Dan Shapiro, whose company specializes in 3-D laser cutting machines, tells us that “The world is analog, and digital is always a representation . . . . Analog is always the source, always the truth. Reality is analog. Digital is the best we can do with the tools of the day.” This is a pretty succinct statement that lies at the heart of a modern-day day debate between those who choose analog and those who choose digital as their soapbox. Of course, there are those, like me, who see no conflict between analog and digital and realize that human beings, at least at the time of this writing, are analog. Who knows what the future of robotics and AI / IA will bring and how that future (which is already in many ways the present) will redefine what it means to be analog and human.
If you are the least bit interested in this whole analog-digital debate, I suggest you read the book from which the aforementioned Shapiro quote is taken–David Sax’s provocative THE REVENGE OF ANALOG: REAL THINGS AND WHY THEY MATTER (Public Affairs, 2016). Sax, who readily admits that his book “is not a screed against digital technology,” and the “individuals, companies, and organizations you’re going to meet here are not driven, in any way, by rose-colored nostalgia for an idealized, predigital past.” Further, the “real world isn’t black or white. It is not even gray. Reality is multicolored, infinitely textured, and emotionally layered. It smells funky and tastes weird, and revels in human imperfection. The best ideas semerge from that complexity, which remains beyond the capability of digital technology to fully appreciate.” And, as a result, the “real world matters, now more than ever.”
In a series of fascinating chapters, Sax takes us on a tour of selected items, businesses, and ideas that demonstrate how analog is persisting, and even thriving amid all the hoopla about everything inevitably being transformed into digital. His first chapter takes us inside the United Record Pressing plant in Nashville, a place that has been reopened after being dormant for several years. Today, the company, one of the few record pressing businesses still in operation, has a difficult time keeping up with the demand for vinyl records. I guess the death knell that was sounded for these products a few years ago was premature, and I continue to be amazed by the comeback of vinyl, especially among those far too young to remember the original vinyl age (which lasted through most of the 20th century). When vinyl was the only option for listening to recorded music except for the radio, I didn’t like it and wished for something better. For me compact discs were a prayer answered and I am getting used to the ubiquity of streaming. I certainly understand why some people are now attracted to vinyl, and I have long ago given up the useless debate about which is better–vinyl or digital. Who cares as long as we’re listening to and enjoying music? And the irony to me is that both formats are not really “the real thing,” but only a representation. And the real star of this show is the recording engineer, without whom there would be no recorded music or spoken word in any format. But I digress. Let’s quickly change the subject before I get on the nerves of those who can’t tolerate alternatives.
A few weeks back I used Sax’s chapter on the popularity of Moleskine notebooks for my column, and find this trend very appealing, although it does make me feel embarrassingly trendy when I am writing in these cute little paper things. As Sax points out, the biggest audience for these notebooks is made up of customers who are most devoted to all things digital. As I write this, for instance, I am referring to my handwritten Moleskine notes while typing on my Chromebook. Yes, analog and digital can coexist just fine. Of course, if you are a Moleskine aficionado, you can’t use just any pen–you have to find just the right fountain or ballpoint pen. Cheap throwaway pens just don’t work as well. Now I sound like a real writing snob, don’t I? The world of analog is not always a nice place.
Other chapters in Sax’s book deal with the comeback of analog film (yes, the kind that has to be developed), board games (played endlessly by patrons in places like the Snakes & Latte coffee shop in Toronto), printed newspapers, and brick-and-mortar retail stores that are being chosen by retail behemoths like Amazon–remember the furor that was caused with Apple opened its first neighborhood stores? In a related chapter, Sax writes about how Silicon Valley digital workplaces are adopting many analog amenities, like technology-free zones and playgrounds without Wi-Fi. Along these lines are those summer camps that ban digital devices and swanky vacation resorts that require their guests to leave their mobile devices at the front desk.
In one of the book’s most interesting chapters, Sax takes us on a tour of the Shinola wrist watch factory in Detroit. These upscale watches (@$500.00 each), although not as overpriced as Rolex, are rapidly becoming status symbols, and the company is providing good analog jobs for skilled worked in a city that has become an unfortunate symbol for urban decay in America. And, in this chapter Sax reminds us that not all jobs should be evaluated by how tech-savvy they are. There are plenty of opportunities out there that do not require knowledge of digital technology–good old-fashioned skilled craftsmanship is still valued and is a key to economic recovery in many areas.
As an educator, I paid very close attention to Sax’s chapter on schools. His focus here is how classrooms should be places that encourage creativity and not places that are obsessively focused on the latest technology. “Where the real lasting innovation in education lies,” observes Sas, “is not in hardware or software, but in new approaches to teaching that shapes how students learn.” Learning can take place with pens and paper as easily as it can with tablets and smartboards. In the final analysis, teachers (who can also be learners, just as students can also be teachers) are the key actors in the drama of education. A personal relationship with the learning process “is what digital education technology cannot ever replicate or replace, and why a great teacher will always provide a more innovative model for the future of education than the most sophisticated device, software, or platform.” If you visit my class, you will see lots of mobile technology in use, but you will also see learning that can still continue in the absence of these devices.
Sax’s book is, as has already been pointed out, not a nostalgic call for a return to the pre-digital past, but a plea for understanding what happens when digital and analog co-exist in a world full of wonder and creativity. Read it on your tablet while taking handwitten notes in your notebook (Moleskine or otherwise). And listen to vinyl while writing if you must.
See you next week.