Episode 125 - Going Analog!!
Published November 25, 2014
SPECIAL GUEST: David Sax. There is a movement growing. Some of it is online, but often it's all around us, in the real world. It represents a second coming of sorts, a return to connection. It is analog. And in our increasingly digital world, it seems to be helping to keep us connected to what makes us truly human. On this episode, we're joined by author David Sax, to talk about the Revenge Of Analog. Recorded 11/20/2014.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #125. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us tonight is our special guest, David Sax. David, thanks for joining us.
David Sax: It’s a pleasure, guys.
MJ: To start off, could you tell us a little bit about your background?
DS: I am a journalist and writer who lives in Toronto, Canada. I write for publications like Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, the New York Times occasionally, and I’ve published two books, both of which were about the food business. But I’m working on a new book, which is of interest to you guys.
MJ: That’s another good place to start. I’m really interested in your book project. Can you tell us a little bit about how it started and what the main theme that you’re working off of is? I know it’s a little while before it comes out.
DS: Yeah, this is an early preview while I’m in the middle of even researching it, but the title of the book is tentatively called The Revenge of Analog and it’s going to come out in 2016. It started back probably in around 2007 when I was researching my first book, which is about the Jewish deli business, called Save The Deli, and I had come back from a pretty long road trip around the United States researching that book. It was at a time when a lot of my friends were getting their first smartphones -- Blackberrys. The iPhone, I don’t even know if it had come out at that point or if not a lot of people had it. There was this sort of sense amongst myself that something had changed in terms of the way friends and people were acting. We’d all grown up with computers, we’d all grown up with Nintendo, and we’d all grown up with the internet. For me, I think I got broadband internet the first day I went to university and had it in a residence. But now that this was with us, in our pockets, it fundamentally changed the behavior of people. I remember going to a dinner at a friend’s house and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and I were the only couple that wasn’t on their phone the entire time. Literally -- cocktails, appetizers, main course, dessert, everybody else was just sitting, head down. Nobody was a doctor, nobody was a high-powered attorney or anything. These people were in their mid to late 20s at that point and they weren’t anywhere so high in their career that they needed to be on their phones throughout an entire dinner on a Friday night. So, I just developed this fascination with the difference between our digital lives and our analog lives. Around this time, I went to a Jewish retreat summit for different people in the creative fields and one of the things they did was they made everybody put their phones away over Friday night to Saturday evening for the Sabbath. It was amazing to see the mindfulness of people and how connected they were. Then the next day, as soon as those phones came on, people scattered to their corners and attention was distracted. You could very clearly see that this was a profound difference. I started being really fascinated with this, and as I was fascinated with it, that fascination grew into me gravitating in my leisure time to things like vinyl records. I always liked records, I always had records around. My parents had records, I inherited them, I brought them to university. When I had apartments, I had a record collection with my roommate. It was crappy records that we’d inherited from our parents -- a lot of Neil Diamond and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. We had iTunes, we had libraries filled with thousands and thousands of albums on our hard drives, and yet we had people over and I just remember sitting in cold, dark winter nights with my roommate, just talking about life, playing records and it was this very conscious thing that we did because even though he was a teacher, he was very into technology. He worked for Apple in customer care years before Apple was cool. He was the first person I knew to have a CD burner; always into the latest technology. Yet this was sort of an act that we gravitated towards and I started to appreciate these other things. Again, I was using the internet all day, every day, on my computer all the time, used technology to the best potential that I could. I wasn’t obsessed about it or I wasn’t programming anything, but I did as much as my work as I could through modern means. I just kept saying that there was an importance to it. So, over a number of years, I kept developing ideas and book pitches which didn’t really go anywhere and publishers weren’t interested in different aspects of this. An initial one was a digital diet -- “What would it be like to strip my life down to analog tools and replace the digital ones with the analog equivalent?” I would get rid of my digital camera and I would pick up a film camera for a month and talk about who the people were that were still holding onto that and so forth. Then it became a book about just print and paper. Then it became a book about the people who are really trying to save analog and hold it from going under, and so on. But over a number of years and all these different proposals, I let it sit there for years at a time, didn’t even touch it. Last year, I decided to pick it up again because this was something that I just felt really strongly about and the more things became digital in our personal lives and our professional lives, the more interest there seemed to be in analog ideas and objects. Not only that, but the more opportunity there was -- the stories about vinyl records showing double digit growth year after year in the music business where everything else was contracting just kept getting published year after year. First, it was a surprising thing and it was kind of tongue-in-cheek, and it was some idiotic thing about hipsters. But there were stories about Walmart carrying vinyl records and Whole Foods having vinyl records, and vinyl record companies expanding their production by double and they can barely meet up with it -- “Okay, there’s people making real money in this.” There’s ton of Kickstarter projects for people making film cameras and pens and new paper products. Even in my neighborhood in Toronto, which is your average place downtown, filled with hipsters, there were all these new analog businesses that were opening -- 2, 3, 4 new record stores, a new stationary store, a new pen store, a new place that was devoted to film photography. This was being mirrored in cities all around the world. So, I just kept thinking “There’s something here and it’s not just about ‘Oh, we’ve got to save the old bookstore from dying because we have to preserve it,’” but new people, young people, people in their 20s and 30s were investing money in analog and they were succeeding. There was something here that not only spoke to a business model and an idea around an opportunity but something much deeper, which is kind of the inherent value of analog in a digital world, and that’s really what I’m looking at. That’s the short answer.
