The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

by David Sax.
PublicAffairs, 2016.
Hardcover, 304 pages, 25.

Reviewed by Gracy Olmstead

In the popular 2014 film The Hundred-Foot Journey, Indian immigrant Hassan Kadam journeys from his homeland to the French countryside, where he quickly becomes a culinary star. Upon procuring a coveted post at a fashionable Paris restaurant, the owner gives Hassan a tour and explains their scientific approach to cooking:

“At La Baleine Grise, we believe that eating is a multi-sensory experience, and certain combinations of flavors and aromas activate enzymes and stimulate specific parts of the brain, evoking pleasure, and also recollections of pleasurable experiences.… This is the beast with a thousand mouths, that must be fed twice a day. And what does the beast like? Innovation. Innovation. Innovation.”

The words of the restaurant owner resonate with us, because they are words we hear from Silicon Valley CEOs, the internet, popular TED talks, and the like. The catchphrase for our culture is, at its simplest, “Innovation. Innovation. Innovation.”

But perhaps that all-encompassing message is selling us short. That’s the suggestion David Sax makes in his new book, The Revenge of Analog. “Every day we turn around and something else has been enhanced, altered, or shaken up by digital technology: our car, our house, our job, our sex life,” Sax writes. “In the clean, orderly narrative of technological progress, the newest technology always renders the old one obsolete.… Up until very recently, if something could be digitized, its fate was a foregone conclusion.”

But then something extraordinary happened. People began seeking out old stuff, and buying it—even making new stuff in the pattern of the old. “Surrounded by the digital, we now crave experiences that are more tactile and human-centric,” says Sax. “We want to interact with goods and services with all our senses, and many of us are willing to pay a premium to do so, even if it is more cumbersome and costly than its digital equivalent.”

Sax spends the next couple hundred pages of his book revealing the burgeoning popularity of analog items. He focuses on a few companies that have sold analog items with resounding success, and considers each medium of analog commerce at a time. A very important goal for Sax, it seems, is to convey the profitability of analog. This book isn’t just a sentimental look at a fringe group or trend. Sax wants to convey the sense that analog items are revolutionizing our innovation-obsessed world (ironically enough).

Sax begins with vinyl records, items once beloved only by a few supposedly reactionary music listeners. Now, vinyl is incredibly popular—not just with the hipster millennial set, but with a widening group of Americans who covet the sound, the sense of ownership, and the value they get with each album. He also has a chapter on the success of Moleskine, whose simple, professional journals have created a multi-million-euro company.

Sax spends a lot of time considering the artisanship and quality control that go into making items like Moleskine journals and vinyl records. But in his chapter on “The Revenge of Film,” he notes that many aficionados of old-fashioned film are also fans of the process itself: “Film photographers wanted a more hands-on relationship with their material.” After all, Florian Kaps—founder of the Impossible Project—reminds Sax that “the biggest problem of digital photography is that it isn’t real. Photographs disappear, and the amount of pictures that turn real is decreasing dramatically. There’s no family albums anymore, no prints anymore, nothing you can touch or shake. And people started to miss that.”

The experiential, aesthetic experience that analog offers beckons in an age of sterile separation. What’s more, people will pay—and even suffer inconvenience and imperfection—in order to get it. Kaps’s “Impossible Project” has created Polaroid film that is not easy to use or perfect in its end result. Yet it has succeeded, writes Sax, “precisely because it focused on celebrating analog film’s imperfection, rather than chasing digital perfection. Kaps turned the quirks into selling points.”

This point hit home one January night, soon after I’d finished reading Sax’s chapter on “The Revenge of Film.” I was having dinner at my sister and brother-in-law’s house when my brother-in-law walked into the kitchen bearing an old Polaroid camera. He pulled out a package labelled “The Impossible Project,” and began setting up his camera.

“Is that—” I began excitedly.

Joel snapped a picture of my baby daughter, and then excitedly rushed into the other room. As Sax notes in his book, the film is “so sensitive that the second you took a photo, you had to snatch it from the camera and put it in a dark place, and keep it warm next to your body …” The photo Joel produced of my child was white and hazy, but full of mystery and a sort of faded beauty. It’s hanging on their fridge.

Our experience of analog items is inescapably, importantly placed in time—and in presence. As Sax notes in his chapter on “The Revenge of Board Games,” we increasingly ache for a sense of belonging and real presence that exists only in real time. Tabletop gaming, argues Sax, “is the antithesis of the glossy, streaming waterfalls of information and marketing that masquerade as relationships on social network. 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; an Instagram feed captures just the shiny highlights of life.”

