In 2016, David Sax wrote a book called The Revenge of Analog, which made the case that even as we marched towards an ever more digital future, we were increasingly returning to real, tangible things — choosing vinyl records over streaming, brick and mortar bookstores over Amazon, and in-person conversations over Skype.
In the intervening years, the pandemic hit, and, David argues, truly reaffirmed his case, which he lays out in his latest book: The Future Is Analog.
Today on the show, David explains how the pandemic gave us a trial run of an entirely digital future, and made us realize we really don’t want it, or at least, we don’t want all of it. We discuss the drawbacks that came from going virtual with work, school, shopping, socializing, and religious worship, and discuss how we’re not as smart when we don’t use our embodied cognition, how information is different from education, and why there are few things quite as awful as a Zoom cocktail party.
Resources Related to the Episode
- David’s previous appearance on the AoM Podcast: Episode #289 — The Revenge of Analog
- AoM Podcast #796: The Life We’re Looking For
- Sonic Boom music store in Toronto
- Native Summit outdoor store in Edmond, OK
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. In 2016, David Sax wrote a book called Revenge of the Analog, which made the case that even as we marched towards an ever more digital future, we were increasingly returning to real, tangible things, choosing vinyl records over streaming, brick-and-mortar bookstores over Amazon, and in-person conversations over Skype. In the intervening years, the pandemic hit, and David argues, truly reaffirmed his case, which he lays out in his latest book, The Future is Analog. Today on the show, David explains how the pandemic gave us a trial run of an entirely digital future and made us realize we don’t really want it, or at least we don’t want all of it. We discussed the drawbacks that came from going virtual with work, school, shopping, socializing and religious worship. And discuss how we’re not as smart when we don’t use our embodied cognition, how information is different from education and why there are few things quite as awful as a Zoom cocktail party. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/futureisanalog.
Brett McKay: Alright, David Sax, welcome back to the show.
David Sax: It is a pleasure to be back here, Brett.
Brett McKay: So we had you on back in 2017, that’s a long time ago, to discuss your book, The Revenge of the Analog, where you highlighted these pockets in our culture where people were intentionally choosing analog versions of things we now do digitally. So like people listening to vinyl instead of streaming. I guess now the thing is cassette tapes are coming back too, so you probably could have talked about that.
David Sax: I never predicted that, I never… It still astounds me.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We got plain board games instead of video games, people going to independent bookstores, etc. In your new book, same thing about the analog, but you make the case that the pandemic showed that the future is indeed analog. Why is that? Because, didn’t the pandemic show that we could move everything to screens and to the cloud?
David Sax: Well, that was the promise. Right? The promise of the digital future was that, going forward, everything could be done through a computer, through a screen, or maybe a VR headset, which is like a screen that you strap to your eyes. And for years, that was the heart of the sales pitch of every company pitching to a venture capitalist, of companies getting up and doing their best Steve Jobs product demonstration, the core of the sci-fi singularity, technological futurism, which really was the heart of the way we thought about the future, that the future was going to be digital. The amount of times I heard the term, “The future is going to be digital, the future is digital.”
When I was out talking about The Revenge of Analog, when I was giving talks or doing interviews, and people were like, “Well, what do you mean ‘The Revenge of Analog? Everything’s digital now and everything’s becoming more digital.'” I think what the pandemic showed us was a preview, a test drive, if you will, of that digital future. One day we were going about our lives, we were doing things on the computer but we were also going to restaurants and our kids were going to school and we were going into offices and seeing plays and doing all the things that one does out in the real analog world, and the next day, March 15th, 2020, everybody in the world, except people in New Zealand, are inside and they’re conducting are inside and they’re conducting every single aspect of their life through the screen.
So we actually got for at least a few months or even a few years, depending on your circumstances, to test drive the digital future. And on the surface, as you said, it worked. You can work entirely remotely if your job isn’t like surgery or construction or driving something. You can send your children or be a university student entirely with a computer without ever stepping into a school. You can stream all the culture you want, music, plays, dance, theater, improv, you name it, just from your screen through various services. You can be a good Christian or good Jew or good Muslim and attend all your rituals and do all the things you have to do through streaming services or through various online platforms. You can live, in theory, a full and complete life in the digital world, in a non-VR metaverse, if you want to call it that. And on the surface, that will work.
But what did we actually discover? For the most part, and for most people, that had its limits, and we came up against those limits very quickly within days of going into quarantine and lockdown. There were certain aspects and many aspects of our analog life, our life beyond the screen, of real face-to-face relationships and physical spaces and the interaction with all of them in our bodies that are irreplaceable, and that the digital version of that is a far cry, that that’s no substitute and no equivalent of the real deal.
Brett McKay: So at what point in the lockdown, in the pandemic, did you realize, “This is not great?” For me, I remember when it first happened, it was exciting, I think for a lot of people, it was like, “This is new. This is different. I don’t think it’d go out. This is cool.” But then it reached a point where you’re like, “Geez, when is this going to be over?” Was there a moment when you were like, “This is no longer… This is not fun anymore?”
