“Software is eating the world,” or so we’re told. Products that once took up physical space can be contained in our smartphones and held in the palms of our hands. Instead of having a record collection, now we can stream any music any where and any time we want. Instead of shelves and shelves of books, we can have access to thousands of volumes in our Kindle app. Instead of stacks of photo albums, we can store a virtually unlimited collection of pictures in the digital cloud.
But in the cultural background to this digital shift, there’s been a silent rebellion brewing.
My guest tracks that rebellion in his book, The Revenge of Analog. Today on the show, David Sax and I talk about why we’re seeing a return to analog products like vinyl records, hardcopy books, and pen and paper — and it’s not because of nostalgia. David goes into detail about the sudden revival of vinyl and turntables and why it’s more than just some hipster fad, why hardcopy book sales are going up while ebook sales are declining, and why writing with pen and paper unleashes creativity compared to typing or writing on a screen. He then gets into how the internet is counterintuitively driving this upsurge of interest in tangible products and the benefits we get psychologically, culturally, and economically by living in an analog world.
- When it was that David noticed “real” stuff was making a comeback
- Why “the old thing is rendered obsolete by the new thing” isn’t quite accurate
- What is it that’s fueling the “revenge of the analog”?
- How people are “maturing” with their technology use and finding ways to balance their tech use with tangible items
- The irony of the internet helping drive the revenge of the analog
- The vinyl comeback and its example of the larger analog phenomenon
- Why people enjoy tangible things in spite of its seeming inconvenience
- The emotional connection people have to objects you can heft in your hands
- How tangible items make socializing easier and more pleasant
- Why paper books didn’t die, in spite of that prediction many years ago
- The surprising percentage of books sold that are ebooks
- Why humans like sensory feedback
- Brett’s tin foil hat reason for enjoying tangible goods
- Are we really moving beyond an “ownership” society?
- Why folks are still drawn to pen and paper
- The value of writing (and drawing!) things down
- How architecture has suffered in the digital age
- The importance of embracing imperfection
- Why men enjoy “stuff” and collecting things
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My Journey Into Record Collecting
- Moleskine notebooks
- The Benefits of Writing By Hand
- How to Make a Moleskine PDA
- Bringing Back Board Games
- Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
- The turntable Brett got for his birthday
- Vinyl Me Please
- The End of the Printed Book?
- My podcast with Nicholas Carr about Utopia is Creepy
- AoM’s articles about pocket notebooks
- Field Notes
- How and Why to Start a Collection + 50 Collection Ideas
- A Primer on Collecting Books
- A Primer on Collecting Vintage Fountain Pens
The Revenge of Analog provides an excellent analysis of trends in our culture that often get overlooked. It will also inspire you to step away from the digital world and embrace the physical. Pick up (a hardcopy) of it on Amazon.
Connect With David Sax
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
The Art of Manliness Store. Take 10% off by using AOMPODCAST at checkout.
And thanks to Creative Audio Lab in Tulsa, OK for editing our podcast!
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Software is eating the world, or so we’re told.
Products that once took up physical space can be contained in our smartphones and held in the palm of our hands. Instead of having a record collection, we can now stream any music anywhere, at any time we want.
Instead of shelves and shelves of books, we have access to thousands of volumes in our Kindle app. And instead of stacks of photo albums, we can store virtually unlimited collection of pictures in the digital cloud.
But in the cultural background to this digital shift, there’s been a silent rebellion brewing. My guest tracks that rebellion in his book, The Revenge of the Analog. Today on the show, author David Sax and I talk about why we’re seeing a return to analog products like vinyl records, hard-copy books, and pen and paper. And it’s not just because of nostalgia.
David goes into detail about the sudden revival of vinyl and turntables, and why it’s more than just a hipster fad. Why hard-copy book sales are going up, while e-book sales are declining. And why writing with pen and paper unleashes creativity compared to typing or writing on a screen.
He then gets into how the Internet is counterintuitively driving this upsurge of interest in tangible products, and the benefits we get psychologically, culturally and economically by living in an analog world.
After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/analog.
David Sax, welcome to the show.
David Sax: Thanks for having me on, Brett.