MJ: I think there is this weird tension between digital and analog sometimes. As much as they say the analog stuff is going away, I remember, and I don’t know if you remember this too Matt, when CDs were coming up and I remember a news story about “Oh, the last vinyl record is coming off the press and they’re getting rid of those.” There was like maybe a 2 or 3-year-span where supposedly there were no more vinyl records, and then all of a sudden they started doing them again because the DJ culture had discovered vinyl and made a lot of use of it. So, they were starting to do more specialty stores with a lot of used stuff, and there was getting to be demand for new stuff as well, and so it was making a comeback. It does seem like on the internet none of these old arts -- even things like blacksmithing and things like, there’s enough people interested in them out there that they are able to connect with each other online and share resources and even link up into more physical spaces, like you were saying.
MB: There also seems to be a lot more permanence for things like vinyl, and you were talking about film cameras and things. Now, obviously, everything is digital and you basically store all your music either on your computer or phone, you store all your pictures on your phone or your computer. But people don’t really seem to keep a physical copy of these things. I still have my whole CD collection, and it’s not real big but I still have a record collection, and I have boxes and boxes of pictures. But people just don’t -- it’s on the computer, your computer crashes or whatever; people just don’t seem to really keep those things the way you do with some of the older technology. You actually had a physical thing that you could move from technology to technology and now it’s just kind of this thing in the air.
DS: It’s just an abstract collection of 1s and 0s. I found, and this was one of the reasons I got into this, music -- that was the first fascination. I had a ton of CDs that I collected throughout high school and college. When iTunes came out, and the ability to just store them on the hard drive was possible and potential in terms of size, I spent weeks throwing all my CDs into my computer and uploading them onto it and then the CDs went in a box and to my parent's house, and they’re still there and my mom complains about it all the time, “What are you going to do with these CDs?” I’m like “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if I should get rid of them.” But once you take something that you can see and touch and visualize and that takes up weight and is there in your living room or your bedroom or wherever the hell it is, into just another set of instructions that’s equal on a hard drive, buried within a computer, buried within file after folder after folder after folder, you interact with it very differently. You’re not sitting on the couch and you don’t look out of the corner of your eye and think “Oh yeah, David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust. Man, I haven’t listened to that in a long time.” You can’t just kind of scan over it. You’re then interacting through the screen, through the interface that someone else designed in the order and way that they’ve done it while other sorts of things are happening on that screen -- while your email is pinging and social media is happening and there’s all sorts of other distractions and options which are beneficial in some ways and are great. But in others, it changes the experience of how you interact with that. Now, with streaming audio services like Spotify or Rdio or whatever the heck the next one is, again you’re now “Okay, you have everything at your disposal. What do you want to listen to?” I’m like “I don’t know.” “Well everything in the world is here for you. What do you want to eat? Every single food in the world is here.” Where as if someone was like “Here are the five things in your pantry, cook up a dinner,” you’re like “Okay, I can cook up something good,” or “Here’s ten things.” Yeah, the lack of physicality I think is something that people gravitate towards and I also think it’s something people gravitate towards because we like to own things. We are human and we display things, whether it’s paintings of hands on the walls of our caves or our book case and our musical collection that’s in our living room and tells people “This is who I am and these are the things that I value in terms of taste” or in terms of ideals and identity. That’s a much deeper thing and you don’t get that when everything is just in a computer somewhere that everybody else has the same model of, and you don’t see it, it’s just buried in your files.