David Sax: I would say four days into it for me, I think it was just, there was a point in one day where it was like every screen in this house I was in, which is my mother-in-law’s weekend house, where we had gone to get more space, was on. She has so many TVs, it’s like an airport lounge. Every TV was on, playing cartoons for the kids or someone was doing exercise class in one or just like CNN on, like a bad pizza takeout place that just keeps the news on on silent. Everyone was on their phones and tablets. I was bouncing from Zoom calls for work, to Zoom things for podcast interviews to promote another book I had, to typing things on Microsoft Word documents, to trying to get my child onto Google Classroom so her teacher could give her assignments that we then had to do on another computer while my wife was coaching people downstairs. And it was just like there was one day probably, I don’t know, within the first week where it’s like 5 o’clock, I finally come up for air and I realized I’ve been staring at screens and everyone has been staring at screens all day.
And it’s like, “We have to go out, we have to take a walk.” And nobody wanted to. “No, no, no.” The kids were just ensconced in their screen. My wife was working. And I went out and I took a walk, it was rainy and cold and miserable. And all of a sudden, for the first time in the entire day, I felt alive, I was out, I was hearing birds, it was like, I don’t know, it was like I was on psychedelics and I had been reborn to see this world outside of the screen and realize just how out of whack that was and how I cannot live another day like this, let alone the rest of my life, that this is no future I want a part of.
Brett McKay: In the book, you break down the book into different aspects of our lives and explore the downsides of moving that aspect into the digital world. You use the day of the week as the organizing principle. Monday, you explore the world of work. For those who shifted to work from home, what was the biggest problem of transitioning to remote work in your research that you did?
David Sax: Yeah, I think what we realized and what I even knew is that there is a big difference between “work” which is seen as this measure of economic productivity based upon certain tasks you are paid to do. Much of that can be done online if you’re an information worker, if you’re someone whose work is done on computers already basically, and the broader world of work that folds around that, the relationships you have with people you work with in an office, the setting there, the building, the restaurants around it, the place where you work, the environment that that’s in. All of that comes together to form something greater around work that actually informs the work that you do. I talked to… Interviewed a gentleman, a researcher in New York, his name is Andreas Hofbauer. He studied architecture studios and how they work. He said during the pandemic, a lot of the architects he had studied and talked to had noted that the work that they were doing was quickly declining in quality, that they were able to work on projects that they had already been engaging in prior to going virtual, but anything new was really difficult to get new ideas for, there was something missing.
He talked about the process of embodied cognition. Embodied cognition is the learning that we get, the information we get from our surroundings. Think about an architecture studio. You have a bunch of desks, you have an office, it’s in a tower, it’s in a loft, wherever it is, they’re all kinda the same, beams and whatever. Yet around that are all these different visual, sensorial cues that an architect will pick up on in their day-to-day. Tile samples, sheets of metal, swabs of paint, different renderings and photos and clippings of ideas for a building, or maybe different iterations of a design for a building, for example. That plus the individuals whose different jobs are there. You might have an engineer, you might have an urban planner, you might have someone who’s the lawyer, you might have someone who deals interior [0:09:47.4] ____ materials all working together. People who you bump into on your way to get coffee on your way to the elevator in the five minutes before a meeting, and you have conversations, and in those conversations, many of the ideas and structures and pieces of that building are being discussed. Or you’re walking by on your way to go out for lunch and you see a drawing on someone’s desk, you see a piece of a model, you see something.
And so all of that builds this collective understanding of work and an idea, and that along with the different things like trust. Human relationships built not just on the tasks people do, but on conversation, on time spent together, on time spent talking about things that have nothing to do with work. And the understanding of people’s personalities and how they work. And now you take all of that and you get rid of it, and you just have the tasks, the work that someone does, their deliverables or their things, and all of that communication-embodied cognition is reduced down to what you can digitize and send through a flat piece of glass on a platform like Slack or Google Work or whatever, whatever it is, Teams, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter whatever that thing is. So you lose a lot of that information there. And information is inherently social.
And there were a lot of studies that came out very early in the pandemic and they said, “Oh, well, this is going to be great for productivity because people are working more hours and they’re being distracted less by time with the commute or random office banter and chit chat and stupid little birthday cakes. But there was a big study that was done by Microsoft Corporation, which actually led the way in many ways saying, “We’re going to do a lot of remote.” And it studied I think 60,000 people across all their divisions, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Xbox, whatever, and said, “Look, what we are seeing is a decline in communication amongst different teams. People talk to the exact people they have to talk to and no one else.” And over time, they forecast an atrophying of creativity and productivity because things were increasingly siloed.
And so it doesn’t mean that everyone should go back to the office five days a week but it certainly means that if you go entirely digital with your work, there are sacrifices that are going to be made. And over the long term, we’re going to see the consequences of that, which will be unfolding as work becomes more atomized, and it’s just this notion of like, “Here’s the task and you do this task, here’s the task and you do this task, without all those other aspects that is actually what makes work work.
Brett McKay: Okay, so it sounds like there are times when working remotely works. When it’s task-based stuff, like you’re doing a spreadsheet. And I also think a lot of people, they don’t want to give up working from home altogether. They tried it during the pandemic and they figured, “Man, I really like this, I want to keep doing this.” But what your chapter on work is showing is that there are times if you want to be creative and be productive with your creativity, you really got to be in person. And what you talk about is that figuring this balance out is going to be tricky because first, we have to redefine what productivity even means. You talk about shifting away from this industrial revolution-mindset of, “Productivity is numbers of hours worked,” to something where it’s more like, “What leads to creative output?” And you say, “This could take decades to figure out.” So it’s going to take a long time. But I think the big takeaway is that we lose that embodied cognition when we move everything to completely virtual.
