Disrupting Digital Delusions

A great deal is made now of inventions and ideas that will disrupt the usual way of doing things. “Thought Leaders”, eager technologists and the newly rich digital class are alive with a buzz that leaps from idea to idea and innovation to innovation, with scarcely a moment left for reflection or contemplation. Whatever is not the way it was yesterday, technologically speaking, is seen as the key to a glowing future.

Of course, there are naysayers, those that warn of the dangers and point out the signs that not everything is rosy, but humanity keeps accelerating, pressed on by their ubiquitous mobile devices. Email, Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Google, and thousands of other digital tools compete to capture and command our attention. Music in the form of mp3 files, books in the form of eBooks, anything (and everything) from Amazon, and a host of other digital replacements for what we used to see and feel and experience in “real life”, seduce us into thinking that  non-digital things — things that we can see and touch and hold and smell and own with no ambiguity — that those analog things are passe. Thus Vinyl Records, real books, real stores, and real jobs where things are made with our own hands are considered relics from a bygone era.

But anyone that slows down enough to think and to feel begins to question this idolization of technology and speed. Looking for books to read along these lines, they might find The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains by Carr, or You are not a Gadget: A manifesto by Lanier or Hamlet’s Blackberry by Powers, all of which are good. In Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, David Sax takes another approach, focusing on an argument for things thought obsolete, making the argument, often eloquently, that those analog things are not at all obsolete. He asks us to consider the possibility that analog things are far from dead, that in fact they might rescue us from the dangerous cliff that everything digital has lured us towards. I think he is on to something.

In the book, we find vinyl record companies like United Recording Pressing and Third Man Records, real film photography companies like FILM Ferrania, Lomography and The Impossible Project, real books made of paper and bookstores made of brick that thrive because they know their books and their customers, magazines like Stack — a meta magazine that send out a different, new independent magazine every month, and Delayed Gratification — a slow news magazine that you cannot read electronically. In a chapter in work, we discover Shinola, the luxury watch company in Detroit the is employing hundreds of formerly unemployed workers that construct watches and other distinctive products in an environment committed to making things in the USA. Another story I was intrigued and inspired by, was the story of the Newspaper Club that enables anyone with an idea to generate a small scale paper or magazine.

Even though, as Sax points out, real things are often still the way to make money, this does not explain why customers should prefer analog to digital, as is becoming clear is the case. Serendipity of finding a book you were not looking for when you go to a real bookstore stocked by real and knowledgeable staff or of meeting people in real places like cafes and brick and mortar stores, that we would not meet online, the importance of putting pen to paper for the purposes of remembering and recruiting the entire mind in the creative process, the nuances and range of response that real film offers that digital cannot match — these are a few of the reasons that digital cannot replace analog. In particular,  it seems that face to face connection, free of digital mediation is incredibly important for sustaining a network of real human connection, so important for mental and emotional health.

I finished the book before we traveled to Chicago on the Amtrak Empire Builder, in a sleeper compartment. The train seemed a fitting response to my decision to disconnect and slow down. The slow pace, the shared meals with other travelers we had never met,  conspired to engage Beata and I in conversations with several fascinating couples and individuals, some of whom may in fact become long term friends. The slow pace also, somehow, prepared me for the stay in Chicago, where, in addition to my usual impromptu maintenance and design challenges for my mother-in-law (and her mother, who turned 94 while we were there), I visited a sequence of bookstores and a Shinola Shop, all using the subway trains.

In the back of my mind (and occasionally in the front, as when recommending Revenge of Analog to bookstore owners), Revenge of Analog informed my search for books and magazines. Getting on at the Harlem stop, not far from O’Hare, it did not take long to get to Logan Square, where I visited CIty Lit Books, owned by Teresa Kirschbraun with whom I had a long discussion. After buying The Internet of Us by Lynch and another, The Book, by Houston, I moved on to  Uncharted Books, where I found Nick Disabato’s design publications, among other books. In Wicker Park, a few stops closer to downtown, I found Quimby’s, Myopic Books and Volumes. Over a few days I visited a few more including Ravenswood Used Books on Montrose and Unabridged on Broadway. I recommend both of these stores along with the previously mentioned stores, though I would have to say that the most engaging stores to shop were City Lit Books and Ravenswood Used Books. (In Wicker Park I also bought a notebook in the Shinola store.)

Somewhere in this summer and process of reorientation of focus and energy, I found myself realizing that I have to make changes in order to recapture the analog, face to face interactions that flow at their own pace. A maker space is one idea, as is a place to be, to connect, to converse, with little in the way of time constraints, perhaps some sort of updated version of the 18th and 19th century Salons. This is what I am finding the summer of avoiding email (checked only on Tuesdays and Fridays) and movies (we canceled Netflix and Youtube Red), and instead reading and thinking and walking and talking, has led me to. Yet another idea that is emerging is the recreation of a Bell Labs like environment, updated, but also very retro in its demand for time to think, with a focus on an organic interdisciplinarity that would have seemed natural to the innovators and thinkers in the 18th, 19th and very early 20th centuries.

I began the summer very burned out from interaction with the highly dysfunctional, ego-focused, post-student-focused academia (i.e. the new normal in academia), and have arrived at a point where I see what to do. Revenge of Analog was an important catalyst. In one way, it did not teach me too many new things, yet in another way, it was an absolutely critical inspiration, moving me towards understanding where I must go. But that is what good catalysts do — they take things you know or almost know and then push you to respond to the inspiration that emerges from your own unique experience and whatever new thoughts the catalyst might add to the mix.

If we are to have a healthy future, community focused activities and places to be together, to talk and connect and explore and learn and create, must be preserved and expanded. it seems fitting that I found David Sax’s brilliantly timed catalyst for this rethinking and renewal on the new book shelf, in the local public library.

While my interests have led me to pick a few projects in line with this vision, there are an enormous number of variations and innovations that promote and support connection and creative productivity. All of them depend on fundamentally analog, tangible, non-virtual experiences. As a part of my response to the book, I intend to encourage as many people as possible to read this book. In fact, I am considering starting a book club that would begin by reading Revenge of Analog.

Perhaps I can even convince the local library to add this book to their book club list so that they will have multiple copies on hand when we read the book together.