It’s Not Just Nostalgia: “Real Things” and Why They Matter

In his new book, David Sax explains how giving into the lure of things like vinyl records and paperback books might actually make you happier.
Real Things Matter

Too much of our time in our hectic consumer society seems like “not life”—phony and artificial.

YES! Illustration by Fran Murphy.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life ...
Henry David Thoreau

 

Talking with a group of University of California, Santa Cruz, students a few years ago, I asked them how they felt about the digital life—always on their cellphones, always online. Almost without exception, they started telling me everything they disliked. The saddest thing was that they considered themselves addicted, finding it almost impossible to break free.

They wanted to be free, though. They sensed that they were missing something.

I think these kids would like the new book by David Sax, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. He writes, in a very readable manner, about the growth of analog culture over the past few years—the lure of vinyl records, the almost- reverent use of Moleskine notebooks, the fun of board games. In fact, I went into a bookstore not long ago, and I saw long lines of young people buying books—real books!

This isn’t an effort to turn back the clock and get rid of the digital economy. Sax sees it as an attempt to return to the “real.” So I suspect he and these students would like my favorite Henry David Thoreau quote.

Too much of our time in our hectic consumer society seems like “not life”—phony and artificial. We want, instead, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow,” as Thoreau puts it. And being involved with “real” things—things you can touch or taste or manipulate is attracting people.

Actually, Thoreau is particularly relevant to Sax’s thesis. I spent many years working with people trying to simplify their lives. We came together in simplicity circles to reduce our materialism, our overwork, and our isolation. We were trying to live deliberately, make conscious choices, and look for new sources of happiness and contentment outside consumer society. Is the return to analog something similar?

As Sax shows, this interest in living deliberately, making conscious choices, seems to have resurfaced. And much of the interest is coming from millennials.

What Sax finds is surprising: “The younger someone was, the more digitally exposed their generation was, the less I found them enamored by digital technology, and the more they were wary of its effects. [They were] buying new turntables, film cameras, and novels in paperback … These kids revered analog. They craved it. And they were more articulate about its benefits than was anyone else I spoke with.”

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter
David Sax
PublicAffairs, 2016

About a year ago a couple of young people in Seattle started simplicity meetups, using a digital approach to organizing them. In the process they discovered my book Circle of Simplicity and the fact that I live in Seattle, so now I’m leading another simplicity circle, talking in person instead of online. The circle members seem hungry for this chance to talk about their lives. And the goodwill and affection that flows from our conversations is incredible.

So the issue is bigger than just liking old records or board games. Yes, people like the “realness” of analog life, but there is something even more important: the desire for community and connection with other people. Connection online is just not the same as getting together with people face to face. In fact, digital technology can separate people—especially when people are on their phones while they’re with others.

There’s been a lot written about this separation, such as MIT’s Sherry Turkle in her books Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation. In particular, Turkle explores the research that says students have had declining scores in the area of empathy—the ability to feel what others feel.

And empathy is essential to the dramatic cultural shift we need if life on Earth is to survive. We need to move from a culture of “every man for himself” to “we’re all in this together.” We need to save the planet, and we need to save the people. To do this, we need to come together and experience empathy.

Experiencing empathy gives us the power to resist those who would control us.

Sax does an excellent job of exploring this idea in his discussion of education. He shows how the shift to digital in education has not improved our academic test scores. In fact, scores continue to drop. Particularly disappointing are the university online courses. He concludes that’s because learning comes best from the in-person relationship between student and teacher.

But it’s more than just the student-teacher relationship. It’s a collective experience of people coming together in groups. Surprisingly, the workplaces taking this idea most seriously are in Silicon Valley. Sax visited high-tech companies and discovered that most were designed with spaces for people to gather together. The aim is to create “a strong, interpersonal corporate culture, bound by real relationships, in an industry where the nature of the work, and the tools used to do it, naturally lean toward isolation.” They have discovered that people are most creative when they’re face to face in groups and not just working online.

As I was finishing Revenge of the Analog, I remembered a book I’d read a few years before—Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Her thesis lends weight to Sax’s research. She shows how throughout history people danced in the streets for the delight and joy of it. Collective joy! Doesn’t that sound wonderful? But the dancing declined as social hierarchy developed—the kings and knights and rich people always disapproved. Ehrenreich concludes that the powerful don’t like people gathering because people who dance in the streets can’t be controlled.

Could this vision of collective joy be relevant to our reclamation of the analog? Are we being controlled by the corporate digital life? Can we break free? Only if we have the connection and empathy that emerges when we come together.

Are these marches and protests our version of collective joy, of dancing in the streets?

Experiencing empathy gives us the power to resist those who would control us. We need empathy for the sake of life. Do we see it beginning to happen in the marches and protests that Trump has provoked? Are these marches and protests our version of collective joy, of dancing in the streets?

So there are hidden depths in Sax’s book. We start off learning about the interesting, yet—to me—insignificant re-emergence of an interest in vinyl records. We end up with the conclusion that true creativity and change can only come from people joining together, creating community and a caring culture.

As I read Sax’s book, my Thoreau quote kept presenting itself, reminding me of our human desire to live with depth and aliveness. And what did I find in the last chapter? Sax returns to a summer camp he attended when he was a boy, a place named Camp Walden. In revisiting it, he discovers young campers who are grateful that they have been denied the use of their digital devices. The camp flyer states, “We want campers to experience nature with all their senses, and engage directly with each other without the separation of a screen.”

“Directly with each other”—how wonderful.

So, I continue to meet face to face with my simplicity circle, enjoying that a digital social networking tool brought us together, allowing us to experience the depth and aliveness of meeting directly with one another.

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