Brett McKay: So you’ve got a new book out. When I saw the title of it, I was really intrigued by the title. It’s “The Revenge of the Analog,” and it’s all about this trend you’ve been noticing, where analog products: things like vinyl records, paperback books, stuff that we thought were gonna be dead, are all of a sudden having this weird comeback.
When did you notice that this stuff that we thought was dead because of the Internet, because of digital technology, when did you start noticing this trend of the revenge of the analog?
David Sax: I guess it first started appearing to me a decade ago. I was living in Toronto, and had just actually uploaded my entire CD collection to iTunes, and then my roommate and I had figured a way to stream it over the WiFi, and that was it. We had reached peak digital music.
It was almost like our consumption of music disappeared overnight once that happened. And very shortly after that, ironically, his parents gave us their old turntable and their old records, and we started listening to records again and really getting into it. And I was noticing that a number of other people I knew who were also really into music were kinda getting back into turntables and records as well.
Music stores were still kinda contracting at that point in the imagination, but the ones in our neighborhood were doing okay, and there was even one or two new record stores that were opening up. There were newly pressed records that were available.
And I started noticing in other ways. The Moleskine notebook had become this ubiquitous thing by that point. Where paperless technology, things like the Palm Pilot and the Blackberry were supposed to eradicate that, and it just kept getting more deeply ingrained into the world I knew, and the lives of people I knew.
So I think what interested me, was this idea that you look around, and you see things that aren’t supposed to be happening in the popular imagination and the narrative we’re told about technological progress, which is, the old thing is rendered obsolete by the new thing and it disappears and goes away, and everything moves forward and on.
And it was almost like this was happening in a parallel way. It was the old thing had been rendered obsolete, and then it started growing again even as the digital grew ever more quickly and more powerfully. And it was the beginning of something that I kept watching over the next couple years, and it just kept getting bigger and having more consequence to it.
It was almost as though the greater and more powerful and more central to our lives digital technology became, the more pervasive this revenge of analog, as I later called it, grew into.
Brett McKay: So that brings my next question. What do you think is driving this revenge of the analog? Is it, people are just tired of digital technology, they’re tired of being able to stream whatever song they want at any place they are? Is it nostalgia? What’s going on here, why are people returning back to vinyl records and paper notebooks?
David Sax: I think there’s a number of different factors, it’s not just one. It certainly varies by individual. Nostalgia is kinda cited as the most common one, and I actually don’t put a lot of weight in that.
Most of this is being driven by people who are in their 30s, or 20s, or even younger, that never touched or knew this technology in the first place. My friend’s daughter, who’s 9 years old and asked for a Fujifilm instant film camera last year for her birthday. This is a kid who’s only known photography as something that happens on iPhones and iPads.
The other notion, that we’re sort of tired of digital technology and rejecting it, is also I think a false one. Most of us who are driving the return of analog things and ideas, are as digitally enmeshed in the world as everyone around them. Which is why, when you go into a coffee shop, and you see someone writing on a Moleskine notebook, they have their laptop and their phone next to them on the table.
I think what that shows, and what the reality is, is people are looking for a balance in what works for them. Whether it’s professionally, in the way they approach their work or their creative tasks, or whether it’s personally, how they access culture and entertainment and leisure, and the things in the world that matter to them.
And the notion that we will be content with the most efficient thing, and one solution, which is what the iPhone I’m holding in my hand right now offers. You never need anything but this one thing, is one that I think we subscribe to. And now, having lived with that technology for 10 years, having seen something like digital music streaming services be around for a decade. We see that you can have that, but you also want more.
It’s almost the idea of, once you’ve achieved all the wealth or affluence or comfort in your life, it’s not like you stop there. People are always saying, “I want to make a million bucks, I’m gonna be set, that’ll be it, I can dust my hands off and bada-bing, bada-boom.”
But then you seek more. You seek more as a consumer. You seek more from a spiritual perspective. Or you seek to find the things that work for you, even counterintuitively. The idea that something which is gonna be the fastest and the best, and the most powerful, is always gonna be access to a computer, doesn’t necessarily play out when you actually get down to using it.
