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Sweet Revenge: Digital Meets Reality: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, by David Sax. New York: Public Affairs, 2016, xix + 282 pages, $25.99.

What is it with these kids—they’re buying vinyl records, cassettes, and film. In the late nineties, when everyone was shedding their vinyl records, I was scooping them up left and right from ten cents to a dollar. These were in excellent or new condition and often famous performances and/or well-known producers on the best labels, like Deutsches Gramophone and RCA’s shady dog “Living Stereo.” There was producer John Pfeiffer, whose RCA Red Seal productions are second to none. Then there were performances like Fritz Reiner’s conducting of the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (LSC 1991).

The greatest trove was a deposit of over 3,000 classical records at the local Goodwill. It took me several visits to comb carefully through this treasure trove. I would go after lunch each day with a sense of excitement I had only known in my early book collecting days. I only bought records in perfect condition and came away with several hundred, including a few in their original cellophane wrappers. Little did I know that vinyl would make a comeback.

Now lest you think I oppose technological progress, I do not wish to return to pure vinyl listening. I enjoy the variety of access I have to music on my several devices. I have an expanding collection of CDs. Of course, now even those are giving way to MP3s, where music lives on hard drives, iTunes, or in various streaming services. My problem has always been with the uncritical acceptance of every new device along with the almost religious rejection of the old device it replaces. What does it give, but also what does it take away? And how do the answers to these questions shape my navigation of this ever changing environment?

For example, look at the wood-burning fireplace. In recent years efficiency and safety have called for fake fires, and gas fire places. Placing logs on a live fire is costly in terms of human labor and natural resources. So, what is missing? The human element, the enchanting smell of burning wood. Years ago there was one room at the Woodstock Inn in North Woodstock, New Hampshire that still had a wood fireplace. The porch was stocked with wood. Assumed was willingness to transport the logs from the porch to the fireplace, and the ability to light a fire—a considerable skill learned through much experience. Efficiency is gained for commercial establishments, but a real fire is incomparable—the human engagement, the aromas, the movement of logs, and the glowing embers.

I have not been able to fully assess the warmth audiophiles attribute to the vinyl experience, but it has more to do with the analog experience of the turntable than actual audio quality, unless they are referring to the subtle crackling sounds.

Enter David Sax. The subtitle exaggerates to make a point: “Real Things and Why They Matter.” Of course, digital is real, but sometimes distorts reality and tends to distance us from space-time reality. I often see Photo-shopped pictures that have the whiff of ersatz. Sherry Turkle has reported on the danger of those who retreat into virtual reality to escape real life.

I will give the gist of each chapter in order to entice the reader to buy the book.

David Sax, a Canadian journalist, begins and ends the book with stories from his own analog and digital journey. He confesses that soon after the first iPhone was available “my wife and I were just like every other couple; our faces buried in screens at the dinner table, blind to the world around us and to each other…. digital’s gain was not without sacrifice” (xiii). Then a friend started using his parent’s old turntable. Sax observed that while it was less efficient “the act of playing a record seemed more involved, and ultimately more rewarding, than listening to the same music off a hard drive…. It all involved more of our physical senses” (xiii). Then he began to notice that things that “had been rendered ‘obsolete’ suddenly began to show new life” (xiv). This was the beginning of Sax’s exploration of a new assessment of a renewed interest in analog. To his amazement he discovered that it is often those on the cutting edge of technological progress and development that have come to real advantages of analog.

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 mightier than both the keyboard and the 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. (xvii)

It’s one thing, of course, to make such an assertion, and quite another to prove it. But Sax does first hand research through dozens of interviews and lots of reading to prove his point. Actually, his point grew out of his research by asking the question, why is analog making a comeback? He believes that the conclusion provides “a model for an emerging postdigital economy that looks toward the future of technology, without forgetting its past” (xviii).

Chapter 1, “The Revenge of Vinyl,” “begins on the factory floor at Nashville’s United Record Pressing (URP)” (3). One of the three largest record-pressing plants in the world it had reached a low point in 2010, but by 2014 it was building a second plant (4). Sales of vinyl records grew from a little under a million in 2007 to over twelve million in 2015 (10). In the sixties URP pressed records of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and even the first Beatles album pressed in the US. The director of marketing, Jay Millar, explains, “Music is just vibrations in air, … When a record is playing grooves in the record are duplicating those vibrations, and the needle is picking them up and amplifying those vibrations” (6). “[D]igital helped save the very analog record it nearly killed” (11). The niche market of millennials began the turnaround. As record stores closed they purchased vinyl records over the Internet. Now Whole Foods and Barnes and Noble carry new vinyl. The physical presence of turntables and records appeals to a generation that has lost the sense of ownership with their music housed on hard drives. Listeners and performers alike are finding that the lack of editing and takes, which digital amplifies, gives them a more authentic performance (25–26). So the renaissance in vinyl production has also seen a revival of analog recording (27).