I mean I’ve noticed that in my own works, a lot of my work is through a screen, but sometimes there’s things where I have to get tactile with it, where I have to like… You get a whiteboard and you’re doing stuff on a whiteboard and working things out, or you’re getting pen and paper and working things out. And what’s interesting, there’s companies that have tried to digitize that, and I’ve used some of those services before where you can create a digital whiteboard and… But it’s not the same, it doesn’t grab… I don’t know, it just seems flat and I don’t get anything out of it.
David Sax: Yeah, I interviewed someone named Jennifer Kolstad, who’s the head of interior design for Ford’s offices around the world. And during 2020, 2021, her and her team were really trying to design and figure out what the future of the office was going to be for Ford, the Ford Motor Company. And they were using all these virtual tools and remote tools, Miro and Google Docs and whatever to try to do it, and they were just getting nowhere. She said, “It was like a sand trap. You were just so focused on this thing and the different capabilities of the tools.” And so what they did was they got everyone together in a Detroit office boardroom. They had to wear masks, everyone had to be vaccinated, they had to sign like waivers that they wouldn’t sue them if they got sick. And she said they got it done in three hours because it was just a wall with whiteboard and drawing and people pinning things up that they printed out. And it was like it was… She said, “It was just seeing that in the physical space changed everything.”
And I think that is that basic truth that I realized sitting at home trying to do everything remotely. And I think a lot of people did. And it’s something that we forget, which is that we have bodies. We are not screens, we have not uploaded our brains as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel want us to do and live in the cloud, or Zuckerberg and his headsets or whatever and his stupid avatars. Like we are flesh and blood creatures, we exist in the analog world as much as we might try to deny that, and when we remove that, we’re removing a lot of our capabilities, removing a lot of our intelligence, in a way, and the benefits of our evolution.
Brett McKay: Alright, so it sounds like the future of work, we got to change our idea of productivity, but then also, Don’t downplay the importance of analog. And that’s going to be different for every person, every company.
David Sax: Totally.
Brett McKay: And we’re going to be figuring this out. Let’s talk about school. For decades, we’ve been hearing about the promises of online digital school, “We need technology, ed tech.” I remember when I was a kid in the ’80s and ’90s, it was all like, “We got to get computers in the school… ”
David Sax: Multimedia.
Brett McKay: “Multimedia, Encarta with CD-ROM.” We finally got online school with the pandemic. What did we learn about digital school?
David Sax: I mean, this is, If you can find me somewhere in the world, someone who’s like, “You know what? This was a tremendous success.” Like if you could find someone who’s like a student or a teacher or a school and they’re like, “You know what, this is what we’re doing. We’re moving our entire school online. This was such a success.” For the vast, vast, vast majority. I’m talking 99.9% of students, teachers, schools, whether we’re talking kindergarten to Harvard grad school, it was a dismal failure and a real eye-opening, cold-water bath in the limits of digital learning and the realities of what education is, the difference between education and learning and information delivery because again, as you said, for years… We’re going back to like Thomas Edison and his claim that we wouldn’t need schools because of phonographs and radio and film, that lectures would be delivered that way and we would do away with these buildings. Even people selling encyclopedias in 19th and 18th century, right up to CD-ROMs, Encarta, as you wonderfully reminded me, Nicholas Negroponte and the one laptop per child, “We’re going to have these hand-cranked laptops, we’re going to drop them from planes to kids in Africa so they can learn.”
There has been this notion that schools are these horribly inefficient institutions and they’re ill-suited for teaching people the skills of the digital era and the digital future, and so if we can bring some efficiency to this in the secret sauce of Silicon Valley and make it remote, like think of what we can do, a million young Steve Jobs will bloom. And that was always false. Every experiment that was done in giving every kid a laptop in public schools in various southern states in different countries. The MOOC movement, the massive online open course movement by Sebastian Thur and a bunch of brilliant Google engineers, which received billions of dollars in funding and tons of universities tried. All of them were failures. They resulted in worse learning, worse scores. The MOOCs, pretty much every one of these large online courses, they have like a 10% completion rate. Not even talking about learning, not even talking about outcomes. Only 10% of people will do all the classes in that thing. That is… Could you imagine a school that had 10% attendance? That’s insane. The information was always there, and yet it was this question of, “Oh well, we just need more people to do it. We just need the technology to be better.”
So the technology was pretty great. You had Zoom, you had Google Classroom, these were platforms. And I saw it with my own children. The teacher was there and they were able to put things up on the screen, they were able to send things out and everybody could post things. It wasn’t a perfect technology but there’s no such thing. Right? And there was time to implement it, it wasn’t just done for three weeks. Yeah, it was chaotic at first but many schools like the ones my kids went to were closed for almost a year, so there was time for people to get used to learning about that thing and do it. And there was money. It wasn’t just underfunded public schools that were doing it in poor countries, it was the wealthiest countries in the world, the wealthiest private schools in the world. And all of them sucked, all of it failed. Every student pretty much was miserable, it was terrible. There was learning loss, there was a loss of comprehension, but more than anything, there was this horrible experience of watching your children floundering in front of an iPad day in, day out when they all just wanted to go to school.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and…
David Sax: So it was great, it sure was great. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: No. Yeah, it was weird. I always tell my kids, “You have the weirdest experience with school ever. No one’s ever had this.”
David Sax: How old are your kids?