So for many people, digital has become almost an obstruction to the way they’re doing things. And analog provides a bit of a counter-weight to that. And just a different process to create things, to enjoy things, to interact with the world. So I think it is almost a technological maturity we’re reaching, where we’re able to evaluate the strengths of each and say, “Analog works for me here, and digital works for me here, and I want both of them.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, and we’ll talk in more specifics about how different analog things, whether it’s music or in books or whatever, the benefits you can’t get with digital.
What I thought was an interesting argument you make throughout the book, is that this revenge of the analog in a lot of ways, is being powered by the Internet. This thing that we thought was supposed to replace and kill all this stuff, the reason why it’s making a comeback is because we have the Internet.
The Moleskine. The way I discovered the Moleskine was on the Internet about 10 years ago, when people were making Moleskine PDA’s and showing how amazing Moleskines were for keeping track of your to-do list. And it’s not just that. Other areas, the Internet has brought back these old things.
David Sax: Yeah, and I think that’s the interesting thing. And why it’s not a technological rejection, or a purely nostalgia-based thing. In many ways, digital technologies, something like Kickstarter for example, the crowd-funding website as well as IndieGoGo and others, have created tremendous opportunities for people to build analog products and services.
Things like board games and tabletop games, which previously the barrier to entry was fairly high. You needed to have a publisher, you needed to sell the rights, so on and so forth. Now, someone can come up with an idea and make a quick little video, put it up there and if it earns enough backing, they’re off to the races and production.
The Internet has allowed disparate communities of niche users of products, like rare types of film photography, expired Polaroid film, or expired large format film, to find themselves around the world and get in touch. Share ideas, share projects that we’re doing, and again, build these markets which can then scale at a pace when the regular large industry has sort of abandoned that.
And then of course, you even get into the things like manufacturing technologies. Things like 3D printing, or the ability to source manufacturing around the world for specific ideas and products. Again, all those were driving this analog counter-revolution, if you want to call it that, are using every tool at their disposal to make it happen. They’re not dogmatic about it, sitting in some basement somewhere printing out mimeograph leaflets of paper that they’re handing out from soapboxes. Unless that’s their jam, more power to them for that.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about some of the specific areas where you’ve seen this revenge of the analog come back. Let’s talk about vinyl first.
Just a few years ago, vinyl was pretty much dead. The press companies were shutting down, the ones that were open were open two or three times a week, that was it. But in the past five years, it’s made this huge comeback. There’s these companies where you can subscribe to get new vinyl records once a month, turntable sales are just going nuts. For my birthday this year, my wife got me a turntable. It’s been fantastic.
I think it’s funny, in the book you mentioned Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I got my dad’s old Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album, and it’s fantastic. Can you just give us an idea, what were vinyl sales like, say, 10 years ago, and what are they like now?
David Sax: Well, the low point was in 2006. That’s the bottoming of sales, and the sales had been declining really since the early 80’s when the compact disc came out. So you had an initial lowering when 8-tracks and tapes provided the first competition for vinyl records. Then 1986 or something is when CD’s hit the mass market, it just steadily declined to there. And then of course, downloading and so forth.
So in 2006, in the United States alone, you had I think 900-something thousand new records pressed. None of this deals with secondhand vinyl. Your dad, my dad’s Tijuana Brass, Whipped Cream and Other Dreams, whatever it’s called. Every man of a certain generation has to own that.
Just an example. So that’s less than a million records pressed. Last year, according to Nielsen 2016, I think it was as high in the US as maybe 13 million records pressed, new records? To say nothing of the trade of secondhand records and other markets around the world, like the UK, and Europe, and South America, everywhere where vinyl has continued to grow.
So you’re talking about a 13-time or more growth in the span of a decade. And the growth has been fairly consistent. Double-digit growth every single year. Every year there are skeptics saying, “Well, this is gonna bottom out, this is gonna crater, this isn’t gonna last,” and every year it keeps growing. And of course, with that goes the sales of turntables. New turntables coming on the market, by new companies, or old companies reviving turntable designs, in order to service that growing demand.
Because unlike digital music, where you just copy and paste endlessly, and it doesn’t really matter, you’re talking about the physical production of a product. Melting pellets of plastic and sandwiching them in these giant waffle presses, which are record presses. Which they don’t make anymore. So not only do you have new record pressing companies opening up all around the United States, and all around the world, in all these markets to serve them, you now have new companies building the record presses to service those.
