While my job is heavily involved in computers and technology, I love analogue things. I’ve even written a book about my own analogue productivity methods because I think they bring a more thoughtful approach to work than digital tools. To say I was interested in The Revenge of Analog by David Sax, was an understatement.
As the title says, this book is about the resurgence of analog items in all areas of life. From vinyl, to notebooks, to physical books, analogue is back on the rise and not just out of nostalgic reasons. Sax uses his book to explore the real world benefits that choosing analogue tools can have in our personal and work lives.
While analog experiences can provide us with the kind of real-world pleasures and rewards digital ones cannot, sometimes analog simply outperforms digital as the best solution. When it comes to the free flow of ideas, the pen remains mighter than both the keyboard and touchscreen. And as you’ll see throughout this book, the natural constraints analog technology imposes on its users can actually increase productivity, rather than hinder it. [^ Page XVII]
Sax divides the book up into two sections. First, he looks at hard goods and what they tap into with consumer needs. Why do we go for books and vinyl records where there is higher fidelity music out there?
The second part is focused on the disruptive potential of analogue tools in our work lives. In truth, I feel that this distinction is tenuous at best. While he does focus on more “personal” stuff in the first part and “work” in the second the overlap is so big as to make the distinction irrelevant.
Before Sax dives into the sections he also wants to make the point that going digital only or analogue only is a false choice. You can mix and match the two mediums as needed. I use this with my book reviews. I write my notes in a notebook by hand because if a note or quote isn’t worth writing by hand it’s not worth keeping. Then I draft my first thoughts by hand, only after this is done do I break out my writing app to write a review and publish it in a digital medium.
I won’t be addressing the specific sections. Instead I’ll tackle the ideas present in the book across the sections.
Analogue Brings in Constraints
You never have to make a firm decision with digital because you can always drag the mouse to change the sound just a little bit more, and just click undo if that doesn’t work out. Mara saw artists frequently burning out in digital studios after too many takes and edits. By contrast analog presents a vastly more limited workflow: you play music, it gets recorded to tape, the tap is played back, and you decide whether it’s good or you want to record another take. [^ Page 26]
One of the first ideas that Sax presents is that far from being a bad thing, constrains are good for our work and life. I’ve already said I use this as I only keep quotes from books that are worth writing by hand in a notebook. Where digital tools are a quest for perfection, we can always push a pixel a bit more or record another take to splice together, analogue stops a bunch of the extra work that doesn’t yield better results.
Sax cites music specifically as he talks about artists being asked for 90 guitar solos, which are then spliced together note by note so the result is perfect. Formerly artists would record to tape, listen and decide if they needed another take. If not, they were done. The result has been high levels of burnout according to Sax.
Sax also presents us with a similar picture when it comes to design and Photoshop.
Similar to the analog studio recording in the last chapter, the physical constrants of a blank page present a certain creative freedom. Antonio Marazza told me a story from a decade back when all the desginers at his firm first recieved Adobe’s Photoshop software. Overnight, the quality of their designs seemed to decline. After a few months of this, Landor’s Milan office gave all their designer’s Moleskine notebooks, and banned the use of Photoshop during the first week’s work on a project. The idea was to let their initial ideas freely blossom on paper, without the inherent bias of the software, before transferring them to the computer later for fine-tuning. It was so successful, this policy remains in place today. [^ Page 36]
Far from choosing paper for nostalgia, digital natives are choosing it because it’s not that endless loop of perfection. It’s not a bottomless pit, they love the constraints [^Page 46].
Anologue Lives On
A second argument that Sax makes for the benefits of analogue tools is that they live on. I need no special software to read my notes from 10 years ago in a notebook, but I have no way of opening old digital writing unless I can find a computer that will run that ancient software.
Unlike digital tools, analogue doesn’t force me to always learn a new version as soon as I become comfortable with my current version[^Page 47]. We are regularly confronted with a new and improved version of our software only to find that it doesn’t work the way we expected and must spend hours learning how to get our basic work done again.
We’re Tired of Low-Bandwidth Digital Interactions
The idea that digital interactions are low-bandwidth was something I first encountered in Digital Minimalism. Cal Newport says that any face-to-face interaction just has more to it. Instead of merely text, we get voice, visual and our other senses involved.
I’ve found this in my transition back to physical books in the last two years, which echo’s the author’s transition[^Page 143]. At one point I wouldn’t purchase anything but Kindle books, and now I make use of the library regularly and almost exclusively purchase hard cover copies of books I want. There is something more involved with the smell and feel of a book that simply isn’t present with a digital device. Further, I’m tired of digital interactions.
