Zoom Is Not Enough: A Conversation with David Sax
Steven Cherry Hi, this is Steven Cherry for TTI/Vanguard.
Recent articles have noted the existence of something called “Zoom fatigue.” One theory is that in a conversation, we’re always putting someone’s words in a context, to figure out what they really mean—so we’re incredibly sensitive to the slightest clues and cues: where someone’s eyes are focused, whether that little pause meant uncertainty or something else, how quick someone is to laugh at our humorous response, and so on. With even just millisecond-level delays, and the flatness of our 2-D displays, our brains have to work even harder.
Then too, there’s no physical interaction—not only can’t we shake their hand, see their whole self, read their body language, even smell their smell, we’re not even sharing the same space, seeing the other objects in a shared room, hearing the same background noises, and smelling the same smells.
Then three, we’re missing the other physical cues in our environment—even back-to-back meetings in real life have a change of venue from one meeting room to another, a few physical steps of walking, maybe a detour to stop by someone’s desk to say hello, or grab a cup of coffee from the common area. An online day on the other hand is one endless chair-sitting encounter with the same desktop, both literal and figurative, as yesterday and tomorrow.
Psychologists and other therapists, who have all moved their practices online, report these things in spades, but they affect even those of now commute only as far as the spare bedroom, if we’re lucky enough to have one.
These are not new ideas for my guest today, who started to reflect on the differences between the virtual and the physical—and the ways in which the virtual is but a pale shadow of the physical, both literally and figuratively—years ago. He encapsulated his conclusions in an entertaining and insightful book called The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.
His latest book, published just a few weeks ago, is just as prescient for the Age of the Coronavirus in its own way. It’s called The Soul of an Entrepreneur: Work and Life Beyond the Startup Myth.
David, welcome to the podcast.
David Sax Thanks, Steven.
Steven Cherry David, let’s start with the Revenge of Analog. For you, there were a few moments of epiphany going back to the mid-2000s, a technology-free weekend retreat, a dinner party where everyone was looking at their Blackberries—this was even before the iPhone—and a few years later falling in love all over again with vinyl records, after years of CDs and then cloud services. Where would you like to begin?
David Sax I mean, I think you summed it up, but it was this time, which seems like ancient history, looking back at it—although I guess so does February—when, you know, digitization of our lives was suddenly becoming a much more round the clock fixture. You know, we have to remember that prior to 2008, when the iPhone came out [the iPhone debuted June 2007—ed], you would go to your computer. You had the Internet, you know, for the better part of a decade prior to that. But it was separated from the rest of the world by its physical limitations. Right? It resided on a desk. Most of us didn’t even use laptops, but then we were so using desktops. And suddenly I started seeing, you know, first with Blackberries and then obviously with the iPhone that digitization was becoming a very digital was a medium by which we were interacting with so much of the world.
And what was interesting was at the very time that this was happening and of course, all the predictions that digital would take over every aspect of our lives: would take over work, it would take over entertainment, it would take over, you know, culture. Right as that was beginning to happen, in that transformation that we’ve seen continue over the past 15 years, and obviously accelerate over the past couple of months, I started seeing the emergence of this countervailing trend, which made on the face of it no sense. There was a board game cafe that was opening around the corner from where I lived in Toronto, which would go on to open three or four locations and be wildly successful and sort of spur a boom in boardgame cafes all over North America. Vinyl record stores were opening up again and people were buying records and I was starting to listen to records again. And you know, that industry went from its low point in 2006 to suddenly growing again every year since then.
Again, something that no one predicted, film photography, Polaroid cameras, all sorts of different analog technologies were, you know, ascendant once again after declining for some period of time—right as digital became the default and the sort of everyday standard by which we interacted with the world. And that paradox was was really fascinating to me. I wanted to understand why that was happening at a time when everybody assumed and predicted that that would be impossible and the opposite would happen, that that this would be the death knell for analog technologies and experiences.
