David Sax

Q&A with David Sax, Author of The Revenge of Analog

Art Keller engaged in an extended conversation with David Sax about the ideas in his book, Revenge of the Analog. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Art Keller: David, what caused you to want to write this book?

David Sax: It initially came out of experience I was having over a decade ago. This was a point of time when I really moved most of my music collection, which was largely CDs at the time, and iTunes. I had got rid of all my physical music and moved to streaming. And then as a consequence of that, almost stopped listening to music. When it wasn’t there as a physical thing, music just kind of disappeared. And then shortly after that, a couple months later, my roommate at the time got his parents’ old record collection, and we started listening to this stuff and I became really sort of intrigued at what it was about, the records were pleasurable and it wasn’t the sound quality. And it wasn’t that it was such a great record collection, because it wasn’t really.

It was around the time that everybody I knew started getting their first smart phones. And really seeing the behavior of people changing in such a fundamental way, people suddenly ignoring you in the midst of conversations. Going out for dinner and everybody was just there with their heads down, responding to messages, which is something we now take for granted…. But at the time, it was just really stark, stark change. And also, at this time there was sort of the green shoots of what I was writing about, which is that these supposedly obsolete analog things were starting to see kind of new life and find new audiences and find a different sort of value in what they were, compared to what they were in the past.

AK: The book starts out talking about the return to vinyl and gets into how records are bouncing back in a major way. It’s still somewhat of a niche market, but it’s growing, if not by leaps and bounds, than still quite respectably, and along with it, there’s profitability. It sounds like what’s really driving that is the greater emotional engagement that you have with the music when it’s delivered via vinyl. So why do you think that is? Why is it worth it for a listener to pay a premium to get something on vinyl?

DS: Analog requires a sacrifice, in terms of the time they’ll go into the record store and flipping through bins to find the one or two records you’re going to buy on a given weekend. And sacrifice in terms of money. It costs money to buy analog things in a way that the digital equivalent serves either free or cheap enough that you don’t even think about it.

It takes space to store this stuff. You need shelf space, you need equipment, you need mental energy. And yet I think with anything in life, the more effort you have to put into something, the more of a reward there is.

There’s also an inherent built-in reward that comes from something’s physicality. To touch something, hold something, to look at, something, to smell, something to have to go out into the world to acquire something may seem like an inconvenience. But actually, it’s incredibly rewarding, because it engages us in all our senses. In order to go and get a record at a record store, you have to walk somewhere. You might see things on the way that you’d like, you go somewhere and you hear music that they’re playing and there’s an enjoyment. You meet people, you socialize, you have conversations. All of these things are rewarding and cannot be delivered by digital technology because it does away with that in the name of efficiency.

AK: A theme cropped up throughout the book and it first appeared when talking about an analog audio recording and record production, but it also crops up again when talking about the superiority of physical note taking is that somehow the psychology of limiting choices enhances the experience. It makes better music, it makes better note taking.

DS: I think it’s just generally the rule in the world. There’s a book which I cited, The Paradox of Choice, and it talks about that when people are given too many choices, they get stressed out, right? Think about, going to a restaurant, a Cheesecake-Factory-type-place with 200, 300 items on the menu. It’s an incredibly stressful experience. You’re always worried that you’re going to order the wrong thing versus the classic sandwich shop that has like five items. I think creativity thrives within limitations and we’re used to limitations.

We were able to adapt and make compromises and work with the limitlessness of things that come with digital technology. And part of its attraction is that: limitless storage, limitless ability to change things. But limitless options can often lead to a sort of paralysis in terms of what we’re doing for pleasure or work, right?

I think in the working world that’s even more so, right? Give people these sort of limitless options to refine things and change them and work with them and they just almost freeze up.

AK: I’ve heard that reported, particularly when people from the former Soviet Union showed up to a US supermarket, they would just lose it. Too much choice. In a way they missed having Toothpaste Number Five from the People’s Toothpaste Factory. They had one option, it did its job, and you didn’t have to spend too much time thinking about toothpaste.

