With every Facebook post we write, every Amazon order we place, every shameless selfie we take, we attest to the sizable role of digital technology in modern life. But look around.
Analog is pushing back. People are spilling their thoughts, feelings and notes-to-self onto the pages of leather-bound journals, and they’re sending out paper — rather than electronic — cards and invitations. You now can browse upwards of 20 stores in the Kansas City area for old-school vinyl records.
A new board game café, Pawn and Pint, has drawn increasingly large crowds since opening in the Crossroads Arts District in late October, offering seats at its tables to play such classics as Monopoly and the Game of Life or Ticket to Ride and other newer titles. More than 100 people come through on a typical Saturday.
“It’s everyone from college friends to co-workers,” co-owner Edward Schmalz says. “People are just responding positively to a chance to disconnect from digital a little bit.”
Not just here. Toronto-based journalist David Sax outlines what he says is a wide and growing appreciation for non-digital goods and services — for the face-to-face interaction of board games, the instant reward of transferring thoughts to a notebook with the push of a pen, even the sound and smell of unfolding the Sunday newspaper — in his new book, “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.”
People, he says, are craving real, tangible things and experiences and not always something stored in a cloud. Many prefer turning the pages of a book to reading on a backlit screen, or shopping in stores over purchases with a click. They want to hold objects in their hands. They want human interaction. Sometimes, they just need an escape from screens and keyboards.
Sax, who spoke recently at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, makes clear from the beginning that his book is not some neo-Luddite rant. He cedes digital’s superiority, its greater speed and convenience and lower costs.
He communicates, as most all of us do, by smartphone and email. He’s a Netflix subscriber, and wrote and edited “Revenge of Analog” — released in November — in Microsoft Word.
“But we are not software. We are not living in a digital world,” he says. “We’re living in the real world and, in the real world, real things still resonate with us. As our exposure to digital technology increases and analog experiences become fewer and further between, they’re going to be ones that we treasure.”
In Florida on business not long ago, Sax was preparing to head out to dinner and noticed that his phone needed charging. Eh, he thought, he’d leave it behind and take a book instead.
“It was great,” he says. “I wasn’t checking every three seconds for an email or pulling up Twitter or getting the latest news. I was just able to enjoy life. I think it’s something everybody can sort of appreciate.”
“The Revenge of Analog” is rooted in Sax’s long relationship with vinyl records. He’d collected and listened to them on and off. And then nine years ago, well into music’s move to iTunes, his roommate’s parents turned over their record collection and a turntable.
He and his roomie started talking. How did records compare with digital music? Not just the sound but also the hands-on experience, from enjoying the artwork on the album cover to the gentle handling of the record and careful placement of the stylus into its grooves?
“That sparked a bigger conversation about the market for those records and for film and printed books and notebooks,” Sax says. “They were starting to grow again despite the assumption they would all go away.”
Sax’s book takes us inside United Record Pressing’s modern new facility in Nashville, which operates around the clock six days a week to keep up with the demand for vinyl records, churning out 40,000 a day. He introduces us to the colorful co-founder of notebook maker Moleskine in Milan, Italy; visits Snakes & Lattes, a thriving board game café in Toronto; and walks us through Shinola, the upscale, handmade watch company in Detroit.
He takes wry note of a decision by the online invitation company Paperless Post to launch paper invitations in 2012. The new line, called Paper by Paperless Post, now accounts for more than half of all new business as people embrace the more visceral, personal touch of paper communication, and Paperless Post’s CEO concedes, “In hindsight, maybe this wasn’t the best name for us.”
Indeed, there are some second thoughts about digital saturation, starting with our preoccupation with miniature screens at work, at dinner — sometimes even in church. “For each gain that technology delivers (speed, broad connectivity, vast processing power), it sacrifices something analog (quiet, personal connections, contemplative thought),” Sax writes.
Digital certainly isn’t going away, and so it’s a question of balance.
“Each of us has to find where digital works best in our lives and where analog is a complementary factor, where it provides a sort of better alternative or a better experience,” Sax says. “It can be a personal and pleasurable experience like vinyl records. Or how we work, saying, ‘We’re going to go with a print publication because we’re trying to reach this market and that’s the best way to do it’ or ‘This is the best way to express what we want to do.’ Or both.”
Numbers bear out analog’s resurgence. Vinyl record sales rose by more than half from 2012 to 2014 and jumped nearly another 30 percent — to 11.9 million — last year. Games and puzzles, including family strategy and board games, saw an 11 percent increase in sales in 2015, making it the fastest-growing segment of the toy industry.
There remains a place for traditional print books, too. Their sales were up 3 percent a year ago, while e-book sales fell 13 percent, according to Nielsen BookScan. With that, e-books’ share of the total market slipped from 27 percent to 24 percent. And while thousands of bookstores have closed in the past 20 years, and Waldenbooks and Borders outlets disappeared altogether, the number of independent booksellers had risen 40 percent in four years as of last May.
Sax, who submitted a first draft of “The Revenge of Analog” a little more than a year ago, fended off a marketing rep’s suggestion that he put his own work into something other than the printed page. Maybe Sony would underwrite a web video series about vinyl records. Or Canon would sponsor a blog about analog “makers.” Slice it into small, digestible, modern-day bites of “branded content.”
“From a purely logical perspective, none of this analog stuff makes sense — quote, unquote,” Sax says. “The most logical way would be the digital way, to deliver things in the fastest and most cost-effective manner. But we’re not entirely logical creatures.”
He brings up a visit he made to a Washington, D.C., bookstore last month. “It was filled with people who were holding books, fondling books, buying books,” Sax recalls. “They could have gotten them on Kindle or whatever. But they wanted them in their hands; it brought them some sort of joy before they got to the reading experience. That’s not a logical thing, but it’s the human experience.
“It’s the same with my book. Yeah, I guess I could write the same stuff (in a digital format), but it doesn’t feel the same. You don’t get the same sense of accomplishment. Maybe that’s foolish, but it is what it is.”
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of reader’s services, will lead a discussion of “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter” at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 10, at Josey Records, 1814 Oak St. If you would like to attend, email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Chapter 6 (“The Revenge of Retail”) of “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter” by David Sax, published by Public Affairs. Here, Sax talks about his onetime love for his Kindle and renewed appreciation for reading traditional printed books.
“(A)fter a few years, I fell back to print. I’m not sure what drew me to it, but a couple of factors contributed. … I joined the public library, and because of this I started reading paper books (largely for work). I quickly found how much I actually missed holding a book in my hand and reading from paper. It was a vastly superior experience, for reasons that seemed counterintuitive, when the technology of my Kindle had so many obvious advantages. Yes, a book was heavy, but I knew where I was by the very feeling of the book’s thickness between my fingers, something that I desperately craved on the Kindle. I couldn’t annotate to the cloud as I read in print, but I could underline, write notes, fold down corners, and never get lost by accidentally tapping the page with my finger. With paper, I couldn’t enlarge text or turn up the backlight, but I could read without having to charge a battery. I could accidentally step on a book, and not have to pay Amazon $140 for a replacement. Today, I get books at the library and bookstores, borrow them from my family and friends, and have a pile on my nightstand. I only use my Kindle when I travel for longer than a week. The rest of the time it sits in a drawer, its empty battery logo pleading for a charge.”