Indeed, a recent study has found that the more time people spend on social media, the more socially isolated they feel. Few of us should be surprised by such a finding, however: we know that the endless scroll of a news feed exacerbates our sense of being apart from the crowd, missing out on all the fun, being “stuck” at home while other people enjoy life. If digital technology doesn’t create “fear of missing out,” it at least makes it a hundred times worse.

Board games, unlike social media, address this problem. Sax considers the success of such games as Settlers of Catan and Cards Against Humanity, as well as lesser-known games. We are seeking genuine ways to connect with each other—and board games, with their complexity and fun, are an increasingly popular way to help people do that.

In his book, Sax also spends a chapter on the popularity of print magazines such as Cereal, Little Brother, Kinfolk, and Drift: magazines that are heavy on design finesse and quality material, the sort you stack on your bookshelf instead of throwing away. He looks at the revival of indie bookstores and other analog retail stores (I was immediately reminded of Anthropologie, a store that’s branded itself by visual and sensory aesthetic). He tells the success story of Shinola watches, an artisan watch company launched in the midst of Detroit’s desolation.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is Sax’s chapter on “The Revenge of Analog, in Digital.” At companies like Adobe, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, analog experiences like yoga are increasingly popular. The digital innovators Sax met with “harbored a personal passion for analog things. By day they wrote code, but at night they collected vinyl records, were starting a craft brewery, played board games, or repaired old motorcycles.”

Apple icon Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids play with iPads. Evan Williams, co-creator of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, lives in a technology-free house. Sax is fascinated with this nostalgic, near-reactionary embrace of analog experience among the technological giants of our time.

If the very people shouting “Innovation, innovation, innovation” are spending their evenings playing board games and listening to vinyl, what should that signal to those of us who buy their products? Sax’s chapteris a fascinating look at the inner contradictions of the digital world, and a worthwhile consideration for those of us who feel suspicious of unfettered technological advancement.

One question that would have merited more consideration in Sax’s book is the why behind all of this. Why have we grown skeptical of the virtual at the very moment our entire world crescendos into pixels and bytes?

Sax gives half an answer in his introduction. “The honeymoon with a particular digital technology inevitably ends, and when it does, we are more readily able to judge its true merits and shortcomings,” he writes. “In many cases, an older analog tool or approach simply works better.”

But this doesn’t explain the success of things like Kaps’s Impossible Project: analog experiences that are by nature harder, less perfect, more complicated.

Three years ago, I wrote a piece on millennials’ increasing return to the high church. Many young people I knew were seeking out a church experience that was in many ways “analog”: full of the scent of incense, resonant with the chant of the liturgy, amplified by the manifold beauty of the cathedral. Their childhood churches had been iconoclastic. They sat on plastic chairs and read music lyrics from a digital slide. They listened to electric drum sets and read Scriptures on their iPhone. Now, they were looking for something “real”—even if it meant more work or a longer service, greater religious or personal discomfort.

Digital worlds often make our experience flat and two-dimensional. They’re minimalistic and sparse in their emotion and complexity. They may offer temporary relief from feelings of loneliness or disillusionment, but they cannot assuage our ache for something more. In addition, they’re inevitably stuck in the present: the digital does not convey context or history, tradition or belonging in the way analog items do. We throw out our iPhone as soon as the newest technology becomes available—but we hold onto 200-year-old copies of books with a sense of reverence and awe.

The analog offers an enchanting complexity and beauty. It is imperfect, but something about its imperfect loveliness satiates our aching hearts to a degree that the digital cannot. It placates our inner restlessness, giving us a sense of “home” that we cannot conjure up online. Perhaps this is because we ourselves are material creatures, entwined with our corporeal senses. But there also seems to be something about physical things that can, ironically yet beautifully, give us spiritual anchors in our ever-shifting world.

In The Hundred-Foot Journey, we see Hassan growing increasingly isolated and lonely in his new Parisian home. He wanders the city streets seeking a taste and smell that is unfortunately fixed in place—a place he deserted when he left the French countryside.

One night, he finds a kitchen worker eating a meal his wife made for him. It’s a traditional Indian meal, made from recipes that have been handed down for generations. As Hassan eats with his companion, he begins to cry. The food fills him with longing for home. All the innovations of Paris’s best restaurants cannot offer him this simple analog experience.

This isn’t something Sax’s book really addresses. He looks at the science and artisanship of the analog, its profitability and increasing relevance in our digital world. And his book is valuable for these reasons. But Sax does not fully show us why we seek out these analog experiences. Perhaps this is because that answer cannot be found in company profitability reports or measures of popularity—it only comes from contemplating the nature of humanity, and our deepest desires for place.  

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.