DS: It’s funny, you think about the success of a place like Trader Joe’s is kind of that Soviet option of having fewer choices is better. A lot of these new digital consumer brands that are launching, the mattress companies: you only need one mattress. That’s all we have, and it’s the perfect mattress. One less decision to make.

I think that the analog world inherently is limited, right? A Polaroid camera roll of film, you know, it only has a certain number of pictures on it, so you better make this pictures count and what you take is what you get. Versus endless collections of digital photographs on our phones and other devices that we’re just constantly collecting with the hope that one day we’ll get around to making that album. But who amongst us does?

AK: Agreed. And going back to your point about Cheesecake-Factory-style menus, having been around the food service industry a little bit, I know there’s no way a restaurant can prepare 300 dishes well, nor can they have on hand top notch ingredients for 300 different dishes. So, there’s a whole range of compromises that you accept along with having that huge variety of choice.

When you were talking about making film, you talked about how it requires courage to go analog. Why is analog production so challenging?

DS: It is real problems in the real world, right? To build a digital company and scale it is relatively easy. I don’t mean it’s easy to make a profitable company or a company that succeeds in the long run, but anyone could start up a website, anyone can go and source products and as things grow, scale the production of digital platforms very easily with web-based services, you know, click, click, click and it’s sort of done. That’s the beauty of it. And that’s why it’s so attractive to many people and these companies grow very quickly because of that.

But once you’re in the analog world and especially with analog products, physical products, that is something that requires a tremendous amount of financial investment, intellectual investment, and time. It’s not the type of thing that can be done in any way that it can be sped up. I remember talking to the folks at the record pressing plant, United Record Pressing in Nashville, and they were talking about building a new facility to double the capacity of the records they can press, and it was two years later that facility opened up after it began construction. It took time for them to find the record pressing machines. And it took time to calibrate the machines. In the analog world, everything takes so much more.

In this day and age it’s really easy to create a digital company and really easy to get money for one; there’s a lot of venture capital and other funds out there. But instead to think, “Hey, I’m gonna start a bookshop. I’m going to start a paper publication, a magazine or an independent newspaper. Or maybe I’m going to rebuild a film factory in the Italian countryside that’s been mothballed for a decade?”

It is regarded as foolhardy tilting at windmills. Few have the courage and yet, what’s interesting is despite all that, many of these people do it, because it’s a passion and, and many of them have succeeded.

AK: You talk about the phenomenon of technology in general being kind of a distraction from things that we need to focus on. You mention it’s easier to get money to start a digital company, but it’s so weird, when you have Warren Buffet and people begging to know how he is such an investment genius. And his answer is pretty straightforward: “I’m not doing anything new. I look for companies that make things that people want, that have strong fundamentals. The end.”

DS: Yes. And it’s like, no, it’s not boring! It’s how we all eat and build a life and enjoy things. Instead when you are looking for investors you hear: tell us how you’re going to change the world, tell us the grand promise of artificial intelligence. People love a shortcut, and they love a hero, they love fantasy of transformational change and the magic bullet. And I think that is the promise that Silicon Valley offers and is often sold to us falsely.

AK: you have a sentence written about ed tech. “The hope is that ed tech can transform education the way digital technology has transformed business, media, and communications.

I’m looking at that and I’m absolutely appalled because how has digital tech transformed business? It’s led to abolishing the middle skill jobs.

How has it transformed media? Well, thousands of magazines and newspapers were put out of business and now we have really sharp information silos on social media, so that’s fueling dissension in society. And communication? As you wrote, people are texting, and Snapchatting and Instagramming and ignoring the people right in front of them. And not coincidentally, anxiety and depression are skyrocketing among millennials. So, if that’s what digital tech has done for those things, what is it going to do for education?