Steven Cherry You know, David, we’re both writers, but you’re a book writer. And the thing about a book writer is, not only did you fall in love with vinyl records, not only did you hang out at this record shop and talk to people and the owners and everything, but you actually went to Nashville and saw the process of making records, which you describe as an incredibly detailed physical one. Each new record is—you say in the book—if it were a bakery, each new record would be not just a new recipe, but a new oven.
David Sax Yeah. It’s this incredibly manual hands-on process of transferring soundwaves into physical shapes. First, cutting it into lacquer with this sort of imagine like a reverse turntable, but the needle has a diamond tip and it cuts into a metal plate that has black lacquer, sort of like nail polish almost, on top of it. And then using that—using the special chemical process of reverse osmosis and electrical currents, almost like they do nickel plating on cars, to coat that in those grooves and metal and then making metal stamper plates. And then this very loud, cacophonous Rube-Goldberg process where pellets of plastic, polyvinyl chloride, are melted down and pressed with great hydraulic force.
And these like waffle—it’s like a waffle iron with two sides of the soundwaves on each side of it stamping out these discs of melted plastic. And all that’s doing is transferring the physical image of those sound waves, of that squiggly line that is music, into this piece of plastic, which you can then purchase, put on your turntable at home, and another diamond-tipped stylus will scratch on it, create electrical currents, and pick up those sound waves and amplify them through your speakers. You know, when you describe that to someone, it’s this hard thing to get your head around when you actually see it, it’s incredible what goes into making it—a very mechanical, physical 20th-century industrial process.
Steven Cherry You sort of fell in love with it, in part because it’s such a physical, human, un-automated, inefficient way of doing things.
David Sax I think, generally speaking, that is the appeal of analog in all its formats. Efficiency ... you know, digital excels at efficiency. It excels at delivering things quickly and inexpensively or free. You know, you can replicate any information. It doesn’t cost any more money than making one or two or two million copies of something. You can send it around the world anywhere. We can speak by Skype from, you know, you’re in New York, I’m in Toronto. You know, we can deliver that maximum efficiency. And that’s fantastic for business, for economic growth, for the ease of use of certain things.
But efficiency doesn’t always equal a better result. And it doesn’t always equal a more pleasurable one as well. And that’s sort of where in the growth of analog and the advantage of it, in an increasingly digital world, actually lies ultimately. When we talk about efficiency, is it is more efficient for me to go pick up a Kindle, go in the store, find the book I want to read, tap it, boom, the things there, it costs half as much as it does is getting the paper copy—and I can read it, I could turn the light on, I could save it, I could highlight it, I can do all these things.
Versus, going to a physical book store—let alone in this time—going and searching through the things, picking up that copy, paying for it there, walking it home in my backpack or a bag, you know, a tote bag, you know, a five-pound book or whatever, however much it weighs, you know, cracking the spine, having it open there; it’s less efficient. I can’t move it with me. If I go on vacation, I’ve got to carry that thing; it could make my bag overweight.
And yet I enjoy it more. I enjoy reading a book more in paper. And I almost never read digital books. And that’s just personal preference, but it’s the personal preference of the majority of readers. You know, my book—for every one book I sell digitally, I will sell nine books in paper format. And that’s pretty consistent across most of the industry even now in the midst of this, this, you know, the Covid crisis, the publishers have been telling me, the physical books are still what’s selling. They assumed there would be some huge surge in e-books. There’s been a little bit of growth in it, but no. So why is that? It is that, you know, the digital will give you the same information, the same words, but you don’t get that physical touch. You don’t get that sense. You don’t get the pleasure of going to a bookstore, which is an incredibly pleasurable shopping experience. It’s not like going to Costco, though, Costco is pretty good, too, with the samples.
It gives you so much more, and digital just gives you that ... the information right, in the fastest, most inexpensive and efficient way. And the other thing I think is with work. When we’re talking about productivity, one of the technologies that I wrote about—the analog technologies that I wrote about—was notebooks, the moleskin notebooks and all the other journals that come on basically doing the same thing. They all look the same. They just come by different names.
