Modern Life

Why we still crave things we can touch

A conversation with the bestselling author David Sax on how analog is not only alive, but thriving.

By Garage Staff — December 1, 2017

Books. Paper notebooks. Printed pictures. Over the last two decades, each was declared to be dead or dying. Yet journalist David Sax noticed something unexpected on this road to digital everything: Not only are old technologies not dying, they’re thriving in many cases. In his book, “The Revenge of Analog,” Sax explores why the things we can touch, feel and experience with a combination of senses are still going strong.


What inspired you to write “The Revenge of Analog”?

About 10 years ago, when everybody I knew started to get smartphones, there was a noticeable change in the way people interacted. Suddenly, ignoring someone in the middle of a conversation to take a message became acceptable social behavior.

At about the same time, my roommate and I decided to upload our entire collection of 600 CDs to iTunes and get rid of the CDs. Our interest in music nearly disappeared overnight — because everything was out of sight, out of mind, on a hard drive. It just stopped being interesting. 


What attracts us to analog things?

Anything that engages more of your senses is going to be more engaging, regardless of when you were born. There's this false hope and assumption that because digitizing books or other media is more efficient, we’ll get the most out of that media. But most efficient doesn't necessarily mean most effective. Yet those assumptions are often put ahead of what the evidence is.

Schools have rushed to put iPads in the hands of students, in many cases getting rid of textbooks because that's the way forward. Yet students are saying hold on, that doesn't work, and the test scores show it doesn't work and the research shows it doesn't work, but the school wants to look innovative.


How does this translate to printed images versus ones on a smartphone screen?

Printed photos are a moment of time captured and displayed in space. They evoke an emotional sense of wonder.

I have thousands of photographs on my hard drives or the cloud, but since I started taking digital photos all those years ago, I've printed eight. The ones that are on my walls, I walk by every day. And every time I look at them, I have an emotional reaction. 

I get a similar sensation when I flip through photos of my kids or my family or the past on my phone, but it's an ephemeral glimpse of something that’s part of a moving stream — every photo you take almost buries the ones that are behind it.


“I have thousands of photographs on my hard drives or the cloud, but...Ive printed eight. And every time I look at them, I have an emotional reaction.”

Whether it’s vinyl records, board games, paper books or printed photos, millennials and Generation Z seem to have a strong affinity for all things analog. Why is that?

If you’re raised around something that is the norm, the standard, then any deviation from the norm is a way to craft your individual identity. If your entire life you’ve been taking photos on an iPhone and posting them to Instagram, those young people who are into photography in a deeper way are eventually going to look for something more challenging and rewarding.

Digital technology isn't new or miraculous or magical for them. It's ubiquitous, like sunshine and air. It's always been there, it's always going to be there and they're so familiar with it that it doesn't hold any special meaning or significance. But when they’re presented with something analog for the first time, especially older technology, that is magical.

For my friend's daughter’s ninth birthday last summer, she wanted a Fujifilm Instax camera. She’d begged for it. When I asked her why, she said, “Look, the picture comes out. Isn't that cool? It develops in front of your eyes.” It was like yes, I know I'm going to take 95 percent of my pictures on my iPhone, but this is going to be really cool for when I have my friends over for a sleepover or go to camp. 

No 15-year-old is ever worried about embracing an older technology because they're afraid of being called a Luddite, the way a New York Times editor would be.


Is there a human connection happening among people who are looking at something in print that they don’t get via a smartphone screen?

Has anyone ever stopped you on the subway and commented on the article or ebook you were reading on your Kindle or phone? Has anyone ever done that with a hardcover, paperback or copy of The New Yorker you were reading? Have they asked about it, started a conversation that way? Because printed material isn’t hidden behind the pixels, it provides opportunities for connection. 


To learn more about David Sax and see his recent writings, follow him on Twitter @saxdavid.