Brett McKay: Twelve and nine. So I tell them like, “This never happened to me, never happened to your grandparents, didn’t happen to your great-grandparents, where you were just like, ‘You’re not going to go to school for a year.'” And so I think given that the situation was different, we did okay with it. But I noticed with my kids, the teachers could only do so much. The assignments they’d give were pretty easy, it was like, “Draw a picture of a plant.” And it’s like, “Well, that’s it. And I couldn’t get angry ’cause like, “What else are you going to do?” And then also noticed that my kids, they were starting to check out with some of the assignments, but also they’d have times where the teachers would schedule these Zoom meetings, where they can get together with all the kids and like do a storytime. I thought it was interesting. My kids did it at first but then after a while, like, “I don’t want to do that anymore, I don’t like that, I don’t like the Zoom meetings.”
David Sax: And so this gets to the core of this thing that I talked about before, which is the difference between information and education. If I want to teach you to do something, if I want to teach you a skill, arithmetic, like basic multiplication, I can teach that online, Khan Academy, great. Like go online, you can find all these Khan Academy videos of how to do these things. But education is a deeper thing, and there is a wonderful professor at Stanford named Larry Cuban that I’d interviewed for the last book, and I reached back out to him again and I said, “What did we learn from this?” And he said, “It is the difference between information and education. Education is a far greater thing than information, it is a series of relationships, a human relationship that is built in-person, which you can’t do online, between a teacher and the students, and students and each other, and the students and other classes, and teachers and other teachers, and a school and other schools, and a community.”
David Sax: When you think about your children’s school, I think about my kids’ school. It’s a community, there are interactions constantly between parents talking to other parents and students talking to other students, and the relationships, and love and fight and jokes and whatever. Like all of that is part of the thing. The authority that the teacher has in front of that classroom and the trust that they’re able to build by being an authority figure that is also someone who is respected is what allows them to teach that arithmetic to the child and for the child to care about that, for the child to respect them, to talk to their peers when they’re having an issue, to learn together and really build something that’s the building block of complicated modern society. Right? But online, all we have is the information because the relationship is so weak when your teacher is just a little 4-inch square on a screen, that you don’t have that relationship, you don’t have that trust.
My son was in kindergarten when we began this, junior kindergarten, which is like pre-K in America, and I’m in Canada. And he was jumping up and down, pulling his pants down, and he would put the thing on mute, would ignore his teachers, and they had no authority. Whereas in the classroom, he knew he had to sit there, he knew he had to listen, he knew he couldn’t make a poo joke in the middle of her reading a story or he would actually get in trouble, but at home, that was removed, the teacher was just some pixel on a screen. And I think you saw that across. So if anyone now is arguing that virtual school is the future of education, I think they will actually be run out of town, tarred, feathered and chased.
Brett McKay: And then there’s also that embodied cognition part, when an education or school is like the place, all the weird smells, I think all of us… You can remember the smell of your elementary school and you bump in with the environment. You might see a flier for some robot club or whatever. And that doesn’t happen online. You can’t get that. And then there’s just the social aspect, I think our kids can be like canaries in the coal mine, to show us things about ourselves that we don’t see. I noticed this with my kids, particularly my daughter when we shifted to online school, she just like withered like a plant. And it was awful, it was terrible too, it just broke my heart to see her. But then when we went back to school in person, she just like regenerated, it was like you can almost see her coming back to life because she needed that social aspect of school so much. So I think the takeaway for me from that experience was like, People need people.
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Shifting gears. Another thing you talk about in the book was online commerce. During the pandemic, people started doing more of their shopping online, everything was mediated through Amazon or DoorDash or some other online service, and that made e-commerce monolithic and limited your options, and it was terrible for smaller businesses, a lot of brick-and-mortar businesses struggled, went out of business. Just remember reading stories in the newspaper about local businesses that have been in business for decades, went out of business. And then speaking from the consumers’ point of view, I find online shopping… There are some benefits to it. For example you don’t have to leave your house. But I find I hate shopping online, actually, ’cause you need… Shopping for clothes, for example. Terrible. You saw something and you’re like, “That looks really good.” You buy it and you get it, it’s like, “This doesn’t fit, it doesn’t look like what I thought it would look like in person.” And then you have to send it… Like sending stuff back. Like my wife and I, once a week, we have this to-do of like we have to return stuff, and it’s a big pain ’cause you got to do the thing. And even for the… I don’t think a lot of people realize this. On the business end, return logistics is one of the most complicated, expensive things that a business does.
David Sax: A lot of it, they just throw out or sell for like pennies on the dollar, it’s like some real Grapes of Wrath stuff.
Brett McKay: Right, so I don’t like online shopping, like clothes I don’t like… I hate buying clothes online, even like doing groceries online…
David Sax: Good luck to you with that ripe tomato.
Brett McKay: Right, the produce, that’s the thing. You never get good produce ’cause you can’t pick out the avocado you want.
David Sax: You just think about it. When you go to a grocery store, whether it’s a Whole Foods or a random fruit store or whatever it is, and you want to buy a tomato or tomatoes, what do you do? You look with your eyes…
Brett McKay: You touch.
