Earlier this year, when Andrew Sullivan – famed blogger and one of the early scions of the digital age – took to the pages of New York Magazine to decry what he called his digital distraction sickness, I felt so certain I'd disagree with its much-discussed premise, I planned to skip it entirely. But then a professional responsibility took over, and I eventually did read it begrudgingly; its 7,000-word length proved nearly impossible for my broken attention span. While Sullivan outlined the deleterious effects of digital on his health, his mental well-being and his capacity for sustained focus, I found I would make it a paragraph in, only to pick up my phone, or swing over to another tab. It took me a week of half-hearted attempts just to get to the end.
Slightly more than a decade ago, no one had ever tweeted. No one had checked Facebook while walking down the street, or posted images of their meal to Instagram. Now literally billions do. That pace is mostly unprecedented in human history, and it is perhaps just how quickly we seem to have shifted from books and TV to the Internet that has prompted a deep worry: Of whether or not, in our rush to the digital era, something fundamentally human has been lost.
Of course, to ask the question at all is to assume we know what defines the human. History has given us various answers: Thomas Aquinas or Descartes might have said God, Kant might have said reason, while the poststructuralists (if they'd deign to give an answer at all) might have said language. But in an era in which the pulsating screen of the smartphone has come to encompass so much of our lives, the human has found a new emblem: the simple pleasures of the analog – the rough texture of paper, the feel of grass underfoot, or the contact of skin-on-skin.
The latest entry in that burgeoning genre is David Sax's The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. The revenge in question, however, is not only of something fundamental, but also something both purer and better. Outlining a growing resurgence of analog technologies – vinyl, paper, film, retail – Sax puts forth the idea that the return of analog is at once the rediscovery of a lost treasure but also what is in fact a superior medium for life. At each turn, from a newly busy record press in Nashville, to a booming notebook brand in Italy, Sax highlights a world that, just as quickly as it dived into digital, is redeveloping an appreciation of analog things. Where, though, is the line that separates healthy nostalgia and our ever-present regressive streak?
The key change wrought by digital is that, where scarcity was once the norm, surfeit is now our default. Digital thus represents a kind of inversion. Once, more was better: Technology was improved by more features, knowledge increased with ever more facts and greater choice. Now, it is subtraction that in fact adds to a scenario. The best digital services are those that constrain in some fashion. Netflix and Spotify have both succeeded because they have figured out how to recommend small numbers of titles from thousands of choices.
In his book, Sax outlines the many ways in which analog tech bests digital because of what it does not do. Your paperback novel cannot interrupt your reading to tell you the weather, your newspaper has a start and a finish, and your analog recording studio forces you to make decisions and just cut a track, rather than the malleability of digitally creating "a moving target of unachievable perfection." In the face of such endlessness, it is subtraction, boundaries – less – that is the strategy for survival in the digital era.
For many, though, this upending of Western thought also represents a world gone topsy-turvy. Sax echoes Sullivan's complaints about the relentless pace of digital, and its related psychological effects. These are real issues, not to be dismissed lightly. At this early stage of the digital era, we are still stuck on how to achieve balance, particularly now that our technology and the flood of information it brings is with us all the time. When Sax cites the tendency of even young millennials to prefer print, it is because they, like we, are seeking relief. Digital as a tool or medium seems primed to plug most directly into our receptors for pleasure, for the dopamine and serotonin centres that thrive on novelty, lust or conflict, and the unending flow can quickly turn to excess. In contradistinction to that torrent, it is the tactile, physical nature of analog that is its saving grace – its seeming permanence, it's there-ness, its tendency, quite unlike digital, to be in one place at one time doing one thing. In his book, Sax's lively, evocative prose conjures reminders of the physical world: Record presses spit and heave, cameras satisfyingly click, and paper crinkles and smells in ways pleasingly familiar.
But the neat line separating digital from analog is more fuzzy than it might appear. Sullivan, Sax, and I – all part of a generation who spent their formative years before the Internet and their adult ones completely saturated with it – have also grown up with plastic Nintendo controllers, button-filled digital cameras, and DVD players armed with an array of LED lights. My own home is littered with the tactile remains of no end of technology, and the chubby, reassuring thickness of the first iPhone I still keep tucked in a drawer has already taken on the same sheen of nostalgia I reserve for old school notebooks or sweaters.
