Analog versus Digital

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Journalist David Sax is on something of a crusade to rehabilitate analog technology in the digital age, and who can blame him? For many of us—and this includes early adopters and the "stupid rich" (those who pay too much for new tech because owning it is virtuous)—the allure of vinyl records and print books induces a powerful fetishism. Sax is a gifted writer and his love of analog is infectious. "People are buying books because a book engages nearly all of their senses," he writes, "from the smell of the paper and glue to the sight of the cover design and weight of the pages read, the sound of those sheets turning, and even the subtle taste of the ink on your fingertips."

The snag with Sax's neo-analog formulation is that it doesn't begin to solve the social problems that now attach to our digital lives. What we really worry about is not whether LPs sound better than digital downloads but, to cite Sax himself, "what smartphones are doing to our children; how Facebook and Twitter are eroding our democratic institutions; and the economic effects of tech monopolies." Moreover, we appreciate in ever larger numbers the deleterious impact the new social networks are having in our own lives. Only 21 percent of respondents to a recent survey said they trust Facebook with their personal data, Sax notes, while nearly half of millennials fret about the negative effects of social media on their mental and physical health.

The hard truth is that retreating into analog gets us no more than half-way towards Sax's goal of rejuvenating the pre-digital human relationships that are "crucial to our physical and mental well-being." Whether we are reading old-fashioned books or new-fangled e-books makes no difference to this calculus. Sax knows this. What is necessary, if people are to escape the clutches of digital media they recognize as addictive and socially destructive, is to voluntarily abandon them, or at least to scale them back. Would this be difficult? Yes—particularly for the young. Would it be worth the effort? Indeed—just ask someone who has recently quit smoking.