David Sax: You touch with your hands, you smell with your nose, you might ask someone something. You have these senses, all of which is rendered flat on a screen, and it’s just a photo of a tomato, a stock photo of a tomato. And what’s interesting is, what we’ve seen is that it went from… E-commerce went from something like, I don’t know, 11% or 12% of US retail sales, excluding gas or some other category to the peak of the pandemic, we’re talking, I don’t know, April, May of 2020, 16%, and all these retail analysts and people and e-commerce boosters were like, “This is it. This is the new normal, it’s just going to keep growing, and no one’s ever going back to stores.” And then as soon as they reopened stores, people were back back in the grocery store, back in the clothing store.
I remember, it was the first day they reopened retail stores here in Toronto, it was like May or June of 2020, and it was limited shopping and blah, blah, blah, and there was a huge lineup around the corner for a vinyl record store, Sonic Boom, it was record store day. Like you don’t have to feel a vinyl record to know… It’s a piece of plastic, it’s really durable, these things last forever. You can very easily click and collect it. People voted with their feet. And now you actually see e-commerce sales sliding and the e-commerce sales of Amazon are down like, I don’t know, a tremendous, tremendous percentage, I think it’s like 30, 40% or something like that. Shopify, same thing too. They just over-assume that people only want that, I think it’s that mix. Like there are certain things… I know I want a specific thing… So for example, I’m a big skier, I wanted to buy new skis but I wanted a specific pair of new skis. Dynastar M Pro 99 millimeter waist, and I knew I could get them on sale and I looked and looked and looked ’cause you can’t just go into every ski store. They won’t have them. They’re a year old. And I found a pair from a local store here in Toronto that uses Shopify for its e-commerce solution. And I bought it and I went and picked it up. But I knew I wanted that. And then I had to get the like bindings that went with it, and I hunted those down, a specific, specific thing.
I know that that’s what I want but like grocery shopping, I’ve done it, there was a part of it that was convenient, the delivery. It’s really annoying to spend an hour online, like clicking through every single item in a grocery store to find it. It’s a lot easier to just walk down the aisle and just be like, “Oh yeah, peanut butter. Oh yeah, bread. Oh yeah, tortillas. Oh yeah. Well, Hawkin cheese. Like, that looks good. That looks tasty. I’ll take that, I’ll get that, I’ll get that,” $300 later or 5 ’cause of hyperinflation. And so again, it’s this notion of, Where does it make sense? And I think what the future we’re looking at and the future I hope… And the hopeful future that I talk about in the book for commerce is, What is the best balance? What is a future where digital commerce is supportive of analog brick-and-mortar commerce? Where does it allow you to order something from a store or see what a store has that’s near you and get it delivered or pick it up without competing with that store?
I think the Amazon model and the third-party delivery-service model is competitive. It’s like that classic Silicon Valley “own the market.” “We’re going to be the only grocery store left, we’re going to put everybody out of business.” And it just doesn’t work that way in the real world, it’s not like a software platform. There’s tons of stores for everyone, for every demographic or every price point for every neighborhood. And people want a mix of that. They want the convenience but they don’t want only one option.
Brett McKay: Well, I think another place why people flocking back to in-person shopping is, you get to talk to someone who’s an expert. So perfect example is outdoor gear, like backpacks, tents, etcetera.
David Sax: Now we’re talking, baby.
Brett McKay: Right, so this past year, we needed some new backpacking equipment. And you can go online, it’s just so confusing ’cause you’re reading like just reviews from just tons of different people, “Here’s one by… ”
David Sax: This is, by the way, the Art of Manliness right here. I wanted to tell you.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, and my wife was looking for one and she was just, “I’m just overwhelmed, there’s too many choices.” So we went. There’s this really great outdoor store in my hometown of Edmond, Oklahoma, it’s called Native Summit, and we went there. It’s small, it’s not huge, it’s not like an REI or an Academy or whatever, it’s small, it’s well curated, and the guys that own it and run it, they’re outdoorsmen.
David Sax: And their beard game is strong.
Brett McKay: Yeah. The guy had a beard that…
David Sax: Their hacky sack… Their hacky sacks kill it.
Brett McKay: I bought a… I actually bought a hacky sack, I bought a hacky sack and a frisbee while I was there, but it was great ’cause you could try on the backpack and they would fit it right for you, and if you had questions, they can answer it. You couldn’t do that online.
David Sax: No. I have a jacket from Patagonia that I bought a couple of years ago, when the last book came out, when Revenge of Analog came out, it was cold, I was on a book tour, bought a jacket, used it like crazy, it has so many holes in it. They have this whole repair thing, so I went in and we talked and debated about repairing it, and not. And they show me the new ones and she’s like, “Honestly, here’s what I can do and I can get it… ” And they sent it away for a free repair and I got it back and it’s as good as new. And then I had to buy another jacket, a shell to go over top of it. And we went and like picked up all the things and she showed them to me and tried them on. She’s like, “Well, what are you doing? Where are you skiing, and how often are you doing it? Are you carrying your skis on your shoulder? Are you wearing a backpack?” Like all these different points of information, which, yes, I could have gone and researched and gone on every blog and read every review and gone down that internet rabbit hole to find that information about which jacket I wanted or I could have had the pleasure of just going to the store and touching and feeling it and having it.
At the end of the day, she didn’t have the size and color I wanted, so she’s like, “Look, go ahead, order it online, we’ll ship it to you… You can come here and pick it up. Like no problemo.” Or, “Here’s a free shipping code.” Like it still went through the company and it still worked with their e-commerce but I got the best of both worlds. I got that tactile analog human experience, and not only that, but I’m now loyal, as loyal as a middle-aged white man could be, to Patagonia. I was like, “That was great. Like this is a company that stands for a certain thing, and they really showed up and stood behind that.” That’s that deeper relationship. And it’s good for their business, I am going to go buy my next jacket there when this one dies in 20 years after they repaired or whatever.
