If this is the digital age, why do I still use notebooks and vinyl?

Author David Sax reckons analogue objects can give you back time because of the keep-it-simple-stupid method

Look at the vinyl market: between records and turntables, it’s heading to become a billion dollar market

Look at the vinyl market: between records and turntables, it’s heading to become a billion dollar market

 

This was supposed to be the digital age. We were sold the premise of an always-on world where all the culture and stuff we’d ever want to consume would be available wirelessly and seamlessly at the press of a button. Forget accumulating physical troves of music, movies or books and luxuriate instead in a digital utopia.

But it didn’t go according to plan. While Spotify, Netflix and the Kindle fulfil part of that prediction, these and other digital services didn’t run the analogue, tangible objects out of town. On the contrary, the digital age has created a new market for the things we thought we’d consigned to sheds, attics and secondhand markets.

David Sax may not be the only person to note this state of affairs, but he’s the first to write a book about it. The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter is a fascinating and superbly observed tale from the Toronto-based writer about how and why such physical objects as vinyl records, Moleskine notebooks, physical books, board games, Polaroid film and wristwatches came back strong.

Sax puts it down partly to a human desire for more. “I can pinpoint the moment I got back into records and that was when I took the last of my CDs, uploaded them to iTunes and figured a way to stream them wirelessly.

“I had all this now and I had Spotify and I could listen to anything I want anytime so I went, what else is there?

Meaning

“We human beings need things to give us meaning. We need to spend our money and be passionate about something. The great promise of digital technology was that we could officially do all these things in one place with less cost and less clutter. For many of us, achieving that left us wanting more and asking what is the point of our life now that we’ve achieved all of this?”

It’s not, he points out, a straight binary choice. “Few of the people who are doing this are only listening to records and only writing in notebooks and only wearing wristwatches.

It’s not about rejecting digital

“They want it all, they want the digital and as well the analogue. The analogue is what they choose to have in their spare time and to spend their money on and it’s the part that matters. It’s not about rejecting digital.”

Time is also a consideration when it comes to why this renaissance has had such an effect. Digital was supposed to make our lives more streamlined and efficient, but instead we’ve become slaves to the cult of busyness and are seeking a release from this.

“The notion of free time and having time on your hands is interesting”, says Sax. “One of the markers of the digital age is people going ‘I’m so busy, I don’t have any time’ and running frantically from one message to the next. So much of the concept of lacking time and being busy is a social construct. You don’t need to check your mail every five minutes – if you don’t reply, the world is not going to end.

A Moleskine notebook: ‘Electronic diaries are slowcoaches compared with the speedy paper version.’ Photograph: Daneil Rodriguez/iStockphoto.com
A Moleskine notebook: Electronic diaries are slowcoaches compared with the speedy paper version. Photograph: Daneil Rodriguez/iStockphoto.com

“Analogue can give you time. A lot of people who are into Moleskine notebooks, for example, are not into them for the artistic Hemingway bullshit, but because it’s the key to the keep-it-simple-stupid method. You don’t waste time with menus and formats and options and Powerpoint presentations. It’s simple and effective, whereas the digital method, which promises those things, is far more complicated.”

Sax also believes analogue offers an imperfection that we find alluring. “Digital promoted a perfection, whereas imperfection is what you’ll get in so much of the art and culture and life we love and value.

Look at the realm of food. The return of the artisan bakery, the farm-to-table movement, all of those older, slower ways of cooking and making food and drink are analogous to this. At a time when we can have any food we want and microwave it, we’re doing all these slow, inefficient things.”

Successful businesses

What’s also noteworthy about Sax’s analogue case studies in the book is that we’re talking about successful businesses. “Those who’ve made money from analogue over the last decade are people who are visionaries, who spotted a trend,” believes Sax.

“Everyone got into digital and everything was going to be automated and outsourced and analogue was so over. These people decided to start pressing records, or making games, or making watches, or making films for cameras. The business community laughed at them and they’d a difficult time getting capital and were on a shoestring.

On the comeback: traditional film
On the comeback: traditional film

“But these people knew there was a market for this. The difference compared to the digital market is that it’s a much more easily defined business model. You make something and as long as you can charge enough to cover your costs and make some profit, you’ll make money.

It would be so easy to dismiss a lot of this as hipster shite

The digital economy is much more complicated, a smoke and mirrors game of building up an evaluation to the point where someone will buy you. Now, you’ve all these companies realising what’s what with analogue and that it can make money and are trying to get back in.

“It would be so easy to dismiss a lot of this as hipster shite that doesn’t really matter, but it’s big business. Look at Moleskine, which has been bought by D’Ieteren for half a billion euro. Look at the vinyl market: between records and turntables, it’s heading to become a billion dollar market. There you go, the proof is in the pudding.”

With hindsight, there are a few other things Sax wishes he’d focused on. “I wish I had mentioned the revival of cassette tapes,” he says, “but even I was going ‘cassettes? Pah’. I wish now I’d written about it.”

The other thing was love. “There’s been a tremendous explosion in dating apps and it’s totally changed the dating game in the 10 or 12 years since I met my wife and stopped dating,” he says.

“There was a really interesting idea in unpacking that because there’s also been a growth in matchmakers and matchmaking services, and it would have been an interesting road to go down.”

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter is published by Hachette

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