Why has a paper writing technology that’s, I don’t know, two thousand years old, and the notebook technology’s five hundred years old, how is this suddenly become the item that you see next to every laptop and phone, whether it’s in a coffee shop or a co-working space or an office in Silicon Valley?
What you could do with a pen and a piece of paper, it may not be as efficient as doing on a spreadsheet or doing a document, but in many ways, it actually gives a better result. It allows the free flow of ideas that are unrestrained by all the rules of software and the formatting and passwords and and file types and so on. It just lets the ideas flow. Which is why most people still use it.
So in many ways it’s become a superior technology for productivity. It allows the technology to get out of the way and just that simplest thing. So in some ways it’s even more efficient. And so that’s—that is kind of what lies at the core of this analog rebirth is that, you know, the efficiency sometimes is either not desirable or, in other ways, it’s a trap. Right. It’s an illusion. It makes it can actually make things less efficient.
Steven Cherry So it seems to me that there’s two different things that we’re talking about. One is efficiency and the other is the digitalization of a process. Many of the progressions—and that’s a loaded word in this context—of the first half of the past century have been in the direction of more efficiency that wasn’t necessarily digital: indoor plumbing and lighting and refrigeration, automatic transmissions and credit cards instead of checks and cash. Are you arguing against those things or is there something different about digital?
David Sax I’m not arguing against indoor plumbing. Let me get that on the record here and now. [Laughter] Nor am I arguing against digital. I use computers, digital technology all day. We are speaking over Skype right now. I have not decided to install a direct landline from here to where you are. But I think what I’m what I was arguing about is, the binary approach of all or nothing. You know, A or B, 1 or 0, Apple or Samsung, that digital forces us to use. And I think over the past decades as Silicon Valley, both economically and culturally has become, you know, dominantly ascendant, we have been told whether it’s in culture or media or in business, that this is it. This is you know, you have to get on or get off it. You got to be completely digital transformation or not. There is no place for standing back. Don’t be a Luddite. You know, anyone questions these things? Don’t be a Luddite. Don’t be a Luddite. That’s what you’re told. Why you are standing in the way of progress?
What I’m saying is there is a value in analog. And if we don’t take advantage of that, if we don’t pay attention to that, we’re missing out. We could actually be sacrificing efficiency. We could be actually sacrificing a different form of progress. Real progress is a mix, is using the best technology for the job or the moment. And that changes by organization; that changes by the job; that changes by circumstances; and it changes by individuals.
What works for you doesn’t work for me. But digital technology provides a very one-size-fits-all approach. And I think you see that now. You know, now as we are in this, you know, two and a half months of Covid lockdown, anyone who has children is doing remote schooling and digital schooling.
And for years—and I wrote about this in the book—you know, for years we were told the future of school is digital, the future of school is remote, virtual; we don’t need schools. They’re inefficient. Teaching is inefficient. The technology can do so much better, everyone can learn so much better. And the evidence never, never pointed to that. It was always sold as, well, just, don’t be a Luddite. Keep going. This is progress, progress, progress. And all the studies said, well, actually, it doesn’t work. And yet teachers, politicians—not teachers, they knew better—politicians, school administrators, people selling ed-tech, nope, this is the future. This is where you gotta go. It’s gonna be virtual reality. It’s gonna be digital classrooms. This is the future. A.I.. Blah, blah, blah. And now we’re all in that world. And you ask any parent if this is better, if they prefer what’s happening now to the school, if their child is learning in any way. I think the greatness of these efficiencies—it’s better than not having it. But I think what we’ve seen is the value of where the digital technology works in e-learning or virtual classrooms or digital tools for school and where it falls flat. And where the real value of a child sitting in a building with other children and having another human being teach them actually lies. And it’s not in the technology.