Brett McKay: So you have a section about how our conversation is mediated through technology, and that picked up during the pandemic. Like we’ve been doing this, people have been talking about, “Oh, social interactions isn’t the same on the screen.” But on the pandemic, a lot of people were forced to do that. And you talk about your experience with Zoom cocktail parties. Why did this well-intentioned idea completely fall flat?
David Sax: I have a friend, Dan, he’s Israeli originally, he’s a lawyer, and he got a new job early on in the pandemic here in Toronto with an engineering company as an in-house lawyer. And he’s like, “It’s not bad, but they invited me to this thing, this Zoom cocktail. So I go, I show up, I take off my shirt, I change into my other shirt and I show up with a glass of wine and I look around and no one else has a drink in their hand. And I’m like, “Oh, this is a conference call.” That sums it up. What is a cocktail party? A cocktail party is like the most unstructured social gathering that there is, here’s a group of people, we have selected this group of people because they are, I don’t know, related to each other, they work together, they’re linked by a common interest, whatever. Here is a space, here is some alcohol to lubricate and allow the conversation to go. And I’m sure there are non-alcoholic versions of it, which is just like a potluck or a gathering or whatever you want to call it.
And that’s it. Go talk, talk freely, talk amongst yourselves, make different groups, go one-to-one, have some one-to-one conversations. And then someone else is going to come in, it’s a third-person conversation, whatever, and the conversation just flows naturally in that space with body language and gesticulations and unsaid things and facial expressions and the music and the booze and all of that. That forms a cocktail party. And when it’s great, it’s an incredible thing, and when it’s bad it can be a little boring but it’s not the worst thing in the world. The worst thing in the world is the Zoom version of that, which is like, “And now it’s your turn to speak, Brett. And now it’s your turn to speak, Sheila. And what about you, Ahmed? [chuckle] Yes, that was funny.” It’s just so antithetical to the natural human rhythm of conversation because conversation is something that we’ve evolved to do in person over hundreds of thousands of years, it’s our greatest skill as humans.
Brett McKay: When you also talk about your experience, you belong to some book clubs before the pandemic started.
David Sax: I have one book club, it’s only one.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you belonged to… I belonged to a couple book clubs before the pandemic…
David Sax: A couple book clubs. Okay.
Brett McKay: And then we tried to keep it going at the start with like doing it on Zoom or something but then eventually it just petered out, no one wanted to do it anymore, and I think it’s because that it’s just not the same. So when we were in person, my experience was, you talk about the book, whatever, but then like the conversation would shift to other just random stuff. You talk about family, you talk about stuff that’s going on at work, and the conversation would just be flowing and two hours would pass and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I got to get to bed.” It was great and you just felt awesome and it was a memorable experience. Then you did the Zoom version and it dragged on and on and on, and you’re like, “When is this going to be over?” And then people would be like, “When are we going to do the next one?” And people are like, “Well, I don’t know, it’s just him and his bod.” And then eventually, it just stopped, it just stopped.
David Sax: Yes, I had the exact same experience as you. We did one virtual one in April 2020, so very early on. The book had been picked before the pandemic had like come in, and it was a book about like a species-ending plague with time travel and aliens, and it was like grotesque and violent, and everyone hated the book. And it was just a miserable experience of experience that has always been good. Like we’ve read books that we’ve loved, we’ve read books we’ve hated but the book club itself is always a wonderful, wonderful time. And it’s just conversation, that’s all it is, it’s seven people coming together to talk about a particular cue but everything else that comes into it. And that conversation just flows in and out and it has its natural rhythm and it wraps itself around the evening or the weekend if we’re doing a retreat one. And it never gets old and it never gets stale and you’re never like, “Alright, well, I got to do… This is boring.” It never has that if you have a group of friends or people or peers that you like, that’s the beauty of conversation. And it just loses its life online.
Brett McKay: Well, you talk about this one researcher, Dr. Essam, I think, Essam, E-S-S-A-M?
David Sax: Yes. Anne Marie Essam. Essam.
Brett McKay: Essam, yes. She pointed out a crucial difference between conversations we have online and conversations we have in person, is their impact on our memory. And she pointed out like, “Do you remember like the Zoom calls you did?” I don’t but I can remember like book club meetings that I had a couple of years ago that were just like… I guess when you’re in person, you have so much information flooding you that’s very rich that it hits. You remember it. As opposed to a screen, it’s very flat and one-dimensional and it’s not as memorable.
David Sax: Yeah. I remember where we were. I remember sitting there, I remember talking to you, and there was that music playing or we were at the ball game and, oh yeah, that burger and then that bird pooped on someone and then we ran into that guy we knew. All those things, context, it forms around it and it forms the conversation, again, versus just the words. It’s like a… This is a digital conversation we’re having, and I think it’s a great conversation, but imagine if I was in Oklahoma and we were talking, or you were in here in Toronto, and we were talking in the same room or at a bar or at a restaurant or going for a walk in the park or something like that. The conversation would be so much more because it would be informed by those things around us, there would be a natural rhythm. I could read your body language, I could see on your face when I’m talking too long or if something I said is not sitting right with you, or if you find something funny and you smirk and smile. I can detect when you want to say something because your body is doing it.
