David Sax, THE FUTURE IS ANALOG: How to Create a More Human World

David Sax, THE FUTURE IS ANALOG: How to Create a More Human World

Zibby speaks to reporter, speaker, and bestselling culture writer David Sax about his approachable, witty, and provocative new book The Future is Analog: How to Create a More Human World. David talks about the pandemic and the lesson it taught us: digital technology has limits and cannot replace the value of physical spaces (like schools, libraries, coffee shops, and parks) and the authentic connections we create in them. He also talks about his fascinating career in journalism, his love of typewriters, and how he turns the questions that nag him into eye-opening articles and books.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, David. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World.

David Sax: It’s my pleasure. I know that your son is home from school behind the couch today. You clearly don’t have time to read books. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me between rounds of chicken soup delivery or whatever else it is.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thank you.

David: We’ve all been there.

Zibby: David, your book came recommended to me by so many people. Feel good about all the word of mouth that is around this book.

David: That’s wonderful to hear.

Zibby: There are some books that a lot of people I know somehow ping me about. This happened to be one of them. I’m like, all right, let’s do it. Can’t wait to hear.

David: I’m honored to be here. Thank you. It’s a funny thing as a writer. You put these ideas out in the world. Really, you never know how they land. The sales info takes six months to arrive. If you don’t land on the best-seller list immediately — most of that’s just taken up by Malcolm Gladwell and J.K. Rowling.

Zibby: Colleen Hoover.

David: Yes, of course. The Danielle Steels. It’s like this void. When someone’s like, “I heard about your book from another human being,” you’re like, wait, what? Was it my mom? How do you know my mom?

Zibby: I don’t think it was your mom, but it might have been. I don’t know.

David: You never know.

Zibby: Talk to everyone about your book, The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World. How should we create a more human world? Tell us all about your book.

David: This book is unabashedly a pandemic book. It’s a pandemic memoir. It is a reflection, in a very directed way, of those really intense months and years of 2020 and 2021 when all we had was digital. The reason I wrote about that was because — I had written another book in 2016 called The Revenge of Analog. That book looked at why we were seeing the return of things like brick-and-mortar bookstores — which I know you just opened; mazel tov — vinyl records, film cameras, paper notebooks. Why were these things growing at a time when everybody had told us they were done, they were obsolete, they had no purpose anymore? Not only that, but they were driven by the younger people. I kept coming up against this notion when I would go give talks or do interviews. No, no, no, but the future is digital. We know the future is digital. We’re living in a digital world. I kept questioning that assumption. Then all of a sudden, it’s March of 2020. Here I am living with my mother-in-law in her house, because it had more space, with the kids and wife. All of a sudden, that digital future was here. School, work, Passover, shopping, eating, any sort of culture I wanted to watch, any concert, everything was digital. That digital future had arrived.

Zibby: Both my kids had their — my older twins — bar and bat mitzvahs on Zoom during the pandemic. FYI.

David: You saved some money.

Zibby: I did. I upgraded the Wi-Fi. It was perfect.

David: That minus a DJ, you’re good. Their college is covered now. Mazel tov to both of them.

Zibby: Thank you.

David: That was it. The experience that I felt and most people felt was a negative one. If this is the digital future, what does it actually teach us? As those weeks and months went on, I started reflecting on that. Those reflections and the research behind what went on really forms the core of this book. When I say the future is analog, it is really this declaration against the assumption that the digital future is inevitable and it’s where we’re going and it’s sort of a good thing. I’m saying, look, we lived through that. We had this once-in-a-history ability to road test and kick the tires of this future that we’ve been promised for decades. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and everybody’s getting up there and saying, hey, in the future, you’re going to go to school and go to work online. It’s going to be amazing. You’re going to be able to just touch your phone, and anything will be brought to you. People were like, oh, my god, that’s incredible. Then all of a sudden, you’re sitting in your sweatpants. Doesn’t matter if you have a beautiful library house like you have on Park Avenue or a small house in Toronto with a keyboard that I bought to play on during the pandemic and did it about three times. It’s for sale if you want it.

Zibby: I might.

David: It’s all yours as a bar mitzvah gift for your kids. That experience was unfulfilling for most people as a total thing. There’s not a lot of people who were like, you know what? This is great. I am still not leaving my house. I’m happy to do everything online. I don’t need to ride a bike again. I have my Peloton. I don’t need to go to school. I’m happy with the virtual version. The number of people who still opt for that at this point in 2023 are a statistically insignificant number of people. What did that experience teach us about the not only limits of digital technology, but the value of analog? When I say analog, I mean in the broadest possible sense of nondigital, the physical spaces, school, work, synagogue, bookstores, libraries, parks, you name it, but also, most importantly, the relationships that happen in those spaces, between coworker, between students and each other, between students and their teachers, between the barista that gives you your coffee in the morning at the coffee shop around the corner from your house. All of those things were things we craved so much. The book is really unpacking what it is that we learned about the value of those things. How then do we think about it going forward as new technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality come along? Those who are selling them are saying, hey, this is the future. I’m having a debate in an hour with a guy who is a singularity travel consultant. His whole thing is that in the future, travel is going to be virtual. We are going to strap goggles onto our eyes, or there’ll be contact lenses. You don’t need to go skiing in Colorado because we’re going to bring Colorado to you. You’re going to be skiing down a mountain on the back of a whale or some other such acid trip. We’re having a debate about this. There are still those people who are proselytizing and believing that the inevitability of our future is inherently digital. I’m saying, hold on, I think we learned about that.

