Yes, Analog and Digital Can Be Friends

Last month journalist David Sax published an insightful column about how he has lost faith in digital products — Blackberries, iPhones, Androids, the whole lot. This was the short form of an argument he made in the 2016 book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why they Matter.

Sax observes that, when he purchased his first smartphone ten years ago, he was in love. Here was the world in your pocket: “More friends, money and democracy! Free music, news and same-day shipping of paper towels! A laugh a minute, and a constant party at our fingertips.”

Somewhere along the way deep disillusionment set in: “Today, when my phone is on, I feel anxious and count down the hours to when I am able to turn it off and truly relax. The love affair I once enjoyed with digital technology is over — and I know I’m not alone.”

Indeed, he is not. When I step back and think about our absolute addiction to digital devices (especially phones), it is frightening. Human beings existed for millennia without any digital devices of any kind, and now we often can’t go for 5 minutes without checking our phones. The “liberation” offered by digital connection is illusory, as the truth is that we’re usually attention deprived and scattered.

And so, Sax has returned to “real things” — print books, newspapers, objects you must hold in your hand and which do not require wifi or a data plan. I have made a similar progression myself. Five years ago I would always purchase new books on my iPad. These days I always check out print books from the library.

Another concern with digital communication, which was less apparent when Sax wrote his book in 2016, is how social media can be used to distort democracy. We now know that Russian agents flooded Facebook with provocative ads throughout the 2016 election. At the moment this is an unregulated underground economy. That will change, if and when we recognize that social media companies are actually media companies pretending to be technology platforms. As of now we don’t know how to handle the power of these tools we have built.

Sax’s focus, though, is on our personal connection to our shiny toys. I will confess that, while reading his piece, I was waiting for the paragraph in which he called for complete rejection of all things digital. Mercifully,that never arrived. To the contrary, Sax says this: “We do not face a simple choice of digital or analog. That is the false logic of the binary code that computers are programmed with, which ignores the complexity of life in the real world. Instead, we are faced with a decision of how to strike the right balance between the two.”

Hear hear. Even though I am amazed by my attachment to my phone that attachment is real — it can be managed, but will not disappear. And although I do not read ebooks as much as I used to, they are still great for effortlessly searching up unfamiliar words or concepts in a way that is much harder in print. There is no need to choose between analog and digital, as this is not a zero-sum situation. As Sax says, the challenge is to get the balance right.