So not only are you talking about the growth of people buying records, the growth of people pressing records, the growth of record stores, of all sorts of different niches in cities and towns all over the world to serve this growing market, you’re talking about all the jobs and the money, and the economic activity that’s going into that.
And people now estimate it’s a billion-dollar market or more. Which is incredible, because when I was interviewing someone, I think he was either at Warner Music or Universal Music, three years ago, when I was working on the book, he was like, “I doubt this will ever be a billion dollar market.”
That was his exact quote, and now it’s there. So the growth has been pretty astounding. And I think if you live in any sizable community anywhere, a town, a city, you can see it. You see people walking with record sleeves on the street. You see record stores opening up. You see people in Urban Outfitters shopping for a huge selection of records.
Urban Outfitters is now the biggest retailer of records in the brick-and-mortar world. And to many people, it’s this undeniable example of the larger phenomenon that’s happening. And to other people, they just can’t wrap their heads around it, it’s this Back to the Future moment that they can’t square with the logic that in your phone, you can get all that music for free, streamed to you wherever you are, without having to put it on a shelf or deal with it, or pay money for it.
Brett McKay: So what do you think’s driving the comeback? Like you said, buying a record is inconvenient. You have to go to the store, if you want to play something, you gotta put it on the record player. When one side’s over, you gotta go and flip it over.
So there is inconvenience, so why are people going back to it if it is so inconvenient?
David Sax: Well, let me ask you. Why did you want a turntable for your birthday?
Brett McKay: The inconvenience was part of the thing that drew me to it. I also just, I got sick of … streaming music devalued music to me, cause everything became Muzak. I remembered having albums, like I had this thing I could heft in my hand. I liked that feeling. So that’s why I got it.
David Sax: Well, that is exactly the reason I think most people cite. And the key to it is it is an entirely irrational, emotional pursuit. From all logical perspectives, financial, space-saving, time-use, it makes the most logical sense to only listen to streamed music on some sort of Apple device or Android device.
And that still holds true. But I think what we have to realize is, we are not logical creatures. We are highly illogical creatures. That’s what allows us to make things like music. Good music, bad music, whatever. That is at the core of the human experience. And music is not something that is a necessity. I mean, it’s a necessity in some way, but it’s not like food or medicine. We’re seeking sustenance or something with the absolute most logical way.
It is culture, and it is passion, and it is an emotional act. While digital music allows us to access that in all sorts of different ways, it does so at the cost of many different points of engagement, that we’ve realized, or many of us have realized. Yourself, and myself, included, are actually very pleasurable.
So going to a record store and flipping through bins for an hour to find one or two records you might like on a Saturday. When you compare that with tapping on the search bar on Spotify, or the recommendation algorithm and pulling up something, it’s a highly inefficient act. It’s a waste of your time, it requires you to go somewhere in your car or on your foot. It costs a lot more money, and yet it’s so much fun.
Buying a record at the store is almost half the fun of buying a record. You talk to people, you discover things, you make friendships. You are spending time doing something that isn’t just sitting at home looking at the same screen you look at all day. In the same way that having that collection displayed in your house, even though it takes up precious shelf space, and it’s heavy as hell, and when you have to move, good lord, get a chiropractor. Cause those boxes of records are some of the heaviest damn things you’ll ever have to move.
There’s a pleasure in that too. You walk in and see the records on the shelf, and that is the lion head on your wall, if you’re a record collector. It is your personal taste there for everyone to see in a way that’s very different and much more personal, and much more permanent than a curated playlist that you might share socially on a site like Spotify or Apple Music or whatever thing you subscribe to for $8 a month.
And I think that shows the deeper relationship we as humans have to the physical world and real things. They give us a way to interact with the world, with our five senses. And most importantly, with each other, that the digital world simply doesn’t. It renders those things obsolete because of the nature of the efficiency and the communication.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that idea, the tangible actually socializing, more visceral as well. Yeah, you can go over to someone’s house, you can flip through their albums or look through their bookshelves, and you have this conversation that’s awesome. You can share your whole book collection, or your whole music collection to your friend, but it’s not the same. You won’t have that same sort of conversation as you would if you were in person, holding this object.
