“The Future Is Analog” also makes an excellent case for the value of offline experience, but unfortunately somewhat at its own expense. Hamstrung by lockdown, Sax, a journalist and public speaker, had to resort to reporting by Zoom, which he himself argues is a fast-food version of IRL. Famished for color, he clocks one source’s guitar collection as if he were Room Rater and watches as another’s child runs by in a Harry Potter costume. Complaining about confinement at his mother-in-law’s “luxury lakeside weekend home,” a six-bedroom with sauna and hot tub, even as he acknowledges his good fortune, the author can’t help sounding a little whiny. Arguing about “Caste,” by Isabel Wilkerson, with half a dozen other “white men from privileged backgrounds” at a backyard book club feels ever so slightly blinkered.
But Sax is no George Jetson, reclining on a conveyor belt at the end of a hard day to receive his pipe and slippers. “Give me a delivery person who says hello,” he all but growls, “not a robot that rolls down the sidewalk with my lunch.” I hope he’s an excellent tipper.
The book is not entirely without adventure: Sax shops for a wet suit at a local store in his hometown, Toronto, noting the superiority of this personalized retail experience to the Amazon clickathon; recalls a charming-sounding “forest library” he once visited in Seoul (though betcha people check their phones there); and goes surfing in Lake Ontario, bravely dodging discarded condoms and tampons. He bakes challah for his family, enjoying the “fold, push, spin, flip, thwhack, fold, push, spin, flip, thwhack, fold, push, spin, flip, thwhack!” sensation of kneading.
The trouble is that here in the fall of 2022, when most Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, the revelation that such simple activities warm a digitally chilled soul feels as stale as our sourdough loaves. And some of Sax’s precepts, novel under our shared duress, now seem obvious or under-interrogated. Theater is better in person, certainly, and too much online shopping and scrolling can leave one feeling hollow. Are digital conversations more “ephemeral” than physical ones, as Sax contends? (“They disappear into the void.”) Or is it exactly the opposite, that they can be screen-shotted or forwarded and come back to haunt in ways never anticipated?
The freshest exploration in “The Future Is Analog” is of the role of the office in human society, an ongoing puzzle that urban planners, government tax authorities and corporate managers are straining mightily to solve. This is interesting because Sax has only ever worked in one for six weeks, quitting after the copier caught fire. He cites a team at Ford who in three hours “crushed,” in the positive sense, a design plan they’d been trying to lay out remotely for months — after they got together in a boardroom and pinned up ideas on a wall.“What is an office?” Sax asks, and maybe the answer is just a party, with Post-its.