As Sullivan's piece spoke of a return from the seductive screens, Sax's constantly extols the superiority of what the text calls "real things." It is, however, a world cleaved neatly into two neat spheres, digital and analog – so much so that near the end of the book, Sax claims that "digital is not reality. It never was and never will be." It's a claim that one might generously characterize as nonsense. To assert that the almost unfathomable explosion of human creativity that fills the Internet sits somehow lower on a hierarchy of ontological realness is absurd.
It is this needless, false dualism that should make one skeptical of claims not only of the superiority of analog, but that such a neat distinction exists at all. In The Revenge of Analog, the alluring material quality of objects is always highlighted, but ignores the fetishism that has led us to revalue it, skipping over the more simple fact that analog has become appealing for the same reason you can't put your phone down: novelty. Similarly, when speaking of Silicon Valley's tendency to use lots of paper, Sax's claim that "analog proves the most efficient way to run a business," simply isn't true. One would hardly be better served by doing one's accounting or inventory using a pen and paper. What works better is finding the right balance between analog and digital – largely because at this moment, that is the only choice there is.
Humanity's history is marked by periods of steady accumulation. But there are some rare shifts in technology – primary among them, writing, the book, television, and the Internet – that aren't so much additions to our humanity as an upending of them. "Is digital good or bad?" is far too imprecise a question, because the ground one is now standing on is too new. In these infrequent paradigm shifts, we awake into new terrains, the technology so profoundly altering things that we enter new conditions of emergence, the old measurements and metrics useless.
But cultural criticism, as Louis Menand recently suggested in The New Yorker, is admitting that understanding contemporary culture is impossible, but trying anyway. So we can look, for example, to the economic incentives that power Twitter and Facebook and see how their pace, their craving for viral content, and the tailored realities they present connect to their need to generate revenue. We can see, in the incessant buzzing, ever-growing feature list, and ceaselessly refined interfaces of our smartphones, the financial necessity for Apple and Samsung to induce compulsion through design. We are embedded in the engines of digital production, and the unending attacks on our attention are meant to cast as cogs in an enormous, global machine.
What is more difficult to discern, however, is some unique, inherent quality to either digital or analog, let alone whether one is more real than the other. For each cacophonous, mindless new media thing, there is a corner of the Web filled with irreplaceable beauty, some new game that forces us to reconsider what art might be, endless reams of brilliant writing, and the entire kaleidoscopic encyclopedia of human knowledge colliding in unexpected ways. It is not simply "digital"; it just is.
The Revenge of Analog is at its core a business book, each chapter the revenge of a new sector – retail, print, film – and is thus a work meant to uncover entrepreneurial opportunities lying in wait. It works best as polemic, as an interjection into a world that has too eagerly assumed digital is in some simple sense better, and perhaps ignored that the limitations of analog are more vital than ever. But in the eagerness to sell a marketable idea, Sax mistakes the fact that digital things cannot be touched for the fact that they are insubstantial.
It is what can be held that enthralls Sax, however, and he is most transfixed by Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools, a thing he calls "exhibit A in analog's revenge." Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, created the Cool Tools book as an homage to the Whole Earth Catalogue, a kind of how-to guide for life from the late sixties that told you how to grow food or build a home – and the sort of thing rendered quite obsolete by the Internet. Cool Tools began as a blog, and started out simply reviewing tools that you need for a dizzying array of practical endeavours – everything from milling your own grains to ways to increase the WiFi signal in your home. Kelly then made the decision to create the book, which quickly sold out on its first run.
For Sax, the book highlights what is best about analog. It lends itself to idle browsing, drawing in anyone who happens to pick it up, its catalogue of useful things evoking the possibility of a life better lived. But beyond its obvious digital origins, or even the inevitability of its creation on and through computers, Cool Tools reveals a world forever changed by the digital landscape. The book's non-linear mishmash of ideas, the serendipity of their discovery, is a function of its digital past, now formalized by the analog. The two spheres are inextricable, indivisible, not simply in practical terms (each review has a QR code leading to an online store) but in ideological, epistemological ones, too. We cannot help but read the book from our moment in the present where there is no offline and online, but only what scholar J. Sage Elwell calls "onlife": an existence that is always both digital and analog at once, and irrevocably so. For now, we may struggle to pay attention, but this is our lot. It is already too late for analog's revenge – the thing to do is figure out how to be human after digital's victory. There is no going back.
Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto.