I recently finished David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. Appropriately, I bought my hard-back copy in that most analog of places—Portland, Oregon’s Powell’s City of Books—the nation’s largest independent bookstore.
Sax, a business journalist from Canada, posits that “while digital technology has certainly made life easier, the analog technologies of old can make life more rich and substantial.” He argues that in today’s digital world, analog is making a surprising comeback. What are those analog technologies? Notebooks and paper. Vinyl records. Film. Board games. (Vintage Game Night at the Woodrow Wilson House, anyone?) He also looks at the comeback of analog “ideas” in areas such as printing, retailing, and education.
Some of Sax’s examples strike me as first-world games of the highly educated. However, as I thought about the tactile nature of the pages as I read, I realized that he had an important point about the impact of real things in our lives. About two years ago I stopped purchasing e-books and have returned to buying books to read during my commute to-and-from work each day. (Sax quotes a twelfth-century Judaic scholar in saying, “Make books your treasure and bookshelves your gardens of delight.”) We still subscribe to the New York Times home edition, in part, because my 24-year-old son wants to do the Times crossword puzzle with paper and ink (his grandfather would be proud) and Candice enjoys reading from a “real” newspaper. One commentator noted that analog technologies such as newspapers allow us to have a feeling of finishing a task, whereas digital news feeds and links never seem to end.
At the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I work, we are all about real things. Real places. And why they matter.
I’ve even had a revelation about my move to a paperless office, which I made two years ago. Frankly, I’m not sure it has made me more productive. In discussing the revenge of analog in digital companies, Sax writes:
“One of the great promises of the information age was that advancements in communication technology would result in increased productivity. Studies have shown that has not occurred, but most people don’t need academic data to realize this. They simply need to look at the e-mails piling up in their inbox, at the texts pinging away on their phone…to understand that any technology built with the promise of productivity has the real potential to deliver an inverse result.
What some technology companies have done in response to this is limit technology itself. At Percolate, a New York (software) company…(they) banned all digital devices from company meetings. Noah Brier, Percolate’s cofounder and CEO, said the rule arose because he consistently sat in meetings where one person spoke and everyone else pretended to listen while they responded to emails or texted. Not only was this rude, but the distraction increased the length of meetings drastically. Once Percolate banned devices, the results were instantaneous. ‘It just makes it so people are actually paying attention. Meetings are shorter and more useful.’”
Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, notes in a review that Sax quoted a time-management expert as saying, “’You can waste time with all kinds of stuff, but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.’ A notebook’s selling point is that you can’t use it to look up stock futures or to swipe right or to play solitaire. It concentrates, not dissipates, the mind. What if Picasso had had Snapchat? What if Hemingway had spent half the afternoon writing Yelp reviews of his favorite bars?”
You may notice that I’ve begun showing up at some meetings without my computer in tow, and with a simple notebook and pen. (I haven’t made the complete break, I have to admit.) A retreat exercise helped drive the points about attention and productivity home for me, and started my shift even before reading Sax’s book. We don’t have to be Luddites, but I like to think about how the “real places” we work to save in our communities can remind us how rich and substantial a better balance with technology can have in many different aspects of our lives.
Have a good week.
More to come…