April 30, 2018 / 3 comments
David Sax on how the analog can feed the imagination
David Sax is a journalist living in Toronto, Canada, and he is the author of the book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. I found David’s book fascinating, with its suggestion that the current revival of vinyl, books, photographers using real film, physical notebooks, all speak to something deeper that is happening in the world around us. How, I wondered, does analog interact with our imaginations in a way that digital can’t? Do real, tangible, actual things provide more for our imaginations to connect to, to be sparked by, to colonise?
As David went on to tell me, “Technology should serve your imagination. Your imagination should not serve technology”. So here is our conversation. The day before we spoke, his house had been hit by a falling tree during a storm, which allowed a lot of rainwater into the house, so if you listen to the podcast of our conversation, you will hear builders in the background, and several distractions as various professionals wandered through the room behind him.
Could you just give us a condensed taste of The Revenge of Analog? What did you see happening there that you felt you needed to document?
It was interesting because through the advance of digital technology over the past three decades, we’ve seen the process of what’s commonly called disruption, or technological obsolescence, progressing along more rapidly each year as the technology becomes better and is more adapted.
Right around the beginning of what I would call the pinnacle of this, which is the time about a decade ago when the smartphone and the iPhone came out, when cloud computing became inexpensive and widely available, when broadband and internet penetration was everywhere – essentially when the personal computer became a handheld device that you could carry anywhere, and could connect you anywhere with the world and could suddenly become so much more powerful than it had ever been in our personal lives, and professional lives – there was this assumption that the analog things that had been struggling against this technology would all of a sudden now completely disappear.
Books would disappear. Paper writing would disappear. Physical music like records and CDs that I see behind you would disappear. Everything behind you would just be rubbish, and worthless, as well as face to face meetings, and people going to offices. The technology would liberate us to do all these things so much easier and quicker and better than the analog equivalent would do, and it would become worthless. And initially that did sort of happen.
But what The Revenge of Analog actually documents, and what I started seeing, was that very shortly after that, those analog technologies started growing again in new and different ways because they acquired a new value. It wasn’t a default value of a legacy technology. It was almost as though they were a new technology that, compared with the ubiquity of digital technology, did something different and, in many cases, superior, or complementary.
You wrote: “ultimately analog pursuits connect us to one another in a vastly deeper way than any technology can. They allow bonds to form in real-time and in physical spaces which transcend language and our ability to communicate with just words and symbols.” I wonder what your sense is of how our imagination works in each of those different spaces, in a digital space or in an analog space.
There’s well documented research on things like drawing and handwriting… the creative tools afforded by digital technology are tremendous. But software is limiting in its limitlessness.
That was one of the interesting things I found when talking with designers or people who shoot film. That sometimes having all the creative options and tools at our hands narrows down our imagination. Software has very clearly defined rules, and you have to work within them, and adhering to those rules can stunt the creative, imaginative process. Having so much information available easily at our fingertips again takes the burden off the imagination to actually do some of the hard, heavy lifting work.
Most designers and most artists will say that you need friction to have a spark of creativity. You need challenges to overcome that constrain the creative process. As a writer, you need deadlines. Having a limitless deadline is the worst possible thing you can have. You need to work within the constraints, and analog provides for a very natural constraint to it that digital doesn’t.
You can do anything on Photoshop. You have all these options, you can do limitless stuff, and sometimes that limitlessness stunts the creative process. It gets things carried away, or just creates bad art. It’s like, “Well, why use your imagination to create something through the process of chemistry with a photograph when you can just use all these filters? Use whatever filter you want.” It’s like that actually takes the burden of imagination away.
You think about the most basic level, a child and a box of crayons and a piece of paper. They’re limited in what they can put on the page, but within that they’re unlimited, and they’re only constrained by the laws of physics and even then they’ll try to usurp it, right? But give them a painting programme on an iPad, and, again, you only can do what the software does. It takes away.