And that is, again, hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution has taught us to speak in that way, and so when we strip all that out, we just have the words, and it’s functional for sure, for certain things, for a work meeting or whatever you can get by. You can get by with a conversation with your parents, but I don’t know, like does your family, your parents or whatever, and I don’t know if they’re still around but like, Do they live or did they live at some point in the same city or have you lived away from them?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve lived away. Yeah. My parents live about an hour away from me. They live in Oklahoma City.
David Sax: Right, so when you speak to them on the phone or on FaceTime with your kids or whatever, it’s a very different thing from being in the same house as them or being in the same space as them. Right?
Brett McKay: Yeah, for sure. Yeah.
David Sax: You talk, you catch up but there’s just kinda like, “Okay, Alright.” It’s like, “Oh, your mom’s calling.” “Oh gosh. Okay, here we go. Like, Alright, hey mom, how are you doing?” Versus seeing them, it wraps itself around the thing you’re doing. You’re cooking, you’re going for a walk, you’re walking the dog, you’re taking the kids to school, you’re playing at a playground, you’re on a vacation together. Like the fabric of the conversation just weaves into the rhythm of what you’re doing. That’s natural.
Brett McKay: No, yeah. For me, I feel like the communication tools, whether it’s phone, email, I don’t know, Zoom or whatever.
David Sax: Text.
Brett McKay: Text. Whatever. I think it’s useful for just passing along information, like coordinating, “Okay, this is what’s going on, hey, we’re picking up this kid,” or, “You need to pick this up.” But having in-depth conversations via a text or a phone call, it doesn’t work. I’d rather use… I’d rather have a phone call or a Zoom to like set up, “Hey, when can we meet in person so we can have this conversation? That’d be great.” But if someone calls me, yeah, I’m like, “I don’t want to do that.”
David Sax: And obviously, there’s limitations to it. Like I have good friends who live in other parts of the country or the world that I cannot go and see more than once a year or every few years. And so we catch up. We have friends in Argentina who listen to your podcast, no less. This is one for you, Pablo. I have friends in New York, I have very good friends in other places and I can catch up with them on the phone or catch up with them on FaceTime, and it gives me that baseline, but my God, it’s nothing compared to when I see them.
Brett McKay: I’ve noticed with me, I don’t mind talking on like just voice-only but like something about adding the video element, I don’t like it, it throws me off. I can have a conversation on the phone with somebody. I don’t mind doing that, so I’ll catch up with a friend, I’ll go for a walk outside and just have my AirPods in and just yammer away but I don’t like doing the video, something about it throws me off. And it’s why on the podcast, I don’t actually… I’m not seeing you, I never see any of my guests. They don’t see me.
David Sax: And I appreciate this because everybody has been using podcast platforms, and I’ve been doing tons of podcasts ’cause the book’s coming out soon, and they all want to do the video.
Brett McKay: I don’t like it.
David Sax: And I’m like, “Alright.” And some of them are like, “Oh, will you upload the video to YouTube?” I’m like, “Oh God, I’d better brush my hair.” But yeah, it shifts it, ’cause what do you do? You’re basically looking at your own face. That’s the crazy part, that’s the craziest part. It’s like, “When was the last time… ” I guess the equivalent is like you go to some French bistro and they have like mirrored walls and you happen to be sitting facing the wall and you see yourself in the mirror, and so every often you’re talking, you end up glancing at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, “Man, I look like a schmuck.” Or, “God, I’m fat.” But this is like you’re constantly seeing yourself talking to him, it’s like, “Oh, well, all you gotta do is turn off the camera.
No. Or just turn it off or have an actual conversation with someone.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Let’s talk about our spiritual life. You talk about this.
David Sax: I did.
Brett McKay: How did moving our spiritual life online… How did that pan out?
David Sax: I think, again, like I’m Jewish, I’m not a particularly religious person but I put in the motions and go to synagogue a couple of times a year. And I appreciated that there was a tremendous convenience to being able to do these things virtually, but I found them bereft of any meaning. I would do virtual Passover with… We made the brisket, and my mom like handed the chicken soup through the door, and we gave her some brisket. And we set up a computer and another computer for my wife’s family, because God forbid the two families could share a Zoom call, and we did like this Passover Seder. And it was just like, “Okay, that was really easy to clean up but I don’t know, yeah, what’s next?” And then usually, Jewish people outside of Israel for some ridiculous reason that we won’t do two Seders two nights in a row, two Passover dinners two nights in a row. God only knows why. God literally only knows why.
And the second night, someone’s like, “Oh, what are we doing with the second night?” And we’re like, “Nothing, no, we’re not doing that. Like we’re not doing this again.” This year, for the first time, we had the full in-person Seder back and we decided to host it at our house, which is like the smallest house of anyone in the family. It was a five-day ordeal of like buying, shopping, setting up, cooking, hosting, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. It was just insane and it was so much work. And there was family dynamics and people fighting and whatever. And it was actually very wonderful and meaningful.
And that was the thing that I found, that if you’re looking to do something that… What is religion? What is faith? On the surface, it’s a set of rules based upon a liturgy or texts, and you can recite passages from the Quran or recite a Buddhist mantra or say the Shema, the Jewish holy prayer, or recite the Lord’s prayer kneeling in your bedroom or in your living room by yourself or to a screen and read along with it, but that is like the basis of it. What is really faith? What do people look for when they go to church on Sunday? They’re there for that as the excuse for the greater community. And doing that with other people is the thing that gives it that sense of some greater purpose and our greater purpose or identity or whatever in this world as spiritual people.