David Sax: Right. You could very easily be walking down the street, or in a coffee shop, or on an airplane or somewhere, and someone could have a book with them. And you can immediately start a conversation based upon a shared interest in that book. But the nature of digital technology is that there is an element of privacy, a sort of cocoon around it. You’re never gonna look on someone’s screen and say, “Oh, you’re reading that on your Kindle? Cool, I read Revenge of the Analog.”
It renders us kinda faceless. In many ways, and there’s sociologists that talk about this, these devices that were there to create greater social interactions and experience, have in many ways created a barrier to that. We can have these surface interactions on Twitter and Facebook, but the deeper face-to-face interactions, that which we need as human beings, in order to thrive and survive in the world … analog remains the best outlet for that to happen.
Brett McKay: One of the other things I like about analog products is, you can lend it out to people. Yeah, you can share, but I love being able to borrow a book from somebody, or borrow an album. Or if you’re a kid from the 80s, borrow video games. It was fun, I don’t know what it was. And whenever you see that object in your house, not only do you think about the content in the object, but you also think about the person who owns that object. Like, “This was Ben, this is a part of Ben that I have in my house,” and it makes you, “I should reach out to Ben and talk about what I read in his book.”
David Sax: Yeah. And as you said, your wife gave you the turntable for your birthday. Every time you look at that turntable, you’re going to think of her. My turntable was given to me by a friend, Dave Levy, who’s a musician and a DJ, and works in human rights around the world. For my 30th birthday in New York, he had an extra turntable, and he’s like, “Here you go, man. Here you go.”
And every time I put it on I think about him. And every year for his birthday, when he comes back to Toronto, I buy him a record as a thank-you. That is the basis of a relationship. You can’t do that in the same way with digital music. Someone bought me a subscription to a music streaming service once, yeah, it was cool. And then the next year I had to pay for the subscription myself.
How many times have you been emailed some sort of Amazon gift card and you’re like, “Okay, cool.” It doesn’t hold that same meaning. It doesn’t hold that same value. And I think one of the interesting things that really struck me is, the reasons that you talk about why you wanted a turntable, why you enjoy it.
And the reasons that are cited by many people, especially of a younger generation: sound is the bottom. There’s this assumption by Baby Boomers and those older that oh, this is a new generation of audiophiles and the sound quality is better. But sound quality is highly subjective. I have a lot of old, scratchy records that the sound quality isn’t necessarily great. If I listen to that same file on a streaming service, it might actually sound better.
But the sound is just one element of the experience. And music, like so many other things in our life, is actually more than just the way the information is purely translated. It is an experience that we indulge in with all our five senses. And I think that’s something we took for granted for a number of years, as we moved to digitized things as quickly as possible.
Brett McKay: All right, let’s shift gears to books. Because I remember a few years ago, a week wouldn’t go by when you’d read some article about the death of publishing, that the e-reader was going to kill paperback, hard-bound books. But that didn’t happen. In fact, I think I read a recent study that said that e-books are going down while paperback books and hard copy books are going up.
So what’s going on there, why are people returning to dead-tree books instead of using the convenience of a Kindle reader?
David Sax: They never even went away. That was the interesting thing, that there were these predictions that when the Kindle came out in 2007 or so, this would be it. This would be the MP3 moment for the publishing industry, and all the publishers were quaking in their boots, and it never really happened. E-books have certainly grown, they own a percentage of the market. Kindles and readers and cobos have a percentage too, that percentage is declining.
And their decline is a mix of people not using them as much, I haven’t touched my Kindle in two years, as well as competition from other devices, where you can just get the Kindle app on your iPad and you don’t even need to buy the dedicated device.
But I think what the most important thing was, is that people, especially in the digital media industry as well as the publishing industry, they really discounted the value that people place on books as objects. Again, it goes back to what I was saying about records. It is an illogical thing. Even more so. If you buy a copy of “The Revenge of Analog” on Kindle or Cobo or Nook or whatever, you’re gonna pay less money for it and the information is the exact same. You don’t get any extra words. You don’t get any fewer words, either.
When you go out and pay $26 for the hardcover version of that book, you’re getting a chunk of dead tree, with some letters printed on it, and it’s the exact same as the other one. I just got, recently, some statistics from my publisher about how the book’s doing. Take a guess at what percentage of “The Revenge of Analog” was sold in digital.
