Whose Body Is in the Analog World?: On David Sax’s “The Future Is Analog”
By Evan SelingerJanuary 31, 2023
The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World by David Sax
David Sax, a writer and reporter, finds this challenge difficult in his new book, The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World — in part, it seems, because he has a chip on his shoulder. Sax struggled with COVID-19 lockdowns, despite being financially secure and spending the time at his mother-in-law’s “luxury lakeside weekend home” along with his wife, daughter, and son. According to Sax, his life was terrible for the most part because digital technology fell short of the promises Silicon Valley has long been making. He concludes that having quality access to online services like Zoom, Netflix, Amazon, and food delivery apps meant that “[t]he digital future was finally here! And it fucking sucked.”
The pandemic functions as his lens for examining the broader failures of digital technology and the companies that make and promote it. Indeed, Sax believes he’s identified why most of us are in the same boat as he was during lockdown. Digital technology has limits that none of us, not even the most privileged, can escape. From this perspective, Sax’s privilege is a tech critic’s superpower: if Sax finds digital technology fundamentally alienating, he reasons that most, if not all, of us should as well.
Sax is right that the tech industry has long been overhyping its products, services, and vision of the good life. However, Sax fails to see that the pandemic should be understood as a turning point for having more nuanced conversations about technology. It’s no longer appropriate to address digital services and a data-driven economy by reductively pitting the “digital” against the “analog” and calling it a day. Simply put, Sax’s book provides a window into why perpetuating this dichotomy is unimaginative and disenfranchising.
A Digitally Depressing Pandemic
Sax spent so much time obsessed with his thoughts during the pandemic that he’s bursting to share “many of the firsthand experiences [he] had, day to day, month by month, drink by drink.” He includes observations from a range of people he interviewed, but even so, his personal stories are focal points. For example, Sax wants us to know that he was blown away by seeing the musical Hamilton in person but didn’t feel the “magic” while streaming it on Disney+. Despite the perfect casting and “incredible” production, he gave up on the prerecorded performance after only two minutes.
Here’s another tidbit that Sax presents as a cautionary tale. He was thrilled with his in-person book club, if only because fine bourbon “freely flowed,” and “hash joints” were passed around and “burned up like matchsticks.” But when limited to talking about a book over Zoom — the notoriously fatiguing medium that makes it difficult to maintain eye contact while taking in relevant body language and facial expressions — Sax’s attention quickly faded.
For theater, book clubs, and so much more, Sax concludes, context plays a significant role in determining quality. Agreeing with the phenomenological philosopher Albert Borgmann, Sax maintains that embodied humans have different types of experiences in analog and digital environments. Analog engagement “requires skill,” “takes effort,” and “demands your physical presence.” The imperfect messiness and ego-resistant solidity of the analog world “makes you “alert.” By contrast, Sax says he’s depleted by screens and expects that most of us are in the same boat. Relatedly, he claims that since the outside world “will always be far more stimulating than the one inside your house,” there’s value in working outside your home, even if it requires commuting.
As these examples suggest, Sax defines “analog” so vaguely and oppositionally that it means nothing more than “not digital.” Consider two more examples. When Sax went online to find a good wet suit, he was “drowning in information.” Thankfully, he says, he could call a local surf shop and talk to someone who knew “exactly” which one he ought to purchase, along with “thickness and size” and “proper boots and mittens.” Sax concludes that sometimes it’s better to talk with knowledgeable people who excel at customer service than to shop online at Amazon.
Sax also elaborates at length about how his three-year-old son and six-year-old daughter attended school online when in-person options weren’t available. Teachers tried their best, but they couldn’t keep the students engaged. Because they couldn’t provide face-to-face supervision, enforce in-person norms of responsible behavior, and generate the enthusiasm of human contact with physical presence, “every day of virtual school sucked more than the previous one. No one wanted to be there.”
Pandemic Literary Opportunism
Since Sax knows that many of us experienced deprivation during the pandemic, why would he think that, at this point, we’re not up to speed on his way of thinking? Sax is hardly the only person who wants to be sensorily immersed in the social world. Bottom line: If, as Sax suggests, he’s a relatable man and our reliable proxy, we should already be disenchanted with all the things that bother him and not need a book-length reminder of why our dissatisfaction is justified.
His acknowledgments page reveals why the book feels contrived. “This was not a book I had planned to write,” he states, “but it came together remarkably quickly, following a phone call and brief email with my longtime editor […] whose […] constant leaps of faith at my random ideas are deeply appreciated.” Let’s put the speed and rapport in context. Six years ago, PublicAffairs published Sax’s bestseller The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. It gives a moving account of community — and of meaning-creation — enjoyed by people when they participate in analog activities like playing board games, writing in quality paper notebooks like those made by Moleskine, and inspecting and playing vinyl records.
With these ideas already formulated, it looks like Sax and his editor decided to make the best of a bad pandemic by collaborating on a sequel. As everyone knows, sequels in film, television, and literature can feel formulaic when they’re designed to capitalize on a hit's success and provide an audience with a second helping of secret sauce that can only be savored in small amounts. Unsurprisingly, then, the moment you open the book and see the table of contents, you immediately get the sense that The Future Is Analog is packaged too slickly.
The book only has seven chapters, and each one links a day to a theme that the chapter explores: “Monday: Work,” “Tuesday: School,” “Wednesday: Commerce,” “Thursday: The City,” “Friday: Culture,” “Saturday: Conversation,” and “Sunday: Soul.” On a literal level, the pairings don’t make sense. Most people don’t limit working to the start of the week. Students aren’t cramming their education into one day of school. And if you’re only talking on Saturdays, you’re on the verge of taking a vow of silence.