MB: I don’t know about you, but let’s say going through a box of old photos or a picture album or something, to me, even though I have a lot of pictures digitized, it’s just so much more fun to go through the actual physical item than it is to just kind of page through it on a computer. Maybe it’s just me or whatever, but to me it is more fun to look through a picture book or whatever.
MJ: I think some of it depends on the thing. I’m with you Matt, on terms of pictures, it’s a lot nicer to, like you said, go through a box and actually touch the pictures. But I just had a bunch of family film digitized and it was so much a hassle always to break out that projector and screen and all that, and having it digitized, I can actually watch those without much production. For a while, I got into eBooks but I’ve noticed that I find it a lot harder to read eBooks. I miss, like what you were saying David, the physicality of it, the touch of paper, the fact that you don’t have to recharge it, the fact that you can write on it easily. It seems like with a lot of the digital file formats, there’s so many restrictions on what you can and can’t do -- you can’t share it. Sometimes they include utilities to mark it up and things like that, but you’re basically stuck coloring within the lines. You can’t really go off script, you can’t scrawl a note in the margin. You can maybe highlight something, but you can’t draw a picture in highlighter if you wanted to, or something like that.
DS: I think that’s something that works across all different types of analog medium. I was talking with someone the other day in the educational toy world. There’s been a ton of press initiatives, money grants, government programs that have really pushed “We need to digitize schools, we need to give kids laptops, this is what children need.” There’s tons of educational toy app companies that are like “This will teach a kid better language through the iPhone app” or whatever. Someone I spoke to that has a company in Colorado that’s very successful, that makes preschool toys like sandboxes and tubes that kids can put things through -- very basic stuff that my one-and-a-half-year-old uses every day in day care; kids, they will take something and they’ll do something completely different with it. They will take that sandbox and they’ll throw it all over the floor, but that’s the way they learn about physics and play and consequences. When you do something in a piece of software, it is hamstrung by the limitations of what that software has been coded to do. Inherently, it has those limitations. The app, or any sort of program, has the physical limitations of the parameters of the screen. I can give my kid a marker, and yeah, she has the limitations of a piece of paper, but generally she’s going outside those limitations, onto the wall or the table or whatever the hell else is nearby. It’s funny because we tend to think of it in the opposite way. We tend to think of analog formats as limiting. “Oh, you only have 35 pictures on a roll of film,” or “Oh, you can only do 24 minutes for each side of that vinyl record album.” But a lot of times, those limitations are what make for a greater freedom.
MB: When I was younger and I would get a record, you’d have those one or two songs that you had heard on the radio and that’s kind of why you bought the album, but with records and things, and even at that point, because I’m old enough, it was a pain to get to the song that you liked because you’d put on the record, you’d let it spin and you’d have to listen to all the other songs before you got to the one or two that you wanted to hear. But that was how I discovered a lot of great music, was having to sit through the stuff that I really, in all honesty, didn’t want to hear but it was easier than just fiddling around with the record player, so you’d let it go. And now you don’t have that. You’d literally just buy a song or whatever. I think people miss out because there are a lot of albums and CDs and stuff that I did listen to all the way through just because of that and I discovered a lot of great music that way.
DS: It’s interesting, on the surface it does seem that the digital tools are more advanced and give us more options. But in a lot of ways, they don’t. In a lot of ways, those options are more restrictive. So, you see a lot of people in different industries or different interest groups, whether it’s music or photography, or art and design. I think in the world of high-end designers, you see a lot of this, there is a realization of the inherent value in analog tools and processes, what those are able to do in terms of creating something that’s better, that the limitations of it are helpful and actually make a difference, makes something better at the end of the day.
MJ: Do you think some of that is related to what they call the “paradox of choice,” that the more choices you have up to a certain point leads to satisfaction, but after that point, it actually diminishes your satisfaction. I actually took a behavioral economics course on Coursera where they talked a little bit about that, where if you give people 8 choices of peanut butter, most of those people were pretty satisfied with their choice. But the group that got 34 choices of peanut butter, it took them longer to make a decision and they really weren’t that happy with it -- they had asked them to rate their satisfaction. Do you think some of the analog, because it does keep certain things limited and software has all these different ranges of choices, or it’ll go anywhere, it’ll fit on a hard drive or a phone or a computer or whatever, that it’s maybe too much choice? And I guess also that lack of physicality that you mentioned.