Brett McKay: I’m gonna say 25 percent.
David Sax: I think it’s like 8 percent. Which is fairly standard for most mass-market books out there. There’s certain areas: romance, fantasy, self-published, where e-books are certainly statistically much higher. But your average nonfiction book that might be on the best-seller list, or fiction book, is a relatively small percentage. Which represents the percentage of sales for the publishing industry overall of what those books represent.
So why is it, why is it that people will still go out and pay for these stacks of dead, shredded trees with ink on them? What is it about it? Again, the relationship we have to books, what they represent, what they symbolize. They are aspirational capitalism at its finest. We have a very strong emotional attachment to them. The idea of having a bookcase filled with books in your house, you have arrived as a member of the educated middle class.
And I think it goes back to childhood. I have two very young kids, a 3 1/2 year old who’s a voracious reader, with me reading to her, of course; and a 7-month-old. And books are their life, books are everything, especially to the older one. A night without three stories, or four stories with a whole lot of begging in it, there’s no bedtime. It just wouldn’t happen.
So it’s such an ingrained part of the way we live and see the world, but it’s also something that again, has those same tactile advantages. You can loan a friend a book, you can mark them up. You never have to worry about the battery failing. They can last for hundreds and hundreds of years. You can give them as gifts. You can give them away. You can do whatever you want to them, and they remain there. It is very much the perfect form for how we love to absorb information.
So they prove resilient, and I think very little is gonna come and change that. Simply because it’s proven to be something we actually want and desire.
Brett McKay: Right. I think I read also another study that came out not too long ago, that people actually retain information better when they read from a printed page, compared to when they read on a screen. It’s something about the tangibility of the thing that helps, supposedly.
But I’ve noticed it myself. When I read on a screen, I tend to skim. But when I read a physical book, I’m more absorbed in the process.
David Sax: Yeah. And listen, I used my Kindle almost exclusively for a year or two, and read some fantastic books on it. And it didn’t diminish those books in any way. But what was interesting was, when I began research on this book, I got a library card, Toronto Public Library. And I started out taking out books for research that I didn’t necessarily want to own, I just needed to read a little bit of it, take some notes, and send them back.
So I remember reading the first book in paper that I read, after a year and a half of using the Kindle, and it was just instantly, within two pages I was like, “Oh yeah, I like reading this way so much more.”
That was it. There was no overt reason why. One of the things was, knowing where a page is and knowing where you are just by sense and feel, instead of having the numerical, oh, you’re 10 percent done, you’re on page 106 of 252. You could feel it, you could flip, you could skim back. You didn’t have to deal with menus and options. It’s the simplicity of an act that we’ve known since we were young children.
I watch my 7-month-old, now he knows how to flip back and forth in his five-page Sandra Bointen picture books. He’ll grab the page and flip it back, then put it in his mouth and vomit on it. There is something inherently hardwired into our brains about that. That’s because we are tactile creatures. We like to touch. We have our five senses, and we like to use them. And the more we use them, the more we get out of something.
Which is why the digital world, which limits us to taps with the finger on a flat, texture-less piece of glass, it doesn’t give us that same sensory feedback.
Brett McKay: You just brought up another reason I just remembered why I am returning to paperback books and music. This is gonna sound really tinfoil hat-ty, but when you buy an e-book, or digital music, you read the terms of service, you really don’t own it, you’re sort of renting it from Amazon. They could take that back, they could delete it from your device. And you don’t have much recourse going on.
But when you have an actual object, Amazon can’t come into your house and steal it, because there’s laws, no, you can’t do that. So that’s another reason, I like knowing that I own my culture. This is mine, you can’t take it back or delete it accidentally.
David Sax: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s too crazy, what you’re talking about. Before I had a subscription to Spotify, I had a subscription to Rdio, which was a competitor that raised a couple hundred million dollars. I liked it better than Spotify, I had all sorts of albums and playlists that I had made. Because I listened to digital music when I’m in the car or walking, when I can’t lug my turntable around with me.
And then it went bankrupt. They sent a little thing that’s like, “We’re really sorry we’ve gone bankrupt, we’ve been bought by Pandora and we’re gonna be absorbed into their company. As of Monday, your service will be done.”