And I think this applies for people who aren’t religious at all. I got a lot of faith and spiritual nourishment this year or the past few years out of being outside. Like it was like that first walk when I went out and I heard the birds chirping, it was like any time I was feeling suffocated and isolated and inhuman from ping-ponging between screens for all my activities, I would go out and I would go for a walk, or on the weekends, I would go for hikes and drag my children through the woods, kicking and screaming. Or bike rides, long bike rides or skiing or surfing, I got into lake surfing, I’m talking about surfing in the Great Lakes in sub-zero temperatures with ice on my like wetsuit. And it was when I felt the most alive because I was, as a human being, as a creature in this world, bringing myself back into it fully in that context.
And I think, again, you can’t do that online. You can go and sign up for Peloton and get some fancy-as bike delivered to your house, put your shorts on and clip in and you could spin your little legs and sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat and get your heart rate up, but that is a very different thing from getting out on your bicycle and riding on a country road or riding through the city or even just like going with your kid and going on like a little puppet ride around the neighborhood. Those are two incomparable things. One of them is just purely for your body, or the other one, that’s purely for your mind. This is like everything, body, mind, soul, it’s the full, high-fidelity experience.
Brett McKay: Right, so even something spiritual, that’s ethereal, needs physicality, needs the analog for it to really thrive.
David Sax: I mean I just don’t see how it doesn’t. Listen, there are people who love it. They love going to Zoom church or whatever, Zoom, whatever religion you are, or online thing. And they’re like, “Yeah, I get to read… I can read the Bible on my phone and I get whatever passage I want, and that gives me the spiritual fulfillment I need and then I can go about my day and I don’t have to drive to church and sit my butt in those hard pews and hear the pastor groan on. Or I can just download the sermons and listen to them while I’m walking, and that gives me the fulfillment.” And if that’s what someone needs, hey, praise be, more power to them. But I think a spiritual life is an embodied life. The whole idea is that you’re not separating yourself from the world, that you’re actually engaging with it more. And when you think about those rituals, religious rituals that are the ones that are the most significant, they are the most physical. Our spirit is tied to our body, if that’s something you believe in. And to really engage in it, it is that full-body experience, it’s that leap of faith in that thing, I don’t think that’s something that lends itself particularly well to like digitized convenience and simplicity and delivery.
Brett McKay: Alright, so the pandemic gave us the test run of the complete digital life, and it’s lacking. And I think you’re right. My experience… We need the analog because, as you say, we are analog beings, so we’ll need that analog experience to live a fulfilling and flourishing life. So you’re not anti-tech, some people, when you think about… People talk about the importance of analog. They, “Well, you’re anti… ” It’s like, “No.” You’re doing a podcast, you promote your stuff online. You’re just making the case that, Look, if you really want to have a flourishing life, we have to remember that we need to do stuff in the real world with our bodies and have those in-person relationships if we want to have a flourishing life.
David Sax: Listen, if people read this book and they take anything away from it, it’s the following. Think about your own life and think about the experience you lived through during those months and years when all you had in the world out of necessity was digital. When everything that you did, work, school, conversation, religion, shopping, whatever, culture, all of that was done through a screen and through digital technology, were you content? Is that the future you want? Were there parts of it that you really liked and you’ve adopted into your life and you want to grow going forward and use more of that technology? And are there parts of it that, like a Zoom cocktail party, you viscerally reject and feel nauseous just at the sound of? Be honest with yourselves because I think for a long time, we have defaulted to digital technology and the people who create it and sell it and promote it as the byword for the future. “Oh, digital is the future and it’s newer and it’s better and this is the way, this is what progress is.”
But progress can be sourdough bread. Progress can be bike lanes that were hastily put up in cities because people needed exercise and people realized, “Hey, it’s great to have bike lanes in Toronto and Tulsa, we should build more of these, we don’t need… Forget self-driving electric cars, this is the future of transportation that we want.” Or sidewalk patios, something we craved for years in North America, and then all of a sudden got and don’t want to give up. So be honest with yourself. What is the future you want based on that lived experience, based on that test drive that you had? How much of it is analog? How much of it is digital? And where do you stand in that? What’s your role in it?
Brett McKay: Well, David, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
David Sax: They can go to, I guess, Twitter… Feels disgusting even saying that. You know what? Honestly, if you search my name, you’ll find some stuff, I have a website which I never update. The book can be purchased from independent bookstores wherever you are, and if you don’t have one near you, go to bookshop.org, it’s a great site, a sort of e-commerce site that supports independent bookstores and independent businesses near you, and you can order the book from there or just go into your local bookstore and pick it up. And if you don’t want it, ask the person who works there, “What are the books you might like?” They’ll have recommendations. They’ll have thoughts. You’ll have a wonderful experience doing it.
Brett McKay: Well, David Sax, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
David Sax: My pleasure.
Brett McKay: My guest today was David Sax, he’s the author of the book, The Future is Analog. You do the analog thing, go pick up a copy at your local bookstore. Find more information about his work at his website, saxdavid.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/futureisanalog, where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium, head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code “manliness” to check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on our podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you all to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.