DS: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think that’s the case in some ways. Not for everyone. Again, this is for people who this appeals to. But I definitely agree with you.
MJ: What are some of the communities, or have you talked to a lot of -- like you mentioned record stores or things like that that are opening up, do you have a lot of contacts you made already for the book? Or are you in the process of engaging some of those communities?
DS: Both. I’ve done quite a lot of interviews around a number of different aspects of this. So, I’ve talked to a lot of people in the vinyl record business, whether they’re store owners, or whether they work for labels like Warner Bros., or whether they own vinyl record pressing plants, mostly around North America, I haven’t talked to too many outside of it, though that’s something that I actually should do. Then I’ve talked to people in -- I’m working on a chapter in brick and mortar retail, because I think that’s, again, an analog thing and I think that there’s a lot of talk and articles, discussion around “Oh, is brick and mortar doomed in the age of Amazon?” But I was interviewing someone who was like a huge expert on retailing in America and his firm is hired by Victoria Secret and Macy’s and huge national retailers to sort of consult on their retail strategy online and offline. He was like “Take a guess what percentage of retail sales in the United States happen online?”
MJ: Now you mean?
DS: Yeah. November 2014.
MB: 25% maybe?
MJ: I would probably say around 30%.
DS: Again, it sort of gets to this idea that the narrative of the tech industry and the digital world is that it is this all-consuming “Skynet Matrix,” all-enveloping force that cannot be stopped and Amazon is this huge tidal wave that is going to completely eat up all physical retail, and there won’t be any stores in 10 years. But the reality is we live in a physical world. We want physical real life experiences. We want things in places and we want to smell, taste, touch and acquire. While there are tremendous advantages to all sorts of different technologies, and in some cases they will complement analog equivalents, there’s still inherent advantages and needs for those analog objects and ways of doing things.
MJ: Speaking of retail, Matt and I talked with one of our high school friends, Mark, about RadioShack in particular. I would say all three of us really agreed that part of the problem with RadioShack is it’s just lost its identity. I think just sort of watching the brick and mortar retail industry, it seems that the stores that really have the most competing against online are kind of the vanilla, big box, one-size-fits-all, “I’m going to be everything to everyone,” because you can’t compete with online with that. Yet, the stores that are more quirky, they service a certain subset of customers that really loves their product, they don’t seem to have the same problems. It seemed to us, and Matt wouldn’t you agree, is the problem with RadioShack is they seem to have sacrificed that connection to that community that they had.
MB: Absolutely, I think that's very true.
DS: 100%. And I’m talking to people now for this retail chapter about the book business. Independent booksellers are growing I think by 20% a year now, in terms of new independent bookstores that are opening up, while the big box chains are dying. That’s because those compete on a commodity level. They compete in terms of the biggest demand of selection and the lowest possible price. Well, you open that up to someone like Amazon, you’ll never be able to beat that because they are pulling from a bigger pool and can compete on price much better because they don’t have the overhead of huge physical stores and so forth. But an individual independent store, like in Chicago where you guys are, in Lincoln Park or some other record store on the south side, those places don’t have to compete with Amazon and they don’t have to compete with Barnes & Noble or RadioShack, for instance. They can build their selection and their experience around the community they’re in and the customers they want and believe they can engage with, and do things in a way with old-fashioned customer service: person-to-person, smiles, handshakes, in-brain knowledge that you can never do at a tremendous scale because the scale requires a mass one-size-fits-all approach. As good as your algorithm is, you’re just another IP address on Amazon or on some other online retailer.
MB: It’s very true. No matter how many TVs Best Buy carries, you’re still going to be able to find probably 10 times as many by going online, so you’ve got to have a niche to your business. If you keep it smaller and you keep the knowledge there -- that’s the main thing. Amazon is obviously great if you know what you’re looking for, or any online retailer is, but if you want to go and ask some questions from somebody who does know -- and I think that’s where these stores are going to be able to compete a lot better with online, is being able to go in and ask a question from a knowledgeable person. Obviously if you’ve ever been to Best Buy, they don’t stock knowledgeable people there.
DS: No, the warehouse ran out of those a while ago.
MJ: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us David.
DS: Yeah, it was a pleasure guys.
MB: Thanks a lot.
MJ: And we’re definitely looking forward to the book.
DS: Cool. Now I’ve just got to write the damn thing.
MJ: Definitely keep us posted and we’ll have you back.
DS: Will do. Great, thanks guys.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for this radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode in our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.