And that was it. It was like poof, everything was gone. All the albums I’d saved, everything I’d done was gone. But unless someone breaks into my house, or there’s a fire or a flood, my records will be there. And they are to do with whatever I want to do with them. If I want to give them away, if I want to sell them, if I want to store them. If I want to crack them over my knee. I can do whatever I want with them, it’s my property.
I think this notion that we would move beyond an ownership society, is one of these fantastical ideas that gets ballied about in Silicon Valley utopian circles that goes against human nature, and what we like about the world, and how we want to interact with the world.
Brett McKay: So let’s move back onto paper. So that’s another thing. I remember my uncle said this a while back, and this was two decades ago, that, “They’ve been saying we’re gonna have a paperless office, but there’s more paper than ever, I feel like I have more paper.”
That’s gotten true. Even with these new devices, given the possibility of paper becoming obsolete, we are still drawn to paper. In the book you talk about the Moleskine notebook, but there’s other things out there. Like Field Notes, that are really popular with people. What’s the obsession there? Why are we so drawn to tactile writing technology, just the old fashioned pen and notebook?
David Sax: Because it works. If you want to have an idea that pops into your head, and there’s a pen and a paper sitting on the desk next to you, and there’s a laptop or a smartphone. What is the quickest, easiest way to get that idea down without any distractions? It’s the pen and the paper. It is instantaneous and you’re not restrained by what the software commands you to do.
If I wanted to take a note on the computer, I have to go open a program, figure out where to save that file, save the file, figure out the format that I want to write it in, and I can only write what it will allow me. I can’t doodle in some way, I can’t fold it over, I can’t scribble things out.
Which is why, at the biggest, most successful tech companies, whether it’s Amazon or Google or Facebook, on the desks of the brilliant engineers and creatives that work there, you have people using Moleskine notebooks, or Field Notes notebooks, or just good old pieces of scrap paper or whiteboards.
Because again, it is the shortest way for an idea to leave your brain and enter the physical world in some sense of permanence. And I think it’s incredibly useful to have that balance. So yeah, there’s the idea of having to format it, and all that, the simplicity of things. But it gives you the opportunity to do things in a way that’s entirely unique to you.
Whereas if I’m typing a note on my computer, it’s formatted in the same way that Microsoft Word tells all documents to be formatted. Or the amount of work I have to go into to make it unique, is a step away from just getting that idea out there.
It doesn’t mean that everybody is going to move back to writing things on paper and then banging out ideas on typewriters. There is a point where moving back to the digital provides so many advantages, and it’s just better. I didn’t write this book on a typewriter, I wrote it on a computer. I’m a much faster typer than I am with handwriting. My handwriting is atrocious and barely legible.
But it allows me to think in a way, almost out loud, that I can’t do in the same way on a computer when I’m typing. So it proves very useful to people. Because it’s a siloed act. When you’re writing something in a notebook, or on a piece or paper, or on a whiteboard, you’re just writing something. You’re not trying to do 10 other things at once. You’re not being distracted by multiple texts coming in. You’re not trying to merge it with images and video like a PowerPoint presentation, which is the worst things in the world.
You are there with the simplicity of your idea, and working through it in a way that allows it to be seen. But also very quickly changed and edited, it doesn’t feel precious, that just works. And I think that’s it. I think at the end of the day, beyond the romantic notions of Hemingway and Picasso using the notebook to create, like Moleskine uses, or the great American field notebook of great American workers like Field Notes uses, whatever it happens to be. It just worked for people.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I was actually talking to an architect friend of mine about this topic. He’s been in the field for over 30 years, so before CAD really took on. And he mentioned one of the saddest things that’s happened in architecture in the past 20 or so years, is this over-reliance on computer programs to design architecture.
Before, an architect would just take out some paper, and just draw, freehand draw with a ruler. And he says, you get these beautiful designs that would just look aesthetically pleasing but were also architecturally sound. But he says, now, people just go to the computer. It’s fast, because there’s these pre-programmed things that will tell you. You draw a line, it tells you how many studs you need, everything’s done. But it limits creativity, he says our architecture has suffered as a result of that.