Sax, of course, has a reason for using days as an organizing principle. “Each day that passed,” he says, “presented a clear contrast between the analog version I had previously experienced and the digital one I was now trying to get through.” I guess this is supposed to be poetic license — an artistic expression of the unreality of pandemic time. To me, however, it comes across as contrived. Having revisited the opening after finishing the book, I see it as a flashing warning that what follows will be an exposition of ideas that are anything but profound.
Real Pandemic Lessons for the Future
While Sax is right to emphasize embodied experience, the insights he discusses are old hat. The previously referenced Borgmann articulated many of the core ideas running throughout The Future Is Analog back in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984) and Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (1999). Furthermore, Sax’s take on the limits of distance learning, and, by extension, online video communication platforms like Zoom, were already spelled out by Hubert Dreyfus over two decades ago in On the Internet (2001). Dreyfus and Borgmann were both inspired by the same philosophers: Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger.
The issue here isn’t merely that Sax passes off well-established insights as fresh. It’s that the ideas Borgmann and Dreyfus formulated years ago have become parts of larger conversations relevant to Sax’s discussion yet conspicuously absent. For example, there are different ways of bringing bodies to the world, and these differences play fundamental roles in how people use and experience digital technology. Race matters, and so do other aspects of identity.
Sax admits that being able to flee COVID-19 in a luxurious setting makes him privileged. “Go to a dictionary,” he writes, “and look up the term white privilege. That’s me, in that house.” But beyond stating the obvious, Sax doesn’t stop to consider whether having white privilege should make him pause before making bombastic pronouncements about “digital” and “analog” experiences. He doesn’t seem curious, for example, about what happens when nonwhite communities form through online technologies, share information, and, crucially, shape digital platforms and digital cultures through their participation. In other words, Sax’s vision for a “more human world,” such as it is, is disconnected from a historical, sociological, and anthropological understanding of how various types of embodied humans experience connection, community, alienation, and oppression in analog and digital environments. These experiences tend to be interconnected and mutually constitutive. In other words, analog experiences shape digital ones and vice versa, and the line dividing them isn’t nearly as neat and clean as Sax would have us believe.
The timing of Sax’s book prevents him from seriously engaging with one of the most important technological issues raised by the pandemic: a principled pushback against returning to “normal.” But even if he were to write the book today, I suspect Sax still wouldn’t get it.
The shift to online events during the pandemic sparked hope that in the post-pandemic future, resources will be directed at increasing equity and inclusion by providing more virtual access to events like meetings, conferences, and workshops. Unfortunately, this hasn’t occurred. Ongoing concerns about COVID-19, especially for the immunocompromised, the difficulty of traveling for disabled people and those living on limited incomes, and the environmental costs of flying and driving are largely being ignored. Folks are so preoccupied with making Sax’s arguments about the importance of in-person communication and community that they are unwilling to consider offering hybrid and virtual options. They claim that it’s too difficult to coordinate and doing so only leads to a less meaningful experience.
This attitude is exclusionary, and it betrays the calls for greater solidarity that flickered during our most connected yet disconnected pandemic moments. Disturbingly, the in-person-or-bust requirement can have a troubling financial and managerial dimension. Many organizations, institutions, and cities incurred massive economic losses during the pandemic. Consequently, they’re desperate to boost revenue. They view in-person activity as the key to generating income — either through in-person transactions at specific events or by branding places as “experiential destinations.”
It’s not surprising that money talks. But there’s a palpable level of dishonesty at play. Rhetorical appeals to in-person “community” are being weaponized to deprioritize and deny online access. “Community” is a warm and fuzzy ideal, and if you can convince people that you’re trying to create it, you might get away with distracting them from seeing how your behavior is self-serving.
There’s a related issue in the workplace. Sax has spent his career working remotely and tells us that he “will probably continue to do so in the future.” Even so, a good deal of his chapter on remote work highlights its downsides — e.g., some people are less productive, less inspired, more fatigued, and lonelier. Furthermore, Sax praises the office’s physical dimensions for providing helpful analog tools, including boardrooms, whiteboards, and spaces where smokers can hang out. In this context, Sax shares a quote from his neighbor about why working from home is “a type of incarceration.” “[Remote work] degrades the human experience,” she declares. “I worry about sensory atrophy. I worry about curiosity, because as soon as curiosity ends, that is the beginning of death.”
But people have many excellent reasons for continuing to want to work remotely — especially when it provides greater flexibility and work-life balance. Beyond the generally applicable benefits, there are more demographically specific ones, as attested to by people who are differently embodied from Sax. People with disabilities and other health conditions may find traditional office settings challenging. And here, too, race matters. In an essay titled, “I’m Black. Remote Work Has Been Great for My Mental Health,” Leron Barton writes,
How many racist scenarios, comments, and situations would I have avoided enduring if I didn’t need to come into the office?
That psychological toll is why many African American employees are opting out of going into the office and embracing remote work.
Sax, I’m sure, wouldn’t deny this. He’d probably point out that his book is clear about not making a one-size-fits-all prescription. He’d likely also point out that he does acknowledge that some offices “were unsafe spaces that exacerbated entrenched racial, gender, and cultural inequalities and were a source of corrosive stress for everyone who worked there.” Yet, just as pointing out his white privilege is a form of deflection rather than serious engagement, there’s a world of difference between casually acknowledging something and meaningfully addressing it. With politicians like New York City mayor Eric Adams waging a “war against remote work” to promote economic recovery, Sax’s ode to the analog ends up doing nothing more than jumping on an establishment bandwagon, and one full of clichés at that. It leaves far too many people out of the future he far too blithely identifies as best for humans. In short, his book is disturbingly elitist.
Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology.
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