The Revenge of Analog

DS: That’s the reality, right? And I think it’s easy to stand up on a stage at the TED Conference and say, “Hey, look at this device or look at this program and we’re going to bring it into a school in Africa,” (it’s always a school in Africa). And once this thing’s in there, it’s going to give these kids the best sort of education, they’re gonna learn the most. And next thing you know, they’ll be lifted out of poverty.”

The people who say this genuinely believe that, they really do. They’re not trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, but it just fundamentally ignores the nature of what the problems are in the real world. And those problems with schools cannot be overcome with digital devices.

Mike, my kid, goes to a public school here in Toronto. It’s not a wealthy public school. It’s your average kind of school held together with lots of asbestos tape, but the teachers care and they’re struggling with very little budgets and the building’s old, but it’s okay. But what are devices going to do to fix any of those problems?

The other part of it, which I find really infuriating especially around education, and I think this applies as well to business is people say, “Well, you have to innovate. You’ve got to be more innovative. You’ve got to be more disruptive. You have think more like a startup.”

Every school has to think like a startup? Every business has to think like a startup? Every government department has to think like an entrepreneurial startup? Okay, well what does that mean? Often that just means “adopt technology.” Bring it in. The latest thing is the iPad, get iPads. The latest thing is virtual reality? Bring in virtual reality. But these things have a cost and often, you’re bringing in unproven and untested things based on a theory! And usually in the long run, those theories don’t pan out because they haven’t been tested.

I find it ironic that the tech industry is one that’s supposed to be based on empirical foundations of data and rigorous analysis and A/B testing of things and yet they’re happy to sell the public, and schools, and businesses, all sorts of untested things with the grand promise that they will be transformational. And then if it doesn’t work out, oh well, you know, on to the next thing to sell.

David Sax

David Sax, ©Christopher Farber

AK: Yes, it seems the people who are purveying the technologies may believe in it, but it’s very much a blind belief. And is saying “embrace this technology” not merely another way of saying “throw out everything that we know works, and try this new thing, and we don’t know if it works yet?” Just having the default assumption that technology is going to do something better than than another way that’s evolved iteratively doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

DS: Newer equals better. Right? Without foreseeing the consequences. And of course, if anyone foresees the consequence, you’re a technoskeptic, you’re a Luddite.

I think the events in the past year and a half, two years, since the US election and all the interference with information, and falsehoods, and hacking, I think it has shaken that inherent trust that was there for a long time with digital technology. And I think there’s an increased skepticism around the trust that we can put in that technology. And that is a good thing. That’s a healthy thing. It doesn’t mean we can or should stop using technology, but I think we have to remove our romance with it from the equation and really evaluate, is this better or is this worse? Does this make my life better or make it worse? Does this protect me or does it actually make me more vulnerable? Am I willing to make that trade? And actually, having a discussion and balancing that out versus just saying, “Ooh, shiny, new, let’s try it! Cool! Wow!”

AK: I would agree 100 percent that we’re long overdue for a reevaluation of the value of digital technology.

I found the section on the revival of books, newspapers, and magazines interesting and inspiring. That chapter begins with a conversation with a woman that asked you the question, why write books and print articles? Why not branded content?

I don’t know her, I’m sure she’s perfectly nice, but as a writer, having her say that is the only viable choice is just repugnant. To think “I must produce branded content” as the only surviving way to make a living as a writer is bleak. In the book, you lamented, and I’ve had the same experience, that it is now harder to make a living as a writer. I’ve had magazines go under on me that left me scrambling for a job at the last minute. It’s not a fun experience, as you know.

But on the flip side, when you got into how the books and magazines or newspapers are bouncing back a that in a way that will actually make money for publishers, that was exciting and hopeful. People who are in the writing game have been in despair. Talk a bit about how the economics of magazines are changing.