It takes the burden of that imagination away. That is that physical, cognitive part of it. There are also studies that show people are more creative when they use paper. But another part of it, that bigger part that you’re talking about, is the notion of, again, the world that we’re creating, right? A lot of the rhetoric and the hopeful utopianism of Silicon Valley and the computer world, which goes back to the counter-culture of the 1960s in the Bay area and the emergence of the early internet is like, “Look at this tremendous interconnected wonderful world we can create, and wow, look at all the things we can do. This is going to be utopia. People of the world will come together.”
It was this imagination, but the reality of it, and the economics of it, and the structure of it, is actually one that narrows the imagination down because it requires a standardised technology that’s often controlled by a handful of companies or protocols. It in many ways limits that creativity, and limits that collective imagination. In the past year, post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-crises of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook and data breaches and all these sorts of things, we’ve actually seen the real limits of that in the public imagination.
And a re-appreciation of the capacity for the imagination of what we can do in the real world. Which actually still requires the tough work of going out and meeting people and doing the things at a risk. Digital technology offered the promise of risk free, tap your fingers world changing. The reality is still that hard face-to-face thing that makes the difference.
What is it that was missing that is the hole that analog fills for people, do you think? What felt like it was slipping out of our fingers that analog has enabled us to regain?
It’s two things. One is the joy and the utility we have in things. The physical things we can touch. At the end of the day we’re still physical flesh and blood creatures that experience the world through our five senses. We condense those five senses into really two, or three. Two and a half, let’s say. Sight, through a narrow square, a rectangle. Sound, through shitty speakers. And the basics of touch, just the tips of your fingers.
No smell. No taste obviously. It is all that using the full sensory capabilities of the human organism is what we were missing. And that can be productivity. That can be the difference between someone who has learnt how to build something through watching videos, and actually someone who has the inherent knowledge of that through their hands, of a wood worker, or a craftsman, or just cooking.
But also I think the pleasure that we get from these things. The pleasure that you get from all those records behind you, and CDs behind you and books behind you. That’s actually something that we create, and as soon as we took that away it was like, “Wow, this is great, I can have it all just sitting in the cloud and I don’t need all these things.” It’s like, “Oh shit, I really miss those things”, right?
We define ourselves by those things and part of that is that imagination. The imagination of building the world where the taste we have can sit behind us and fill us with a sense of warmth even though you probably haven’t touched half of those CDs in a decade. But it gives you something to know it’s there.
So it’s the pleasure in things, the utility of those tangible, physical things. And physical, tangible experiences, not just things we buy, but things outside the house, or whatever. But more than equally important, the gravity of it is the pleasure and the necessity of people. That’s face to face social interaction, which the analog world forces you into. You have to go to a record store to buy records. I mean you can do it as a solitary existence. You can order all your books from Amazon, and all your records from Discogs, and just sit in your house and never leave. But it is those gatherings and those meetings and that face to face thing that actually is what affects real imagination, and sparks it on.
You know, as someone who writes, and speaks and does this stuff, we can have conversations like this face to face on Skype, but this is a bullshit conversation. I mean not actually! I’m just saying this is not a real conversation, right? We are getting 20% of what we got if I flew to the UK and we sat and spent a day together and walked around the town. You showed me things and we went into the pub and you were telling me the story about it. That’s why you and I fly different places to interview people and speak.
People are always, “Oh, you just do your books from home and interview people by Skype?” I do a lot of that, but every part of every book I do, I’m going somewhere. I was in New Orleans last week. I was interviewing African-American women who were in the hair and beauty business, because it’s about entrepreneurship and community, in its own special way. I had to go there. I had to meet with these women. I had to sit in their salons and talk to their customers and smell the shampoo, and hear it. Because that’s that full thing. In a way that I could have called all of them, and had conversations with them, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
That is the essence of you can’t be in this world without being in this world. Digital provides that convenience of long-distance conversations, of connections to people, social media, or email or other technology, but it’s only giving you a slice. And if you’re only using a slice of the information, your imagination is again only able to use that slice of what it has, because the imagination feeds off interactions.