David Sax: Yeah. There’s interesting studies around that, around architecture and design. I interviewed someone named John Skigel, who works at Google. He’s one of their chief designers of user experience and user interface. How all Google products, websites, Gmail, how they look and how they work.
And he created this course for teaching other designers and employees at Google how to draw things by hand on paper. And it’s since became mandatory pretty much for everybody at Google who works on these types of products. And he explained to me why. Because the software creates a bias. It will always steer you in the direction of what it wants you to do, or what’s gonna be easiest or most standardized.
That’s because the nature of software is to standardize things. You create one set of software, and it has a set of rules, and those rules go out to every edition of that software. And you can move, but you have to move within the bounds of the rules.
On paper, you really only have to move within the physical bounds of the page, but you can do whatever the hell you want there.
So at Google, and many ad firms, and now some architecture firms, the idea is, when you are working for an idea for something at the first stage, let’s say designing a building. Don’t go to the computer first. Go to paper first. Get your idea out, scribble it, squiggle it. Doesn’t have to be perfect, imperfection is actually the goal. And then once you have it down, of what you want and what you’re working, then transfer it to the computer. Then scan it. Then rework it. Then work on the fine details and figure out how many studs you need and what type of steel, and what angle it has to be at, so the thing doesn’t collapse on your head.
And I think fundamentally, what we’re talking about here is re-embracing a kind of imperfection in the world and saying, “Look. We have built these one-size-fits solutions for every aspect of our life, but we don’t live in a one-size-all-fits world, and it’s actually not advantageous to us all the time.”
Brett McKay: You wrote an article for Esquire Magazine not too long ago. I remember this article, it was near the front of the magazine, that’s why I remembered it. I think that’s why I found out about your book, this book that we’re talking about right now.
About men and collecting stuff. Cause we’ve written about collecting stuff on the site before as this hobby, and stuff guys collect, and guys love to talk about their collections. But this digital world makes it harder and harder to collect stuff, because you don’t have albums to collect, you don’t have books to collect, so you’re left collecting other stuff.
Why do you think it’s so important for guys to have a collection, and why do you think men have this draw? I know I like stuff more than my wife, I collect weird knick-knacks. What is it about stuff and collecting things in men?
David Sax: I think it really is very primal. We are the hunters, and we want our conquests there on the wall. I’m sitting here in my home office, I have an award, one of my books won, and some article about another one of my books, and the poster for the launch party of this book. They’re up there. I have stacks of different books I bought, which I read once and will never read again, and I resist every time my wife’s like, “we have to clean up the house, we have to clean this out, too much stuff.” I’m like, “No, don’t touch it, don’t touch that book.”
I have an emotional attachment. I want to see that. I just want to know it’s there. It’s an inexplicable thing, but it gives us a sense of grounding. We live in a world where increasingly the pace of change is so fast, and uncertainty is the norm, whether we’re talking about economic uncertainty, technological uncertainty, or political uncertainty. And we need things to ground ourselves to and anchor ourselves to.
There is comfort in that. When you’re feeling anxious, going to that record collection on your shelf and just rubbing your fingers along the spine and picking out something that resonates with you. Whether it’s at a breakup or time of economic or familial uncertainty in your life. These items are more than the lion heads on our wall. They’re security blankets in some ways. They’re what grounds us to the past. I remember getting this album on my first day, or when I graduated college.
That, I think, makes us more human. I think the idea that we as men must always be moving forward and moving on, and smashing the past, disrupting, disrupting. It doesn’t leave us with much to hold onto. We need to be rooted in some sort of sense of a personal identity, and sometimes that rooting happens with physical things.
So it’s collecting it. Whether it’s a collection of beer cans or stupid T-shirts. Remember those big Johnson T-shirts? At one point he had 10 of them. Sports memorabilia. There is no reason to own Michael Jordan’s shoe for $2,000 but I know people who do, because it gives them some sense of who they are they can look at and be like, “This is my value. This is my life.”
Brett McKay: David Sax, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure. Like I said, David Sax, his book is “Revenge of the Analog,” it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Try picking it up in a hard copy book, instead of a digital one, go along with the theme of the podcast. Make sure to check out our show notes at AOM.is/analog, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast, for more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website, at artofmanliness.com.
As always, appreciate your support, you can give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, that helps us out a lot. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: May 10, 2017