Choose to be IRL


Will you be using some of that Christmas gift money to buy the Rolling Stones vinyl album Let It Bleed from an EBay seller? Do you wish that your sister will follow your request and get you the 2017 Moleskine planner as her gift? Are you concerned that all of those holiday pictures that you take on your phone will remain dormant forever and that it was better in the old days when an inexpensive instamatic or a bulky Polaroid yielded a tangible product that could be placed in a memory album? Do you resist a return to your office job after the holidays because most of your day is spent in a cubicle looking at a computer screen for seven hours?

If so, then you may be part of The Revenge of  Analog movement described by David Sax. The subtitle – Real Things and Why They Matter – provides a quick explanation of the reasons behind the desires expressed above.

Sax believes that one of the dominant narratives of the times is that digital devices now rule the world and that we are speeding gleefully into a glorious future in which knowledge is at our fingertips, communication is instantaneous, productivity is up because of greater efficiencies in systems, and through technological progress our lives are made immeasurably better. In this universe we automatically feel bad if we are among the dinosaurs unable to follow enthusiastically the siren call of the digital revolution. We try to avoid anything that is “so yesterday.”

Against this prevailing story, Sax sets another story. It’s a story of resistance to the wave of change and a story about the delight that we crave “in real life.” Sax informs us that in the halls of digital companies, IRL (In Real Life) is shorthand for the analog world.

If you are a resister, you prefer the imperfections of the old technologies to the perfection drive of the new. You prefer the sensual or tactile pleasure of physical objects to the vapors of ideas and goods captured in cyberspace.  You prefer enlightened instruction in a device free classroom rather than digitally mediated instruction in online education. You prefer a limited set of choices rather than the seemingly infinite possibilities offered online, a situation that creates analysis paralysis. If not all the time then often enough to be in balance.

The first part of The Revenge of Analog is devoted to descriptions of companies that have developed profitable business models that provide products that consumers cherish. One such endeavor is the Shinola Company located in Detroit; it’s a company that offers medium-priced analog watches and secondary products like leather handbags and bicycles. The opportunistic Shinola is even manufacturing turntables in response to the vinyl record revival, a sign of the rejection by some listeners, both serious and casual, of the digitalization of over-produced music.  The Shinola brand is built around the idea that “made in America,” so much a part of the heyday of manufacturing in The Motor City, is appealing to today’s consumers.  Shinola has capitalized on the availability of durable manufacturing buildings and a once unemployed but now eager labor force and is offering the politicians and economic planners a model for increasing manufacturing jobs, especially in cities blighted by the departure or closing of assembly lines.

Another example is the Italian based corporation Moleskine that manufactures notebooks and planners. Moleskine has been able to build its brand on an apparent paradox: that creative types in digital industries like film production and architecture prefer to sketch ideas and take notes the old fashioned ways – on the blank pages of a finely-crafted Moleskine notebook.

Sax does admit that some of Moleskine’s business is driven by the consumer’s desire to possess positional markers in the status game. To own a Moleskine is to declare oneself a member of or at least an aspirant to the creative class. In the same way, patrons of brick-and-mortar bookstores, which are also experiencing a revival, say that they like to do their shopping in the company of others, albeit strangers, who they think share the same values that they do. This idea of displaying one’s cultural values can also be seen in the commuter who reads a hard copy of The Economist or N+1 rather than read the digital versions on her tablet.

These status game considerations aside, the print revival is real. Writers who produced their blogs in cyberspace now take advantage of revolutions in the printing industry to produce low-circulation newspapers and magazines that can operate at a profit. Sax records the testimonials of readers who extol the pleasures of print: the way reading is integrated into daily routines around the kitchen table, the ability to mark up a text in ways more sophisticated than possible on a tablet, the delight one takes in the stack of books on the bedside table, the increase in the possibility of a serendipitous discovery in a bookstore. Sax says that he only reads on his iPad when he is traveling and it makes sense to travel light.

One theory for the turn away from digitized print is interesting: one confirmed hard copy reader extols the virtues of “finishability.” It’s the notion that the finite newspaper enables us to say that the job of reading can come to a clear end. The tablet onto which one can load multiple sources and whose articles may contain multiple links creates frustration because it is so open-ended.

No better sign of the appeal and necessity of analog is to be found than in the workplaces of companies like Facebook and Yelp who have made fortunes in the digital economy. Visit the headquarters and you’ll find common spaces devoid of keyboards and screens. What you will find are numerous whiteboards and gathering places for face-to-face contact and collaboration.  And, of course, expresso machines and ping-pong tables.

Running through the book is the sense that the enthusiasm of the techno-zealots may not be good for the nation and most of its citizens. He shares with Sherry Turkle, the MIT sociologist who has written extensively on the social impact of new communication devices (see one of my previous reviews), that in the realm of education learning technologies have not been able to deliver what they have promised. There is little difference in student outcomes between classrooms in which all students have IPads and those in which they don’t.

Furthermore, he believes that the veneration of technology has skewed our thinking about education and employment; in misguided fashion we push university training in disciplines that require computer sophistication when a large segment of the student population lacks the intellectual gifts for such training. We give short shrift to what has been called vocational education. This at a time when e-commerce contributes only 10% to the overall economy.

He also believes the digital economy has created big winners and losers and has widened the equality gap. Yes, jobs are created but they fall into two dramatically different categories: high-skilled, well-paying jobs for the technologically sophisticated creative types and low-skilled, low-wage jobs for assembly line workers who put together iPhones in foreign countries.

Sax’s book will give many skeptical citizens relief. The work gives us permission to resist through the choices that we make. While subscribing to a daily newspaper may not be as sexy as purchasing a Moleskine or as counter-culture as filling in the gaps in our old vinyl collection, it’s a modest way to rage against the machine.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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