the business world assume this is the track forward. And with the current renaissance providing the impetus and framework, what we're seeing is a realization that there is a market for analog.
The question then becomes how can we right size our business? How can we adjust our perspectives? How can we retool our efforts in marketing and production to service that and actually generate revenue and profit from it? Even for businesses that aren't in that realm, they're going to take a look at analog as a tool and ask: In what we do, does an analog process make sense? Should we be printing out a print publication to send to our clients instead of sending an email blast? Is that going to be more effective even though it may cost us more? Should we be designing things on whiteboards instead of smartboards? Should we be doing things in person instead of teleconferencing?
We will begin to see a re-examination of some of those assumptions. Because it's not the assumption that digital is better. The more we use it, the more we see what its limitations are. It's having that digital experience that helps us to reflect on the importance of the analog experience. Otherwise, we wouldn't have known the difference.
"The real world isn't black and white. It's not even gray. Reality is multi-colored. Infinitly textured and emotionally layered. It smells funky and tastes weird. And revels in human imperfection. The best ideas emerge from that complexity which remains beyond the capability of digital technology to fully appreciate. The real world matters. Now more than ever."
Blue Sky Thinking
Is digital helping us look at analog in a new light? Is there anything else going on socially that is pushing us in that direction? "It's very much a reaction," Sax said, "almost a maturity of our relationship with digital." We are done with the honeymoon. We see what it can do and now we see what it can't do. No one's taking that for granted anymore.
As humans, the default is the experience. Board games, film, print. All experiential things. It's touch and feel and have and hold for that necessary feeling of mission accomplished. Sax concludes with "At the end of the day, the world is analog. It doesn't seem to be going anywhere." Will we ever get back to the point where it becomes the center of our consumer culture? Probably not. The more digital things get, the more we want analog.
"The real world isn't black and white. It's not even gray. Reality is multi-colored. Independently textured and emotionally layered. It smells funky and tastes weird. And revel in human imperfection. [But analog emerged from that complexity which remains beyond the capability of digital technology to fully appreciate.] The real world matters. Now more than ever."
The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter [release date: early Nov 2016]
See you at the bookstore.