It’s why people go to conferences, right? Every conference I speak at, and I speak at a conference every three weeks, it’s like, “What is the point of this?” Well the point of it is not to hear some schmuck like me standing up on a stage and talking for an hour. The point of it is people sit together and then after that, it’s like, “Hey, that was…”, “What do you think about that?” “Okay, let’s grab a drink”. Let’s have these interactions to spark something. Get some idea going, get a conversation going. Conversations, real conversations, which don’t happen over digital, as we’ve seen. Was that a rant? Was that a good enough rant for you?
Great, thank you! Recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica and research showing that the more time people spend on Facebook the more depressed they become, and the catastrophic effects on our attention spans, and our ability to focus on anything … do you feel like analog is something that would just sit alongside digital that will always be there? Do you feel that digital is something that we will discover a new way of relating to, where it is a bit more humble in its aspirations, or do you see that actually in the analog stuff, that actually represents the future direction that we might be going to a new society? A new analog way of doing things?
It’s a balance and a conversation, and one that we’re constantly having. Whatever the technology is that’s in our lives, right? Whether it’s electricity or industrial steam power or paper. I think if you look at the history of technology, these conversations of how the technology influences are always going to be a push and pull. It’s very individual for certain people.
There’s lots of people who are like, “I have no problem. Social media is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s what life’s about. Look at all it’s done for us.” And those people genuinely believe it. They’re not just getting on some propaganda, it actually has some great benefits, and of course there’s going to be Luddites who are rejecting it, but I think for most of us, it is a question about personal values.
You know, people say, “Well is this thing you wrote about, is this just a trend that’s going to go away like Pet Rocks, or Disco?” And I say, “No, look, as long as we are physical beings walking on a spinning planet, we’re always going to relate to the world more deeply through the things we can touch and feel.” Digital can bring us those things, it can help us find the board game café, and it can help us finance things through Kickstarter, whatever.
It can put us into touch with other people and allow us to meet up. What I’ve found by talking to people and the response from the book is it is that balance that people seek. That balance is important because the other option, and the one that the digital technology through these integrated services of, “Oh, you can get everything on your Amazon devices, or everything on your Apple devices” is a more binary one. Digital or analog? One or two? One or zero? Apple or Samsung? That’s the language of digital. It’s either/or. And the reality of the world is not.
The world is not binary. It is fluid, and complicated, and many different shades of options. That’s imagination. It’s dealing with “Well what do you what? A or B?“ It’s like, “No, I want to create C. I don’t want these stark examples.” That is what people are increasingly moving for whether it’s individuals in their personal lives. Well where does this actually benefit? Where does this technology benefit me? Analog technology and where is the digital one?
Where do I want to pick up the paper version of the physical thing, or where do I not care, and I’m just happy to have the digital? Where does that work for me? Even in companies, organisations, the work life looks like, “Well here is where this works for me, and here is where this doesn’t.”
What you’re seeing is finding that mix. And that’s what we want. Analog technologies are not going to go away. Nor is digital. Reflecting that balance is hopefully the future that will happen. But I don’t see it as being that stark either/or.
I interviewed Douglas Rushkoff a little while ago. He said we’ve ended up over the last 20 years, “disabling the cognitive and collaborative skills we would have needed to address a problem like climate change” which I thought was really fascinating. I wonder what your sense is for people who are trying to do activism, at a time when people’s attention spans are completely shot to pieces, what does analog offer to people who are trying to engage people around ideas, when they’re trying to inspire and interact with people who really struggle to focus on anything?
What analog does is it slows down the pace of the conversation. A conversation between people, whether it’s one person speaking to a room of people, or two people sitting across from each other, or talking on a phone, or even in this context… But even this context, I can look at other things that are popping up on my computer screen and other sounds are pinging, and I’m just trying to concentrate.
It does mediate that process. And it mediates it into the pace of the real world, hour to hour, minute by minute, 24 hours in a day, right, seven days in the week. Digital often accelerates the pace of that thing. Sometimes that can be beneficial, if you look at the sexual assault and anti-misogyny #metoo movement, or any of these # social movements that are actually a positive growth and change over the past while. You can see that actually the accelerating pace of that change can be beneficial.
