Book Review: ‘The Revenge of Analog,’ by David Sax

Central Camera - Chicago, IL

The physical world is what it is: messy, random, and tactile. The digital world, even at its best VR-helmeted incarnation, is a mere simulation.

A lot of the world is waking up to that fact. Even Silicon Valley, in all its ones and zeroes, realizes the value of IRL play, meditation, and good food.

This was one of the parting messages in David Sax’s book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The book was a reading assignment from CJ Chilvers (read his review), and is a piece of non fiction that, along with Sound City, has helped me think more about physical things and why I value them.

The crux of Sax’s research: the culture and media that digital left behind, or revolutionized, (film photography, record albums, paper) are coming back as more than fads. People are writing notes in Moleskines, reading actual books, and opening up new vinyl pressing plants. Business owners are successfully expanding their book store empire. And yes, even Silicon Valley is finding physical things worth exploring.

A lot of people, for a lot of years, have said, “Print is dead.” Or, “no one reads magazines anymore.” Film photography is obsolete, and a hassle. A paper-free office is the goal. At my art museum job, in a very literate college town, I’ve even questioned the value of print media and products.

What Sax found, though, is that the very people we thought were abandoning the real world — young people — are actually the ones buying vinyl records and asking for paper textbooks at school. That’s comforting, for those of us that value analog media. It means the world isn’t as upside down as we had feared (although Sax neglected to talk to newspaper publishers – he mostly sticks to sunny stories of success).

Speaking of young people: Sax’s chapter on education was especially eye-opening. Digital tools in the classroom (think electronic whiteboards, tablets, video lessons, etc.) are an overhyped lie, Sax found, with no real metrics to show their much-bragged-about value. Digital is no savior. Those of us who work in higher education heard about the MOOC for a few years as this great college disruptor. But as Sax shows, only about 10 percent of online class takers ever finish the lesson, and many more people find a relationship with a real live teacher more worthwhile.

Amen! Think about the online photography video versus a one-on-one workshop with a photographer whose work you appreciate. If you want to pick up clone stamping, a Photoshop video can certainly teach you how in a few minutes. But to get real valuable advice on how to shape your artistic vision, nothing beats spending actual time with an actual person. Analog education matters more.

The findings in The Revenge of Analog pop up in the news with regularity. We get more and more news about classic film stocks coming back. Some of my favorite bands now release vinyl albums along with digital downloads. Just the other day I received a new magazine coming out of Detroit, asking for my advertising dollars. Look all around, and we feel analog’s return in our bones.

The truth is, for many of us, analog never left. No revenge was needed. I still read my books pulped page by pulped page, I still have two magazines arriving in my mailbox every month, and I write in actual notebooks with an actual pen. And don’t get me started on music.

Structured in case studies around companies that are giving analog a go, Sax’s book makes the point that analog can be a thriving business for a lot of people, even if it’s outside the majority. Good enough is good enough, and there’s still money to be made on the weirdos and normals alike.