DS: Let’s talk about magazines as a thing distinct from books because the reality with books is that nothing’s put a dent in them! Everybody assumed that the Kindle and eBook and the Nook would come along and wipe out the book like it did to CDs, but books are doing great. Books are doing better than ever before, while eBook sales are just declining.

People still like to read things on paper. Books are sold for what the publisher believes they can sell for. And if enough people buy it, then you know, that’s how the publisher does and that bookstores and so on and the author, attached at the end of that line, always the smallest percent.

The difference is that in traditional news media, magazines, the publication was a loss leader and paid for by advertising, and the advertising market has gone completely online, just due to the cost and scale and ease of targeting and digital momentum.

So, the newer magazines that are succeeding today, publications like Kinfolk and Monocle magazines, they’re saying, “Okay, we might have a few ads in here, but we’re really not dependent on ads in the way that time and Newsweek and Vanity Fair is. We depend on your subscription dollars. If you like it, you pay for the subscription, you pay for each issue, and it’s going to cost you more than those Sports Illustrated things, and we’re not sending you a football phone. You’re going to pay for this, but you’re going to get something that’s a high quality and that you’ll like and it won’t feel as disposable.”

And if enough people think that, then, that’s a business. They may never be a business as big as Conde Nast or Hearst magazines at their peak, but that’s still enough of business to make it worthwhile for someone like you to publish your ideas and get them out into an audience of people who like that.

It’s a lot easier for someone starting a new publication today than it is for an older publication to try to shrink their audience and somehow maintain an older financial model. That was a conversation I had this morning with a friend of mine who was running a big national magazine that’s 90-something years old here in Canada, and she just quit this week because they cut her staff and cut her budgets and told her to do more with less for the fifth time in five years and she just said, “I can’t do this anymore.”

It’s not worth doing that. I would rather go work for a small publication that’s starting up with people paying for it, and they know what they’re paying for.

AK: I’ve seen those kind of cuts and it was happening in the media long before the Internet became a big thing. I went to work for briefly for the Arizona Republic newspaper in 1998, before the Internet was making major inroads into publishing revenue, but they were already on their third round of layoffs. Even though it’s the biggest newspaper in Arizona, it made plenty of money and had no real competitors. It was just becoming more profit driven… why not a fire an experienced full-time person that we have to pay real salary to, and hire two part-time news assistants, who have very little experience but who can still provide content? There was already a hollowing out of the media before the Internet did the same thing on steroids, and it was kind of ugly to see firsthand. When I had a chance to get a better newspaper job or join the CIA, and that was like, “I think you’re going to go do the CIA, because this does not look like it’s going in a good direction right now.”

DS: Also looks better on your resume, cooler!

AK: One of the things I’m wondering about is the economics of magazine publishing. I’m wondering if there’s some space being created because of Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the high-end print market. You wrote there is actually pretty good return on investment for print advertising. It’s just that there’s a lot of distraction and people want to precisely target their people, their potential consumers. But might there not be a trend saying, “Hey, you know, we are producing an excellent product. Here’s a print ad for it. And guess what: we don’t need to spy on you to sell to you! Here’s are our fine products. Why don’t you consider buying them?”

DS: Be the honest ad agency, that could be an interesting thing. It’s kind of an all-bets-are-off era, which has made this time fairly ripe for experimentation with analog media. So, you’re seeing community-funded papers and community radio because the assets are so undervalued. It’s easy to get cheap printing done, because printers now have an under capacity and so on. It’s easy with some of the digital tools to make stuff that once required huge newsrooms. And so, there’s a lot of tremendous possibility out there.

I think a new generation, the younger generation, actually really values that and wants to get their hands dirty and try new things and do it in a way that’s very different from trying to build a big digital media company or digital startup.

