David Sax is a writer and reporter whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, and more. His most recent book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, investigates why, in a world where digital was supposed to make clunky physical objects obsolete, we’re seeing vinyl, tabletop games, film photography and more make a comeback. In this conversation with Heleo’s Assistant Editor Mandy Godwin, he contends that there’s real value to the physical that is set to return in unexpected ways.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Mandy: Your book is called The Revenge of Analog. In this very digital world, where are you seeing analog take its revenge the most?
David: In two areas. One is analog consumer goods, especially cultural goods, that were displaced two decades ago or more by faster, less expensive, if not even free, digital technologies. These are things like vinyl records, even in some cases cassette tapes, film photography, board games, tabletop games, paper writing materials, greeting cards. These are almost the shorthand of digital disruption when we think about the changing pace of technology.
The other, less apparent area is within industries and businesses where analog isn’t so much a thing but an approach, a methodology or a way of working within an organization that might be very digitally connected. That’s the broader definition.
Mandy: What you’re getting at, too, is that the assumptions that underlie the evangelism of digital technology have to do with almost privileging efficiency, productivity, or quantifiable things over relationships and non-quantifiable things like feelings—the feeling you get when you turn on the record. Can it be accurately summed up as saying non-quantifiable things are making a comeback, as well?
David: I think that’s a great summation of it. The promise of what digital tech can do for an industry or product is standardize it exponentially, and infinitely increase its access and the ability to grow it at scale. But what’s sacrificed are the very human, real-world analog inefficiencies that, at first, appear as though they are detriments, expenses, and costs.
Once this digital technology is adopted on a wide scale, you see that there are actually benefits to it that may not have been realized in the search for a quicker, less expensive digital solution.
Mandy: [You don’t] make the distinction between “this is real” and “this is not real” [although we] hear that all the time—there was that big New York magazine piece about how digital technology is ruining our lives. A lot of the arguments against it frame it as, “Oh, you’re on social media? All that isn’t real.” What caused you to choose “analog” instead of this real/not real distinction?
David: It’s funny because the subtitle of the book is Real Things and Why They Matter, which was the suggestion of the publisher. Yet it’s something that I struggled with because it frames it in such a stark, binary way. I do think that there is a gravity, a consequence, a trust, and a value in the non-digital that doesn’t exist in the world of digital in the same way, because it’s so inexpensive and ubiquitous—you can copy and paste and there it is. There’s no cost to it.
“In a world of so much intangible stuff, where the cost to post on Facebook is the exact same for a fake news site as it is for a real one and therefore presents an equal playing field, the tangible things have an increased value.”
Most of us now get our day-to-day news on social media or on the web. That’s real, but the tangible aspect of a physical copy of the New York Times or New York magazine or the Washington Post, because it is created and printed in the real world and there is a cost associated with that, the money behind that guarantees a certain standard of quality in reporting. (I mean, there’s [also] National Enquirer, so it doesn’t necessarily mean anything).
In a world of so much intangible stuff, where the cost to post on Facebook is the exact same for a fake news site as it is for a real one and therefore presents an equal playing field, the tangible things have an increased value. Which is counter to what we’ve been told, which is, “Oh, all this stuff’s worthless; the only thing that matters is digital.” That’s a narrative that I’m trying to present an alternative to. The more digital some area of our life becomes, initially the value of analog might seem to decrease. CDs came out in 1984. In ’85, people got rid of their entire vinyl collections. You could buy all these amazing records for a dollar at a garage sale.
Then all of a sudden CDs are gone, there’s no more physical music, and you don’t have to pay for music. You don’t even have to pay for digital downloads, and you get streaming for free. Suddenly those same dollar bin records are selling for $20 or more because it’s something you can hold onto. The value of it changes and becomes apparent in a very different way.
Mandy: Every [business] class learns about Kodak, Polaroid, and how they totally failed in their development because they had marketing myopia. They didn’t see this new technology that was rising. It’s interesting because what’s starting to emerge with the kind of stories you’re telling is that there’s potential for myopia in terms of these tech companies. It’s not a huge market, but maybe what we’re going towards is a future where what people aren’t seeing is that analog is coming back.
David: The film market’s a really interesting one. The best case for that is Fujifilm. Fujifilm was the only film imaging company to get into digital early and push its digital cameras to offset the decline in film. From 2001 to 2009, Fujifilm was growing huge on all these point-and-click cameras and high-end digital-SLR cameras. Yet, over the past few years, what’s happened? Fujifilm’s camera and film division saw a dramatic decrease in digital camera sales since the release of the iPhone.
