Digital Divide No. 11: Further Thoughts on the Revenge of Analog (Spoiler Alert!)

Following up on my blog post from yesterday, I wanted to take the opportunity with this month’s Digital Divide to provide a bit more personal color on The Revenge of Analog and a some other aspects of the book that drew a strong reaction from me. (Caution: though it’s harder to pull a spoiler on a work of nonfiction, I’m going to talk in detail about certain sections of the book, so if you’d prefer to read it without my own reaction coloring yours, I’d advise you to let this issue of Digital Divide sit until later.)

As I mentioned on the blog, I loved this book. I think Sax nails it with respect to why people turn to analog things even though digital might, “on paper,” be the better alternative: human beings need an emotional and tactile aspect to their everyday lives that smartphones and laptops can’t provide. Most of us naturally gravitate to collecting and curating things that we love, and physical objects like books and photographs lend themselves better to sharing with others. If someone gives you a copy of a physical book, aren’t you more likely to read it than if someone e-mailed or tweeted you a link?

So what have I personally taken away from the book, and what changes have I implemented in my own life since I read it last month? For starters, as I mentioned on the blog yesterday, I purchased an Instax instant camera and rediscovered the joy of taking film photographs. I also subscribed to several magazines I enjoy, as well as the physical copy of the New York Times weekend edition. I’ve admitted to myself that I hate reading on a Kindle, and have started purchasing hardcover books again. In short, I’m glad I read this book around the New Year, because I was feeling very “plugged in” all the time, between work and the blog, and this gave me a couple of very easy steps to take to carve out some space for more analog in my life.

But the focus of the book isn't pushing analog products. There are more wide-ranging philosophical discussions as well. I found the section on educational technology, and the modern obsession with “digitizing” classrooms particularly fascinating. In short, there’s a lot of evidence that the billions of dollars spent to put “technology in every classroom” is nothing more than a waste of money because these projects just don’t work as well as good ‘ol “analog” teaching. (Who would've thought that kids would figure out a way to use their free iPads for Twitter and Snapchat, and that college students aren't very good at "teaching themselves" online?) While, in all fairness, this is often due to poor implementation of the programs themselves as much as bad theory, you continue to see heavy focus in schools on eliminating handwriting, online coursework, and "paperless learning" despite data showing that these programs aren't successful and the kids don't find them engaging. With respect to the role technology should play in childhood, there’s also more than a fair bit of hypocrisy in the “tech industry” - I came away somewhat aghast at the extent to which so many tech executives who are pushing everyone to own a laptop/ipad/smartphone/smartwatch, and to flood kindergartens with digital devices, openly admit that they don't allow them in their own homes or permit their own children to use them.

There are also a few things that I either wish Sax had explored further, or that I think got short shrift, mainly the chapter on paper and his decision to feature Moleskine as the best example of the modern resurgence in paper products. Moleskine is a designer brand that makes overpriced generic notebooks with below-average paper quality. (My opinion.) I’ve long suspected that the purpose of the brand is to sell notebooks based on the “image” they supposedly create for their user, and the interviews with the creators and designers of Moleskine in this book confirmed that. (Even more detailed spoiler: the Moleskine notebook was conceived by the product's designers as part of a “digital nomad’s toolkit”, consisting of those products the designers thought a global, jet-setting entrepreneur from the 2000s might want to be seen carrying.) At one point, Moleskine actually had a policy of not selling their products in stationery stores, presumably because their marketers decided that these "unhip" stores would undercut the brand's desired image.

To me, a better example of the “revenge of analog” would be brands such as Leuchtturm, Rhodia, and Baron Fig (to name just a few), which I felt were almost written off and dismissed as attempts to copy or “improve on the Moleskine.” This is a bit unfair - first of all, Moleskine itself is merely a copy of a style of notebook manufactured by a now-defunct company in France (can you even copy a knockoff?). While I’ve never used one of those original French notebooks, I’d venture that Rhodia and Leuchtturm do a better job of approximating the original, simply because the paper is good enough to let you use something other than pencil or a ballpoint pen. I will give Moleskine credit: they seized on a great form factor, which is what originally drew me to them in a Borders way back in 2005, but the poor paper quality and slipshod construction is what made me leave for older, established stationery brands such as Rhodia and Leuchtturm. These companies, which have their own long and storied histories, have survived and thrived on the basis of tradition and quality without massive marketing budgets and the need to pander to hipsterdom.

Now Go Buy This Book! 

Both my blog post and this newsletter merely scratch the surface. I could keep going for a while but I'll stop here. If you've read this newsletter all the way to the end, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Revenge of Analog (in hardcover, of course).