Chapter 2, “The Revenge of Paper,” tells of the most digitally sophisticated using paper products like Moleskine (pronounced mol-uh-skeen-uh) notebooks. Digital cheerleaders have been predicting a paperless world for decades. Paper was the first analog technology to be challenged and is the oldest. “The revenge of paper shows that analog technology can excel at specific tasks and uses on a very practical level, especially when compared to digital technology” (31). Moleskine is the Italian revival (1997) of the company that went out of business decades before. Matisse, Picasso, and Hemingway all sketched in these notebooks (33).

Creativity and innovation are driven by imagination, and imagination withers when it is standardized, which is exactly what digital technology requires—codifying everything in 1’s and 0’s, within the accepted limits of software. The Moleskine notebook’s simple, unobtrusive design makes it feel like a natural extension of the body. It doesn’t interfere with your personal style, and because of this it allows for an undiluted physical recording of your mood. (36)

In what Joseph Pine and James Gilmore call the “experience economy”[1] the analog businesses that are succeeding today emphasize the authenticity of the physical object they sell (40). And surprise, it’s the digital natives that are most interested in paper (46). So letterpress printers and stationers are popping up everywhere (44). No directions necessary. Ikea came out with a brilliant parody on digital catalogs with their new catalog, “The Bookbook”—no batteries necessary.[2]

Chapter 3, “The Revenge of Film,” chronicles the dramatic disappearance and re-emergence of film. In 1999 800 million rolls of film were produced; by 2011 it was down to 20 million (55). Polaroid had been as big as Apple in its day. Ironically it offered both instant photography with the physical artifact of a picture you can hold in your hand (66–67). Then the “Impossible Project” was born, emphasizing “analog film’s imperfection” (69). Polaroid-like cameras began to take on new life (69–70). Kodak’s movie film division was rejuvenated when in 2014 directors like Martin Scorsese began using film again (71). Director J. J. Abrams opined that “he prefers film for its visual texture, warmth, and quality” (72).

Chapter 4, “The Revenge of Board Games,” is startling. I just reorganized the board games in our closet and thought these will never be used again. Although I am plotting to teach my grandson chess with real pieces instead of digital. So tabletop gaming centers are springing up all over the country, creating “a unique social space apart from the digital world.” Sax quotes MIT professor Sherry Turkle who explores the interaction between people and computers, and author of Alone Together,[3] “Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone” (80). “The very need for social interaction lies at the heart of the revenge of tabletop games” (81). It’s all about being human, made in the image of God body and soul.

Chapter 5, “The Revenge of Print,” demonstrates that while the cost of print publications is significantly more than digital publication, new print publications are being created because people like to hold books and magazines in their hands. Many of these have begun online and gone to print. The periodical you are presently reading is just such a publication. When I began editing Ordained Servant in 2006 I could not find any journal that did this. Our decision to do both digital and analog has proved wise. Interestingly the advent of desktop publishing has enabled small publications to produce great-looking magazines (105). In fact, “For all the bravado about the death of print, most digital publications still spend more than they make” (107). Print readers are more committed than digital readers. As publishers identify niche readers they are finding that people are willing to pay for high quality print productions. One editor noted that one of the desirable features of the print edition of a weekly, like The Economist, was its “ ‘finishability’: the ability of readers to actually finish an issue” (110). The linear format of print lends itself to stories, to beginnings and endings. “there is a romance about the print product. It is tactile, beautiful, and you smell the ambition on the page” (113). From a commercial standpoint advertising works much better on a page. When I read my digital Wall Street Journal (I do it to save money) I skip right over the ads with a click.

Chapter 6, “The Revenge of Retail,” shows that the obituary for bookstores in New York City was premature. Bookstores in the American Booksellers Association (ABA) hit a low of 1,650 in 2009, down from 4,000 in the 1990s. By 2014 they had grown to 2,227 (125). Brick-and-mortar proved essential to profitability. Again, the experience economy. “What the brick-and-mortar retail store does best is deliver an experience, something online retailing struggles with …” (126). By offering expertise in various genres of literature and displaying books in an attractive way these bookstores attract customers. Efficiency is not attractive in comparison because online experience is disembodied. People crave human assistance. The success stories of small bookstores makes this a fascinating chapter.

Chapter 7, “The Revenge of Work,” highlights Shinola, the American luxury lifestyle brand which specializes in watches, bicycles, and leather goods among other items in downtown Detroit. The feel of a heritage brand was created for this company which was founded in 2011. Its meteoric success has demonstrated that analog jobs and products are still very important feature of the American economy (155). “The more important reason behind the digital economy’s failure to create significant jobs is that minimizing the use of human labor tends to be one of its fundamental goals” (163). Shinola teaches a range of job skills that has made a significant contribution to the revival of Detroit. The centrality of the human is again evident in this part of the story.

Chapter 8, “The Revenge of School,” compares the efficiency of online only schools with the humanity of brick-and-mortar education. The latter are part of communities that foster a sense of belonging and purpose (176–77). Sax emphasizes the boosterism connected with online education and contrast this with its overall failure.

Even the best educational computer programs and games, devised with the help of the best educators, contain a tiny fraction of the outcomes of a single child equipped with a crayon and paper. A child’s limitless imagination can only do what the computer allows them to do and no more. The best toys, by contrast, are really ten percent toy and ninety percent child: paint, cardboard, sand. The kid’s brain does the heavy lifting, and in the process it learns. (181)

Educational technology is most effective when used appropriately, but not exclusively, as if it can do the entire job. A recent Duke University study showed that the introduction of computers into math and reading education had a persistent negative impact on test scores (183–84). Sax gives another example of a fifth grade class given a choice between using an iPad or paper and pencil—they overwhelmingly preferred the analog (187–88). A similar result proved true with MOOCs (massive open online courses), billed to change the entire educational system. Google’s Sebastian Thrun was its biggest promoter. It proved to be a massive failure. The reason is teachers, a most fundamental analog reality, because education involves more than the mere transfer of data (201–203).

Chapter 9, “The Revenge of Analog, in Digital,” surprises us with the fact that “The digital world values the analog more than anyone” (207). Silicon Valley has come to value the human in new ways, limiting the use of digital devices in areas like meetings and design. Digital companies like Yelp have found that real community, on-the-ground relationships make their digital presence successful (217).

These companies are not turning to analog out of some Mad Men-inspired nostalgia for the way business was once done, or because the people working there are afraid of change. They are the most advanced, progressive corporations in the world. They are not embracing analog because it is cool. They do it because analog proves the most efficient, productive way to conduct business. They embrace analog to give them a competitive advantage. (221)

Kevin Kelly, a techno-idealist and author of What Technology Wants, admitted, “We have an attraction to analog things, because we live in analog bodies” (226–27). Just so, and that’s the point—our humanity is a given, a reality that cannot be contradicted without paying a heavy price.

The epilogue, “The Revenge of Summer,” is a charming story of Sax’s old summer camp and the challenge that digital devices has brought to the camp and how they have dealt with it. I don’t want to spoil the story but the gist is what the director said he was protecting: “We look at the heart of what we do, and it is interpersonal relationships” (236).

I will confess that this book and the trend that it represents are a vindication of what I have believed since I began my doctoral studies on homiletics and electronic media in 1990. Neither digitopian nor dystopian I have always enjoyed a variety of analog realities. I have a 1965 rotary telephone in the dining room of our antique house, a turntable and vinyl records, books in every room, fountain pens and fine stationery. It is heartening to witness the revenge of the analog, not because I have sympathy with Ned Ludd, but because it renews appreciation of embodied life and helps hone the skills of navigating the digital world. It is not either digital or analog but both working in harmony. That’s why I heartily recommend this book. Church officers should digest it and consider the value of the face to face relationships and the live worship we enjoy each Lord’s Day, face to face with God as it were.

I have always thought that the historical resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ impinged in a palpable way on this topic. Space-time tangibles are an important part of the Christian hope. How electronic realities—which do relate to intangibles in our experience—relate to the real is yet a mystery to be considered.

The death of print, vinyl records, and other tactile things has been grossly exaggerated. Little did I know that by staying out of date I would suddenly become cutting edge. The revenge is sweet.

Endnotes

[1] E. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

[2] http://time.com/3265308/ikea-catalog-2015/ “ ‘The 2015 IKEA catalog comes fully charged, and the battery is eternal,’ says an exec named Jörgen Eghammer, also known as Chief Design Guru. He explains that this catalog is not a digital book or an e-book, but a bookbook. ‘The navigation is based on tactile touch technology that you can actually feel,’ he adds.”

[3] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic, 2011).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant.

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