If you look across the Japanese camera industry, which controls the camera industry, that’s happening at Canon and Nikon and all these different companies. Over the past couple years what’s actually been driving the profit and a lot of the revenue in Fujifilm’s camera division is their Instax line of instant film cameras, which in 2005 they were basically going to get rid of because it wasn’t profitable. It was declining—and then all of a sudden had this comeback. Now, they’re going to sell probably 7 million Fujifilm Instax cameras this year and 40 or 50 million packs of film across the world. It’s one of the most popular cameras, and it’s an analog film camera.
“There is myopia that if you just digitize it, it’s going to do well. Look at the media industry, the publishing industry. People said, ‘Print is going away. We’re going to get rid of print and just move online; that’s a bold move that we need to do.’ Then you just eliminated all your revenue.”
There is myopia that if you just digitize it, it’s going to do well. Look at the media industry, the publishing industry. People said, “Print is going away. We’re going to get rid of print and just move online; that’s a bold move that we need to do.” Then you just eliminated all your revenue. Yeah, you’ve eliminated the costs associated with it, but there’s nothing even close to that equivalent of revenue with online publishing. Digital is presented as the magic catchall solution. But it doesn’t always work.
Mandy: I’m thinking about Virginia Heffernan’s book, Magic and Loss, and about the “lossiness” that she talks about. Thinking about the themes of your book and combining these broad cultural and political narratives that we’re experiencing right now—the thing with those industries digitizing everything is that one of the things that you lose is an ability for people to make a decent living.
You’ve got a huge amount of funds flowing to the venture capitalists who are able to fund [start-ups] and to Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, but what you lose is anything in the middle. This is not totally an answerable question, but I wonder how much the revenge of analog has to do with the revenge of wanting a middle class back.
David: It’s certainly something that I thought about in regards to the chapter about Detroit and Shinola, and the place that analog industry and analog work can fulfill. We’ve been very much geared towards a zero-sum, winner-takes-all form of digital capitalism over the past decade. As the financial system and the real estate market collapsed, there was this bright, shining light coming out of the San Francisco area. The huge valuations of Facebook and Twitter and Uber—this was the market that people saw. This was the way that we should go, and if you could create one of these companies, you could all of a sudden be a master of the universe.
The reality is that the market doesn’t tend to create an economy of wealth and small businesses around it. These big businesses dominate, and then there’s nothing. If you want to set up an online bookstore today, forget it. If you want to set up a search engine, forget it. Even a music streaming service—look at Jay Z’s Tidal. I don’t think he’s doing particularly well. [Even] with the backing of Jay Z and all the money behind it, you’re not going to unseat Apple, which has all the resources and devices and users in the world, and Spotify, the incumbent. All these other services, Songza, Rdio, they’ve come and gone despite hundreds of millions, if not billions, of venture capital funding.
Then think of the record industry, which yes, is still relatively small, but we’re talking hundreds of millions if not a billion-plus dollars in revenue spread out across record pressing plants and labels and distributors and artists and music stores. That supports a wide array of jobs—from the guy loading records on and off trucks, to the person who’s working at the pressing plant, to the person who’s making the machines for the pressing plant, to the individual small record store that might make $500,000 a year, a place like a Grimey’s or, have you ever been to Fond Object? It’s in East Nashville.
Mandy: Not yet.
David: It’s super cool. It’s owned by a band called The Ettes. They have a petting zoo in the back. It’s just this random, quirky business, but it sustains their life. It allows them to keep touring and playing music and pay their rent and put their culture out there.
You don’t really get that in the world of startups. You can have a small startup and get it going for a couple years, but it’s either going to pop or it’s not. That model is not applicable to everyone, especially people who are working class, middle class. It only applies to a very small percentage of the population.
“You can’t just show up at the front doors of Google and say, ‘I’m a strong young man able to work. Give me an honest day’s wage.’”
Now, when you’re talking about automating workforce and artificial intelligence and robots coming to take our jobs, there’s this notion by people: “Yeah, but it’ll increase productivity and then there’ll be all sorts of other opportunities.” Where are those going to come from? We can’t all just go learn coding and that’ll save us. There’s only going to be so many jobs for those people. You can’t just show up at the front doors of Google and say, “I’m a strong young man able to work. Give me an honest day’s wage.”
Mandy: It’s funny, because even with industries which seem silly and frivolous in comparison to finance—like the [tabletop gaming] place that you profiled, Snakes & Lattes—they’re able to have this staff of game gurus, and they make a living doing that.
David: Waiters and baristas and busboys—they probably employ 50 to 60 people in the two cafes. There’s jobs for people in the e-commerce and the retail division, the fulfillment of the mail order stuff. There’s entry level jobs for the Bangladeshi immigrants who are washing dishes in the back. It provides that community. Is anyone going to become billionaire out of it? No, but I think that’s something we’ve gotten away from: not every business has to be a unicorn.
There is value in the smaller scale, but in the world of digital there is no niche; there is no small scale really that works. You have to be either the dominant one in the field or you’re dead, whether you’re making internal hardware like processors or whether it’s software and services. Whereas in the world of analog, there are three to four thousand record stores, three to four thousand bookstores across America and they can all exist. It’s not like there can only be one.