But on the opposite hand, it can be just as harmful as something negative. Racism, intolerance can spread just as quickly with just as devastating real world consequences. It is the pace of analog conversations. The pace of reading a book versus reading endless blogs and tweets. Not only the pace of that but that pace requires a depth. A slowing down of thought. A consideration of reactions, and the social cues that come with it.
If I read something that you write in a tweet, and I can just write back, “You fucking cunt, you’re wrong”. Because I don’t know you. I don’t see your face. You’re not anyone I know. But I can’t say that if I disagree with you and I’m sitting in front of you. I have to consider those real human things. And that of course allows for those deeper ideas, and those deeper ideas for better solutions.
There’s this wonderful idea of, “Let’s create a hash tag. Let’s create a website. Let’s do a thing. Let’s create a social movement out of something.” But what is going to be that real long-term human consequence you’re trying to achieve? You can only really achieve those things through long-term human interactions and consequences. I think that’s that long-term benefit to it.
One of the questions I’ve asked everybody that I’ve spoken to – tweaked obviously for the person – is if you had been elected as the Prime Minister of Canada, on a ‘Make Canada Imaginative Again’ platform where you recognised that there was a need to really value and enhance imagination across education, across the political world, across social interactions, across policy-making, whatever, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?
One of the key things is starting with education and the idea of imagination. There is this tremendous talk given to education, innovation, entrepreneurship, imagination, creativity. These are what are known as 21st century skills and it’s all sort of a buzz. But often that then gets equated with technology.
It’s like, “We need more innovation in education, and imagination in classrooms, so let’s give all the kids an iPad.” And the reality is what’s proven? What do we see? And what’s known is sometimes the best and most innovative examples are the simplest ones. Sometimes putting a bunch of people in a room with a whiteboard and a couple of markers is a lot better than giving them the best virtual reality headsets. It’s really looking at the data. Actually stripping back what feeds innovation and imagination? What makes it work? Those basic values of creativity.
It’s not about teaching kids to code. It’s about making sure there’s art classes, and theatre classes, and music classes that teach kids how to play instruments and do real plays in real life, and make movies, and make music. But again, when you’re stripping school libraries of funding, and public libraries of funding, when you’re saying, “But we don’t need books. We don’t need paint. We can do it all with iPads.” It’s all about giving kids computer skills because those are the skills.
No. You want to build a society that’s more imaginative? Have the youngest children making sure they’re able to have their schools have libraries. Amazing public libraries and communities that have all sorts of things. Where you can take computer classes and you can work on 3D printers, but you also have books, and games, and colouring, these sorts of things.
Any last thoughts about imagination that might have triggered off other things we’ve talked about that I haven’t asked you the right question to elicit?
Imagination is something we all have. But it is a skill that needs to be cultivated. And you can’t just cultivate it in one way. That is true to approaches to education as it is true to technology. Digital technology, computers, devices, apps, robots, whatever, has the ability to inspire the imagination, to be used as tools to take the ideas that the imagination creates into reality. It can fuel the imagination.
Connect people who are imaginative. It can do all sorts of things to benefit the imagination and allow it to work. But it’s not the only tool. And the analog world, and the technologies of analog, and the analog interactions we have with things and with people can also engage the imagination in a way that is different. That’s the key.
It’s not that it’s superior to digital. It’s just different. In some cases that will work better, and in some cases it won’t. That’s something that needs to be kept in mind. That’s something that everybody, whether it’s an individual or an organisation, needs to assess on a real level. Does this benefit my imagination, if I’m doing it in an analog way or a digital way? Let me try both and see what works.
For everybody it’s different. Mor me when I’m writing my books, I want to meet people face to face. I want to take notes on a notepad. But then I want to sit back home and type it out on Microsoft Word because I just type faster and it works better and I’m used to it. I’m not going to write out a book long hand or type it on a typewriter. That just works for me.
For other people it’s the opposite. So again it’s not having that preconceived notion of one’s better, one’s worse. It’s approaching them in an equal sort of way, and then using that to serve your imagination as best possible. Technology should serve your imagination. Your imagination should not serve technology.