AK: You just spoke of a new generation trying break into something. In the book, it sounds like the new generation is showing a marked preference for board games and that the culture of board gaming has changed a lot. You mentioned specifically that people who are into board games wanted to make a break with the all-male, geeky culture, where it’s just guys doing Dungeons and Dragons in basements. Board games have transformed into a more social activity, a more gender-neutral activity. One of the places you discussed in Toronto, Snakes and Lattes, you call a “third place.” What’s a “third place” and what’s the value of it that’s associated with board games?

DS: “Third place” is a term by [sociologist Ray Oldenburg] outside of home and work. That community gathering spot for whatever community you have. It could be a church, it could be a social club, it could be a sports team that you root for. These board-game cafes, like Snakes and Lattes, have really become the kind of hubs of social interactions, of friendships, of community, wherever they are. What’s interesting is that many of these people are the same people who play multiplayer video games at home over the Internet. The difference with that is that, you’re really just playing a game.

But in a board game, it’s much more of a social interaction. The game is the excuse to get together and talk and laugh and have a few drinks, in a way that’s really missing. One of the things that people talk about in North America and the UK and elsewhere in the world is kind of this epidemic of loneliness. People have supposedly never been more social. And yet there is a marked increase in loneliness and that leads to problems like depression and things like the opioid crisis, and yearning for sort of real, deep social interaction. With something like board games, the games are just kind of “Hey, let’s, let’s do this thing. It’s just a bunch of cardboard. But, you know, we’ll get to see each other and talk to each other and feel a sense of belonging to a group.”

I think that is a lot harder to do online because online you’re lacking a key ingredient beyond the physical contact. And that’s empathy. There’s no empathy on the Internet. It wasn’t programmed in.

AK: No, there is not any empathy on the Internet!

You actually have a quote, and I think it’s from the folks who developed Cards Against Humanity. “The anesthetic of loneliness is why it feels so good to sit down and real life and play this game.” I think that kind of perfectly captures it.

I haven’t been into multiplayer online games, I know that they’re tremendously popular, but why is it that, for instance, the board game Settlers of Catan, can be more engaging than a multiplayer online game? What’s the attraction? What do they get from gameplay that they’re not getting when they’re not seeing anybody in interacting in a personal space?

DS: They’re not getting other people. They’re not getting the emotional reactions, the laughter, the physical cues, the smell of someone else, that feeling of them tapping into their foot, the side conversations that happen about other stuff in between turns; the drinks and the food that are there. They’re getting a bunch of images on a screen and different ways they can tap their thumbs to make icons move. But that’s it. That’s all they’re getting. And so they’re missing out on all those other things where the rich sort of three dimensional parts of our analog world reside that we need as human beings in order to survive as much as we need the elements, as much as we need food and water and oxygen.

AK: Yes, in reading, it struck me that to boil it down, Settlers is more engaging because it requires emotional intelligence, it’s much more of a strategy game and that the strategy requires interacting and reading people and that is the kind of engagement that we’ve been evolved to want. And we’ve been rewarding people who can do that in real life. They’re the people who rise to the top of their society or their community. So winning at Settlers feels like winning in real life in a way that video game can’t.

If there were any particular takeaway you would want readers or listeners to have from the book, what would it be?

DS: That it’s okay to be a tech skeptic. Being a technology skeptic doesn’t necessitate a rejection of digital technology or call for a Ted Kaczynski existence in the woods in a shack somewhere. It means approaching all technology, whether it’s digital technology or analog technology, with an open mind and a critical mind and assessing whether it’s something that makes your life better or not. If it isn’t, and you find you’re missing something, then try the analog equivalent. Turn off your phone on the weekends. Leave Facebook and don’t think twice about it. That the book, that the record, that the old camera, they’re still worth something, and they’re actually worth something different now, because they’re not the standard anymore.

AK: Yeah I would agree 100 percent.

DS: Look away from the shiny blinking lights and the cool sounds and actually ask: what are the real consequences of these choices?

AK: Words to think on, and good words to close on. Thank you so much for your time, David. 

DS: No problem. I appreciated the opportunity to talk.