Sax cites the resurgence of tabletop gaming as a prime example of people searching for high-bandwidth communication between others.
Tabletop gaming creates a unique social space apart from the digital world. It is the antithesis of the glossy, streaming waterfalls of information and marketing that masquerade as relationships on social networks. A Twitter conversation is nothing more than a chain reaction of highly edited quips; a Facebook friendship is more like an electronic Christmas card exchange than a real interaction; and Instagram feed captures just the shiny highlights of life. [^Page 80]
High-fidelity communication is also involved with purchasing in person. In my local used bookstore I’m likely to see someone I know from around town. I get specialized recommendations of books I may want to read. I simply go in and browse the shelves often because it’s one of those fabled “third spaces” outside our house and work where we can be.
This third space status is hard for box stores to mimic. They’re homogenized so they can be replicated, but this takes the soul out that could turn them into a local hang out[^ Page 146].
Sax even challenges the assumption of eCommerce, that most people care more about price and not about the ‘frills’ of good sales people and a nice space[^Page 132-133]. On commodity items like toilet paper, I do focus on price, but for many other purchases I’d have to agree with Sax. I pay more for much of my outdoor gear by going to my local store than I could get online. Yet I go there for personal recommendations from people that know me and what I like to do in the mountains.
Technology Has a Bunch of Failed Promises
While technology allows me to do my job from home, and you to read my words around the world, there are a bunch of failed promises that have come along with technology. Technology companies only employ a fraction of the people that other physical manufacturing jobs have.
Even in the best case scenario, the market only has the capacity to support a limited number of new technology companies which by their nature will still create a relatively small number of jobs, involving a small slice of the population.[^ Page 165]
When we looked at Kids These Days, we saw that there are even more failed promises when we look at the Millenial generation and what they can expect to deal with in their lives. Not all of this is directly attributable to tech firms, but the do bear some responsibility.
The failed promises extend to education tech as well. Sax says that they make bold claims about how much they’ll improve student outcomes and then have a bumpy crash landing into reality[^Page 179]. Part of this is because when you use a computer program, you can only do what the program allows which limits your imagination.
Even the best educational computer programs and games, devised with the help of th ebest educators, contain a tiny fraction of the outcomes of a simple child equipped with a crayon and paper. A child’s limitless imagination can only do what the computer allows them to, and no more. The best toys, by contrast, are really 10 percent toy and 90 percent child: paint, cardboard, and sand. The kid’s brain does the heavy lifting, and in the process it learns.[^Page 181]
We see the “any benefit” ideas from Deep Work surface in this argument as well. We often choose schools for our children because of how much they embrace technology. If some technology is good then more must be better[^Page 183].
Schools dump huge amounts of money into these programs to show that they’re not obsolete. Then maybe 2 years later the technology is obsolete again and they have to dump more money into the program. This money could have been spent on desks, sports equipment, or books, all of which will last decades[^Page 187].
According to Sax, online courses consistently have high drop rates, and even those that do complete the courses have lower grades than those that attended in person with peers[^Page 202].
Problems with Analogue Tools
Now that doesn’t mean that there are no problems in the analogue world, though Sax cites very few of them. In fact the only one that I can find is the lack of transition of newspapers from their original selling proposition to what they are now.
The newspaper business was built on the notion of paper as a vehicle for the most up-to-date, relevant information, and print simply cannot compete with digital in this regard.[^Page 113]
Newspapers will never be able to compete with online publications for speed of information dissemination. They can take more time though and do more thoughtful journalism on the topics from a few days before, though that’s not where they’re going.
Ultimately, newspapers are the only analogue medium that he says is struggling still. Many magazines are cropping up regularly and have changed their formats to fit with what they are now.
Should You Read The Revenge of Analog by David Sax?
While I enjoyed the read, and have it on my purchase list from my local used book store, I’m not sure that this is a must read for everyone out there. If you’re already on the analogue bandwagon, then only read it if you want some more reinforcing of your ideas.
If you’re sitting on the fence about analogue tools, this book may give you a push towards embracing analogue methods.
If you’re firmly in the digital camp, and are looking for a different perspective I’d recommend Deep Work and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport as better reads. Either of these books may help you evaluate the efficacy of digital tools in a better way than The Revenge of Analog.