A funny thing happened as I was preparing for my podcast, COVERED. I’d read David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog and interviewed him about it. It discusses a topic popping up more and more as our dependence on digital technology deepens. The resurgence of vinyl, a pencil shop in New York, successful Kickstarter projects for notebooks and pens, and even podcasts dedicated to analog items are expanding a category of products we keep being told is extinct. But why?
Why are paper book sales increasing when eBooks promised us a future devoid of 800-page tomes in our bags? Why are we spending $25 on records when our phones can stream thousands of songs from the cloud? Why would someone spend $100 on a camera that prints images out on stickers when the same phone takes photos and videos good enough for print ads and movies? WHY FIDGET SPINNERS?
The answers are always the same: nostalgia, a desire for a simpler time, the need to slow down—and it’s all true, but there seemed to be something missing in the explanations. It wasn’t just about slowing down or making things simpler. If anything, things are as simple as they’ve ever been. We don’t need to carry a music player, a phone, and a camera separately anymore. Most of us have one device in our pockets that does all those things. There was another factor, something that only came to me a week ago.
I’d just finished Note to Self host Manoush Zomorodi’s new book Bored and Brilliant, based on a week-long series of tasks designed to help listeners embrace boredom and break free of their devices, if only temporarily. She encouraged people to delete time-sucking apps, take fewer pictures of their food, and install apps that would alert users as to how often they picked up their phones. Many found it helpful and it was successful enough to spawn a book that might encourage non-listeners to take the plunge.
After I’d finished Manoush’s book, I jumped into Caroline Weaver’s The Pencil Perfect, which details the history of the pencil, as well as Caroline’s fascination with the object—a fascination strong enough to make Caroline want to open her own pencil store in New York City. Yes, in an era of Facebook and email and Instagram, a boutique pencil store is raking in business from writers, celebrities, curious tourists, and people from all walks of life wondering what all the fuss is about.
Which brought me back to that original question: What is all the fuss about? How can a pencil store thrive in the most expensive city in the country? How can multiple typewriter repair shops remain in business? How can a podcast about pencils find something to talk about for 80 episodes? My theory:
Anxiety. We are stressing ourselves to death on the internet and we are self-medicating with analog tools.
Our love for the analog has less to do with a longing for an age we might have never known, but a desire to escape a present that is killing us every time we check the news. Open Twitter and be greeted with Nazis praising the latest racist presidential policy. Post an image to Instagram and chew off your fingernails wondering if anyone is going to like it. Who would’ve known Aunt Beatrice was such an anti-Semite had it not been for Facebook? Can’t wait for Thanksgiving.
We know the path of an incoming hurricane, but we keep refreshing the page to see if the track has shifted as our heart rates gust and our stress levels surge. We post a video of our cats to YouTube and some basement-dwelling nobody thinks our cat is “so gay.” Political opinions are tantamount to treason on both sides and saying anything either way will unleash into your mentions the fury of 1,000 eggs calling you a “-tard” and, if you’re a woman, hoping you’re sexually assaulted and/or murdered. Social media really is bringing people closer together.
Of course, it’s not only the worst of the web we have to worry about. There’s also the loneliness. You’ve been on Twitter for five years and yet you haven’t been able to break 35 followers? If you post an opinion and no one retweets it, does your opinion matter? If you share a photo of your trip to the Bahamas and it garners not a single Like, did you even go? The Internet, for all the good it has done connecting us, has simultaneously put each of us on our own deserted islands while we lob messages in bottles into the ocean and pray for salvation.
Knowing we unfollowed someone because of how their vacation posts fostered resentment and regret in ourselves is key to understanding our escape to unconnected tech. The Internet, specifically social media, has made us more anxious. It has made us angrier and less empathetic to the needs of others. We scroll and scroll and as we do, a thick, viscous sludge builds up in us and clogs our hearts. Our kids aren’t advancing quickly enough. We aren’t taking enough vacations. The vacations we are taking aren’t special enough. We aren’t enough. Enough. Enough. Enough!
So, we put our phones on airplane mode and tell Alexa to turn down the lights. Our hand twitches as we drop the needle on an old Sam Cooke album. A hesitant scratch erupts as it finds a groove and we sink into a comfy chair. The spine on the new Stephen King novel crackles with an effervescent pop like a can of seltzer. The paper’s woody scent, like the color brown might smell, works its way into our noses and builds a cabin. It doesn’t matter that the album and book were bought on Amazon. The music won’t dip out so the ding of a new email can take its place. A banner announcing our latest Twitter follower won’t appear at the top of our hardcover. Nothing will vibrate in our pockets and no one has to “Like” or “Fav” our choice in music or reading material in order for us to be able to like it, too.
And please, don’t think I am saying, “Abandon your computers and smartphones, read by candlelight, and embrace the old ways, for they are better.” No. Nor am I telling anyone to shut down their accounts on any social media platforms to be happy. I enjoy Twitter as much as I hate it. It’s a sickness and an addiction for me as I think it is for many others.
What I am saying is your love for fountain pens, typewriters, pencils, watches, and vinyl isn’t “twee” or “hipster” or a “phase.” We have created a society of information gluttons who don’t know what “full” feels like. We are killing ourselves obsessing over the president’s tweets and the tracks of storms we can’t shift. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to delete Twitter and Facebook from your phone for a few days and reclaim control over how you feed your attention.
I’ve turned off all notifications on my phone except for my work email (for obvious reasons). For personal email, I use Readdle’s Spark Mail, which hides notifications for newsletters and spam and only alerts me of emails sent from people I know. And yes, I have taken many a sabbatical from social media to ease my anxiety. I’d love to say I don’t care about retweets or likes, but I’d be lying. I do care and I’d love to change that. Those endorphins though…
That said, I’ve found solace in my notebooks and pencils. I adore the clangorous clickety-clack of my typewriter. Analog tools provide a kind of meditation, a brief respite from endless streams of other people’s consciousnesses.
The next time you’re in an antique store and you come across an old Royal, or if you’re in New York and find yourself darkening Caroline Weaver’s doorstep, don’t scoff and walk away. Buy that typewriter. Sharpen that pencil. Delete that app. You might be one step away from a sorely needed digital vacation.