Zibby: I have a sense of where that debate will end up, if I had to put money on one side or the other. There is a trade-off, to some degree, about productivity and connection. I feel like what you give up to order all your gifts online for a holiday is all the — you might do it faster. You’re giving up interacting with all the people, going shopping with people you love, being thoughtful in the things you give, but it might not be done as fast. I feel like that is the underlying tension of the whole digital-versus-analog thing in my mind.

David: Right. We can now do almost anything online. There are many of these activities. We saw this in this pandemic. What was amazing was how quickly we were able to transition so much of our lives and our economy and our services into a digital version. It’s incredible that by March 30th, 2020, ninety percent of corporations and companies and businesses didn’t just collapse and go bankrupt. It was like, oh, okay, I guess our ad firm, entire city government, military, all of it, actually, yeah, everybody can do this at home in their pajamas. Everyone figured it out. It was relatively simple. The technology already existed. We made it work, but I think what we saw, the difference is, because you can do it — it may be technically possible. The difference between something being technically possible and desirable in every kind of circumstance is very different. That gap took us a while to realize. I think now it’s the thing that we’re still reckoning with. That question of digital convenience versus a harder to pin down qualitative aspect of the analog experience is the great debate and, I’d say, task of our time as we figure out the future. This conversation’s a great example of it. Through this incredible technology, we are able to have this conversation across — you’re in New York, right? — five hundred miles of Great Lake and tundra or whatever it is. I’m here in Toronto. It costs us nothing. Maybe you buy the Zoom premium subscription because you do a bunch of these, so it costs you twenty bucks a month or whatever. It’s high-quality. It’s good. It’s very convenient. I am in my sweatpants.

Zibby: I’m also in my sweatpants.

David: As we should be. Those are lessons we all learned. Yet if you and I had met in New York and we had sat down face to face with a microphone and recorded this conversation in your lovely living room library with your son and your beautiful dog hanging out behind the couch, we would’ve had a much different conversation. I bet it would’ve been a richer conversation, a more memorable conversation because we would be two human beings, two physical creatures speaking in the same space in the way that we’ve evolved to do. The convenience of the experience, in this case, is wonderful. Probably wouldn’t have happened if you were like, if you’re ever in New York, come and do it — I’m like, how much is a flight? How much is a hotel? Can I leave my kids? — versus this. When you talk about the digital future — people do; saying, no, this is it. This is all you need. I think what we saw was that when this was just nine hours a day of doing this — you can do it. It might be more economical. It might be more convenient, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a better conversation. It doesn’t add up to something that makes you feel more human. It takes away if you’re sitting inside all day in your sweatpants having these digital conversations on the same flat piece of glass day in and day out. There’s a form of incarceration inherent in that.

Zibby: Before the pandemic, I did all my interviews here in person. People did come over. It was really nice. They would come over. I would have to budget double the time in my day. Now I budget half an hour, even though I was late for you. I’m sorry. Then, I would budget an hour. People would come over. We’d hang out in my kitchen and have coffee. Often, my husband was around saying hello. We were chitchatting about whatever. Then we would come up and do the podcast. Then we would chitchat and take a picture. Then they would leave. That was amazing. I did fewer. They were the same length conversation. Yes, it was slightly different. I like to think I’m such a good interviewer that my conversations on Zoom are just as good now. I would, obviously, much rather have people —

David: — Coffee and cake. What’s the value of that? On the dollars and cents of it, look how much more profitable your podcast is because you’re not spending two hundred dollars a year on Entenmann cakes or .

Zibby: My husband’s family has a crumb cake business that I helped scale right before the pandemic. It’s called Nene’s Treats. You can get it on Goldbelly. We actually have some downstairs. You would’ve had crumb cake.

David: You’re just torturing me.

Zibby: Next time you’re in New York, I’ll have some crumb cake here. We can do a postscript or something.

David: I’m going to write another book specifically for that purpose. An elegy for crumb cake. Again, why are — let’s just get really big. Human existence, why are we here? What is the point of it all? Truly, a philosophical thing. As a writer, as someone who’s hosting a podcast about books and has a media company, now a bookstore about books, is it about selling books? Is it about selling ads? Is it about building this large, scalable business? It is about me selling a best-seller? There’s some part of it that is doing it — a large part of the reason why we do this, the large part of why you wrote books, I imagine, and other people write books, and all the potential for failure and the ego ride and all that, is the pleasure of those inefficiencies. I love going on book tour. This book tour, I had two things on the West Coast between Seattle and Portland. I told my publicist, I’m like, “I don’t want to fly. I’m flying every single day on this book tour. Can I get a train?” I took a four-hour train to the Pacific Northwest. If you haven’t taken a train in a while, it’s pretty great. This was a double-decker thing. It’s not exactly the Orient Express. It is Amtrack. Just looking out at the rainy Cascades and passing by all these things for four hours, there was this luxury of that experience. Then to be able to go to these bookstores and cultural centers and have these talks with fifty, forty people — I had three people knitting at my events. I guess it’s a demographic thing. I spoke at a typewriter store. None of that fits into the economic calculus of what I’m doing. Yet the richness of that experience is all in its physicality. It’s all in the analog. I’m ranting.

Zibby: No. I don’t think, though, that anybody necessarily starts out being a writer for the money. You could be a banker. If that’s really the goal, there are other professions that are much more —

David: — Literally, any other profession.

Zibby: Maybe not any, but many. Maybe not any. I don’t think that when people go on book tour it’s all about sales anyway. I don’t do double the podcasts now for the revenue. I just do it because I’m trying to get more books out into the world and help people. In fact, there’s a theory that it might even detract, that maybe people want less podcasts than I give, but I’m like, I don’t care. You never know what people are going to respond to or what they need to hear. Anyway, yes, I love the train idea. I feel like if I took a train, I would be on my computer the whole time and miss the whole thing. You have to make the decision, though. Do I want to spend four hours looking out the window versus working on a flight? Isn’t it more that?

David: on that train. I read some news. I responded to some things. I think there’s that balance of — we can always be on. We can always be doing something productive online. If we do that all day every day, what does that add up to? What does it give us? What is the end goal of that? We’ve seen that it will just fill and occupy any space that we have. We tried that early on in the pandemic. We tried all-day school and going from virtual school to balancing your virtual work to, let’s do a concert. Let’s do a baking class. Let’s do a church service. Let’s go do this tour of a city or whatever. After a while, you’re like, TV, computer, phone, iPad, in this circle. You didn’t feel better. You felt depleted, in a way. What is that balance?

Zibby: I totally agree, but I wouldn’t necessarily write a whole book about it. Why is this your thing? Why did you write a book about it? Why are you so passionate about it? How did you get here?

David: I’m a writer, so it’s what I do. Every time, I’m like, I should maybe think about something else. Maybe I should do a podcast. Maybe I should do a film. Someone’s like, you should write the book first and then — it’s like, okay, fine. This is what I know how to do. This is my fifth book. It does come easily to me. Actually, this started out as a conversation about a podcast with a podcast company and ultimately didn’t go forward due to the contract stuff or rights or whatever. There was this, to me, an urgency about it. Whenever I write a book, it’s a way to answer some sort of nagging question or feeling or thing that I keep coming back to. Each book that I’ve written has been some version of that. My first book was about Jewish delis. It started in university as a paper. Where are all the Jewish delis that I used to grow up going to? They’re all closing. Why is that happening? That question kept coming back to me as I was a young freelance journalist in South America. I was like, maybe I should pursue this. Maybe I should write a book on this.

Then every other book that I’ve written has been some sort of version of some nagging question that I can’t quite answer and I want to find the answer to. That challenge of this, of saying, “Yes, you believe analog is having this moment, but it’s inevitable the future is digital,” it really came to a head at that time. It was something I was thinking about beforehand and really leading up right to this onset of the pandemic when all of a sudden, everything was fully digital. You would turn on CNBC or CNN or read the news, LinkedIn, everyone’s like, this is it. There’s no going back. This is the new normal. No one’s ever going to an office again. Kids are going to be learning from schools. This is going to be this quantum leap in education. Restaurants will be done. We’re just going to order Goldbelly caviar, Uber Eats, whatever you want to call it. Plastic bins of pad thai are our ineffable destiny. The way I answered those questions is by diving in and wrestling with that idea over the course of a couple hundred pages over a year. May not be the best way to do things, but the only way.

Zibby: How did you become a writer? Did you grow up in Toronto?

David: Yes, I grew up in Toronto. I’ve always loved reading. My parents used to send me Newsweek to summer camp, as well as Archies.

Zibby: Where did you go to summer camp?

David: Camp Walden, Ontario, one of the many Camp Waldens. Truly original name. I love the news. I wanted to be a journalist. I never wanted to be a novelist or anything. I really started right out of university. I didn’t study journalism. I studied history. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I started off by writing articles. I lived in South America for a number of years. I wrote for every type of publication. I wrote about news. I wrote about business. I wrote about travel. Whoever would buy something. Then had the idea for my first book and figured out how to write a book proposal and sell it. That was it. It’s twenty-something years later. It’s continued along the same vein. I have an idea. Could it be an article? Can I sell it as a book? Okay, here we go. Do this again. I sort of stumbled into it, I think as many people did. I’m fortunate to have been able to do it as my living all these years.

Zibby: That’s awesome. How old are your kids?

David: My kids are nine and six. My son said he wanted to be an author the other day. I was like, is there a junior engineering program we could put you in? You oughtn’t go through what I’ve gone through, son.

Zibby: I rejoice when they say they might want to be authors. I’m like, yes!

David: Yes, but it’s like, just so you know, let’s pre-work some disappointment here into you.

Zibby: That’s true. At least, I feel like I could help set the stage for that.

David: Yes. I know a few second-generation authors, second-generation media people. It’s amazing. I have a lot of friends who it’s like, oh, their parents are in finance. They’re in finance. The parents are teachers. They’re teachers. The people who are media, it’ll be interesting when the second-generation podcasters come around. My father was a podcaster. His father was a podcaster. All the way back to the Yiddish podcast theater.

Zibby: I think you should have a podcast, by the way. Why don’t you have a podcast?

David: You know, someone has to be the one journalist and writer that doesn’t have a podcast. What I recently started was a newsletter Substack-y thing. I spoke a few weeks ago at a typewriter store in Philadelphia. Philly Typewriter, not to pump their business, is America’s, and actually the world’s, premier typewriter store. It began as this passion project of a guy, Bryan Kravitz, who prepares a specific IBM type of typewriter. These other people came along and got into the business with him. They restore typewriters to museum quality, original everything. They take these things apart, cannibalize eight typewriters, build it into one. They gave me as thanks for speaking there, a typewriter, which I lugged to New York for my book event there and put in the overhead compartment on the Air Canada flight home. This thing weighs forty pounds. Now every week, every Monday, I bang out a single page, one and a half spaced, of writing and then just take a photograph of it and type it out and correct whatever horrible spelling there is. That’s my venture into the world of things. There you go. See? The future is digital .

Zibby: I have — where is it? My grandmother’s typewriter is right there.

David: Have you ever used it?

Zibby: It doesn’t have any ink.

David: You can order that. Those things are quite easy to order, if the keys work.

Zibby: Yeah, the keys work.

David: What’s interesting — this gets into the heart of the analog thing. People are like, you’re just doing this as a trick or whatever. It’s a gimmick. Actually, what people find — this is something that I get into a little bit in the book. It becomes inherently obvious when you’re doing it. When you make a process or a space nondigital, you have the conversation in person, you go into the office versus working from home, you use paper and pen to do something versus doing it on software — in my case, you type for the first time since you were a child on a typewriter. The limitations of it — you can’t backspace; you can’t delete stuff; you have to keep moving forward — is actually this incredibly liberating thing. It changes your process. By doing that, you get an entirely different result. Better or worse, it’s sort of up to you. It’s very liberating in that way. This gets back to what I was trying to get at in the book and explore in all these areas. When we talked about the new normal, we talked about the digital future and people saying, this is going to be great. You’re going to be able to work from home. It’s going to be the same. On the face of it, it is. You and I are having a conversation. You’re saying words. I’m saying words. I’m answering your questions. You’re doing this. Maybe we do that in person. There are differences. Those differences, at the end of the day and especially over time, actually make a different thing. I think what we owe ourselves to do is run these little experiments in our lives of saying, now I’m going to try the digital version of this. I’m going to try the analog version. I’m going to see what works best for me. Each of us have those different needs. I think it’s naïve to say the digital one is going to be the better one because it’s made by Silicon Valley. It has more money behind it. It’s newer. It’s sleek.

Zibby: I am about to go do a totally analog thing which no digital device can replicate, which is packing my kids for a trip. I’m going to go back to the analog world for that. Thank you so much. This has been really fun, David. I hope to meet you in person. Thank you for this book. I wish you luck on your debate. I’ll be waiting for the keyboard.

David: The ink. Send me the model of it. Take a picture. I’ll ask the guys at the typewriter store if they have the ink for it. I’ll get it for you. It’s fun. I wouldn’t want to type every single thing on it. It’s not just some cool thing to do. It’s a tool, like paper and pen and anything else. Thank you. Thanks for this. Thanks for this conversation and having me on. Good luck with packing and your kid’s latest viral illness.

Zibby: Always something.

David: In the endless reality of our lives.

Zibby: Yes, indeed. Thank you.

David: Thank you.

David Sax, THE FUTURE IS ANALOG: How to Create a More Human World

THE FUTURE IS ANALOG: How to Create a More Human World by David Sax

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