They can all exist even in the same city. Here in Toronto, I think we have 25 or 30 record stores. Within a 10 block radius of my house there’s close to a dozen. Yet they all exist as long as the demand’s there, because each one does its own thing in a different way.
In the analog world, to be successful as a business, whether you’re a small business or a big business, you have to make a profit. You have to sell things or services for more money than it costs you to produce or procure them, whereas in the world of digital, it doesn’t matter. The great unicorn of Uber loses close to a billion dollars every quarter or something like that. The laws are different because it’s a land grab. It’s just getting as much as you can, and then you can dominate.
Mandy: Right, and sell it off first chance.
David: Exactly. Then GM buys you or you go public and hopefully the market rewards you that way, which doesn’t necessarily happen. Look at Groupon, look at Twitter.
Mandy: It’s definitely a gamble.
There’s this movement among younger people towards analog experiences and activities. Why do you think that might be? Is it because digital just isn’t as exciting if it’s something you’ve grown up with?
David: When I was on the radio with Virginia [Heffernan] two weeks ago, we got this question, “Is it nostalgia?” I always bristle against that and say I don’t think it is, because look at the age of the people who are adopting this. It’s not the Baby Boomers. It is millennials and younger, people who haven’t grown up with this technology. To them, it’s a new thing. But there is a nostalgic motivation, in a softer way, behind the curiosity. We tend to think of technology as a linear progression, Moore’s law: processors every 18 months double in speed, halve in cost, and things get better and more powerful. That’s just the straight, upward curve of technology that makes our lives better.
In reality, we adapt and adopt and reconsider different technologies in our lives in a way that isn’t so linear. It’s only through moving beyond something that we see that the value of it changes. It becomes strong in ways that were once making it weak. The heaviness, the cost, the physicality of books and records and publications and things like board games compared to their digital equivalents was the reason why they were displaced. Yet now it’s become the value of them. That’s what makes them worthwhile and attractive now. For younger people, who don’t have that memory or emotional baggage associated with it, it’s not going back and adopting something you left. It’s almost as though it’s finding something new.
I equate it to the world of food. There were all these tremendous advancements in bread baking in the early 20th century that gave us long shelf-life processed flours, nutrient-rich breads, and inexpensive bread that could last forever. Wonder Bread—that was progress. That was science. That was technological evolution. Yet, the great movement of bread over the past 30 years has been a return to sourdoughs and naturally yeasted, leavened breads that are better for you and have far better flavor. We’re willing to pay more for them. That’s not what the mass market is, but it’s an increasingly growing part of that market.
Are those people being nostalgic for the bread of yore? That may have driven them into that in some way, but the people who are buying a $6 sourdough loaf are not doing it out of pioneer spirit. They’re buying it because it’s better bread and it tastes better. They’re willing to pay that money versus the $3 loaf of Wonder Bread.
Mandy: I don’t mean this in a political sense, but there’s almost this tension between progressivism, the narrative of progress, and a conservatism for things in our history that are actually worthwhile human pursuits. I’m a millennial, and among my generation, there’s this drive for authenticity and this sense that the consistent narrative of disruption, especially in the digital world, over time gets kind of frustrating. Maybe not just to young people, to everybody. How do you know when you’ve lost something?
“The digital world just leaves you boxes full of cables and chargers and outdated, obsolete versions of things. You want something to hold onto.”
David: That consistent narrative of disruption, especially for a generation that’s grown up with it as the norm, leaves us wanting something to hold onto. I know my record collection will not be disrupted, because it’s post-disruption. It’s post-digital. It’s something that I’ve acquired after the fact, after all these other streaming technologies come out, and yet I choose it knowing that specifically. It is my rock to hold onto, and it grounds me. It gives me something, whereas everything else is just moving.
Think about it. I had CDs, then I got rid of the CDs and uploaded them to a computer. Then I didn’t need that because I had streaming. The digital world just leaves you boxes full of cables and chargers and outdated, obsolete versions of things. You want something to hold onto.
The attraction to analog is that it does remain. You buy an old film camera from 20, 30, 100 years ago, it will work. The music I listen to is a turntable from the 1970s, my parents’ old receiver from the 1970s, speakers I bought in 1993. The newest thing is the cable that connects it. As long as those parts are in working order and as long as I can get them repaired by someone, it’ll work ad infinitum.
But if I buy a new Bluetooth speaker, the firmware goes down, it doesn’t work. Or I have to replace it with the next one because Apple decided to change the format of the way it streams music on its phones or something. There is that assuredness, the sense of grounding permanence to analog that is that comfort, and maybe that’s part of that nostalgia.
Mandy: Yeah. When disruption is the norm, the real disruption is permanence.