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Go Ahead, Touch that Dial: David Sax on the Surprising Rebound of Analog

In his new book The Revenge of Analog, Toronto-based author chronicles the rebirth of tangible media, from vinyl to Polaroid to board games

The feel of a pencil pushing a line of graphite onto paper; the pop of a needle touching down on spinning vinyl; the thrill of shaking a Polaroid until it slowly reveals the light of the moment before: However much we may have appreciated these experiences, the rise of digital technologies made their doom seem inevitable.

In his new book The Revenge of Analog (published by Public Affairs), Toronto-based writer David Sax declares analog is – contrary to endless prognostications about the inevitability of digital – alive and well. The older and relatively inefficient technologies of yesteryear are finding new life and renewed purpose, often as fashionable hobbies and accessories. And sometimes they just make practical sense.

Sax’s book traces the revival of analog technologies and practices from books to board games, all of which are enjoying a healthier decade than anyone would have predicted a few years ago. He starts his narrative with the unexpected success of his neighbourhood record shop and moves on to the popularity of board game cafés (a made-in-Toronto innovation, sort of) and the complicated operations that are keeping instant cameras flashing and cinematic film unspooling. We also read about the vogue for mindfulness in Silicon Valley, and how it’s a sign of the tech sector’s leaders believing – somewhat ironically – that experiences in the physical space take priority over ones in the virtual and digital worlds.

Examining different industries one by one, Sax’s book crafts an argument about “real things and why they matter.” Talking with Billy this week, Sax explained that while he doesn’t dispute that digital technologies have already won the future, the tangible technologies of the past will continue to charm us into keeping them around.

Q: By talking about the revival of analog technology, have you faced a lot of backlash from dogmatically digital people?

A: Certainly some of the stories I’ve written for The New Yorker and stuff, every 20 comments you’ll get someone who’s like, “That’s not true, look how much digital’s grown.” Yeah. Obviously digital has grown. I’m talking to you on an iPhone right now. This is the kind of de facto way of the world. But what’s undeniable is that the idea that analog would have been dismissed and completely irrelevant [by now] has proven false. It’s undeniable when you’re out there and see these things happening.

For technologists, for people who have that Peter Thiel-like belief in the ultimate conquering of the world through digital technology … this bristles with them. It disrupts that narrative about technological progress.

For most people, even those who work daily with digital technology, there’s an appreciation of the benefits of [analog tech] – almost more with those people than with folks who don’t necessarily come from that background.

I obviously expect [some people to] have this utopian belief in digital technology – in the same sense that there are people who are noveau Luddites who think no new technology is good, and we should all live in a cabin like Ted Kaczynski. I hope that the argument [of The Revenge of Analog] falls somewhat in between, and is measured. That’s the reality of life. It’s not one way or the other. It’s not a binary choice.

@ Statista / Source: IFPI

After cratering in the 2000s, vinyl sales have rebounded as collecting records becomes cool again

In the book you talk about the rebound of a whole bunch of things – vinyl records, paper notebooks, watches and watchmaking, and so on. Of all the analog technologies and experiences making a return, what surprised you the most? Or to put it another way, what would you have least expected, say, seven or eight years ago?

I would say brick-and-mortar bookstores. Not brick-and-mortar stores generally – that didn’t really ever go away – but bookstores were shorthand for disrupted businesses, the first category that was affected by e-commerce. So to see that that category is growing in the United States in the past five years was really surprising to me, and it’s not [happening] out of any sort of change in the way they’re doing business. They’re succeeding at precisely a time when it shouldn’t be happening.

Could the revenge of analog simply be a fad, a final lament for the world that many of us grew up in?

I don’t think so. The reasons that it’s occurring today are not things that are a temporary phenomenon. As more and more of our lives become intermediated through technology, the appetite for analog and the advantages it’s going to have are going to grow concurrently.

David Sax

Don’t you think there’s a potential for a fatigue factor with analog, though? Speaking from personal experience, when you re-adopt an analog technology, at first you think, “This is neat,” but then you realize analog things are hard and heavy and slow. I don’t take my film cameras along with me as much as I did three or four years ago, for example.

Yeah, that’s undeniable, which is why this is not going to be a return of analog to what it previously was. Film is not going to replace digital in the way digital did with film. It’s going to be 1%, 2% or 3% of people who are taking photos – or even less – are going to do it with film. Some people will fall out of it … and then as those people fall out of it, new people will come into it. You’ll sell those cameras and then someone else will buy them.

In terms of the critical mass, the economic impact, it’s just staggering reading in your book how many people used to be employed making film at Kodak and Agfa and so on. That’s never coming back, is it – hundreds of thousands of people making analog products around the world?

No, of course not, but that doesn’t mean that whatever growth there is in these different industries isn’t significant. If you think about the past couple of years in the record industry, you’re talking about jobs being created, retail being created, factories being created, taxes being gathered at every point in the supply chain, from pressing records to the company that makes the PVC pellets [that are pressed into records]. There’s a company here in Toronto that started up last year called Viryl Technologies, and they’re making the pressing machines for record plants. And they’re doing a couple million of bucks of business. They’re employing a handful of people, and as they grow they’ll employ more. All of that goes back into the economy in a way that’s very different from the digital economy.

[Smaller, analog operations] are important. Not all of us are going to be starting billion-dollar startups. In fact, barely any of us are. You need [Silicon Valley] but you also need mom-and-pop stores, wedded to the analog economy.

Well, a lot of the companies you write about in the book aren’t really mom-and-pop.

Mom, pop and private equity.

That’s exactly it. It takes a lot of money to start a factory. Is analog less egalitarian in that sense?

It all depends on what your definition of egalitarian is. The upfront costs for a lot of these things are higher than if you were just to create a software program. But to grow that [software] business to scale, you can’t compete. No one can make a new Google, no one can make a new Amazon. The barrier to entry to [the digital world] can be so astronomically high. But you can start a new record store, or a new record pressing plant, with access to some capital.

In some ways I’d say it’s even more egalitarian than entering the digital economy. If you start a record store, you can scrimp up some savings and get a bank loan.

There’s that blended model, too, where a lot of [these analog initiatives, for example in] the board game world, someone designs something, brings it out on a digital platform like Kickstarter for crowdfunding – making an analog product – and you can make money that way. It’s not one or the other.

(This article was originally published on November 10, 2016)

Published Thursday, December 29th 2016

Header image credit: Adam McDowell / Billy



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