Steven Cherry As a writer, I think I find the most compelling examples to be from the writing world. Some studies were done a few years ago about the difference between taking notes by hand in a student context and taking notes on a keyboard. And they tested retention of information 30 days later and the handwritten notes, note taking, won out every time. You can’t write fast enough by hand to take all the notes, to capture all the words, and so you start making choices even as you’re writing about what’s important and what isn’t. Whereas on a keyboard, you would just try and capture all the words without processing them in any way. And it was that processing that actually created retention days and weeks later.
Amazon made a big deal a few years ago when Thomas Piketty’s book [Capital in the 21st Century—ed] ... When that book came out, they made a point of how few people got to the last chapter, which they could see digitally in their Kindle cloud. It did occur to me as one of the people who both read it physically and got to the last chapter that all the real readers were reading the physical book and not the Kindle version. [Laughter] It seems to me that in some ways the analog experience is superior precisely because it’s less efficient, and that’s I think the point of the taking-notes-by-hand example. I wonder if it’s sometimes just a question of the digital experience, being much thinner, sort of flat and two-dimensional in both literal and figurative sense. Is that the problem with Zoom maybe? It’s just not a complex enough experience.
David Sax I just came to this call from attending my friend’s daughter Zoom bat mitzvah. She did a wonderful job. She sang beautifully. She stood very well. She spoke beautifully and eloquently about the portion of the Torah she read. And her family was there. And we all swelled with emotion. And yet it was a simulation on a screen of a lifecycle event that is usually in person, surrounded by community and incredibly visceral. Someone, when I was researching the book, and I can’t remember who it was now, said the best digital can hope to do is as good as the real world, right? The best digital video can do is hope to replicate the sight of the real world. The best digital music can do with sound as good as real music, either live or, you know, in an analog formats. The best software writing software can do. The best the Kindle can do is be as good and pleasurable as a book.
Obviously, if you were trying to condense the rich, multifaceted haptic experiences of the three-dimensional spinning rock that we live in onto a flat glass surface that’s either, you know, 7 square inches or 20 square inches or however big your screen is, you’re going to lose a hell of a lot in that transfer. And that’s okay. I think that’s fine and that’s acceptable.
But, you know, it’s almost as though comparing them is a pointless endeavor. And all the predictions of, you know, the digital replacing the analog experience, is a futile one, because that’s not what you’re trying to do. You’re using it as a tool to supplement that. You’re using it as a tool to do that when you’re unable to use it. So, you know, if I’m in my car and I want to listen to music or I’m walking somewhere, I’m not going to bring a record player. I’m not hearing a Walkman. I’m going to listen to my Spotify on my iPhone and be totally happy with it. Thrilled with it.
You know, if I am forced to have to close schools and my child cannot go to her school, I am going to do the best I can with the technology that’s available. But the idea that, oh, well, you know, streaming a performance is going to totally replace live theater even before this or, you know, going back to the 20th century—it’s like television is going to replace Broadway musicals. Well, that didn’t happen because television doesn’t deliver what Broadway musicals deliver. The radio didn’t deliver what a live concert delivered. The analog experience is its own thing with its own advantages and disadvantages, and only in the absence of it have we sort of realized its value.
Steven Cherry There’s a story about the origin of the Raspberry Pi, a tiny little $25 computer that was invented by Eban Upton. Eban is and was a professor of computer science at the University of Cambridge, and he invented it precisely because most of his students were mostly just programming for the Web and not doing anything physical. And he thought that they were not being good programmers, that they was just not producing people who really understood what they were doing. And so he invented this little twenty-five dollar computer to give them something that they could fool around with, that they could break if necessary—it wasn’t that expensive to replace. And so here we have I think a kind of marrying of the digital and the physical where the purely digital in his opinion was completely inadequate. It seems to me that’s what you’re arguing for as well.
David Sax Yeah. And one of the most interesting things I saw when I was doing my research was quite to the contrary of what even I had expected, that the greatest resistance to this sort of rebirth of analog or the value of it would come from people working in the technology business. I actually found them to be the most eager adopters of it. Many of these people who were programmers were also into letterpress art or collecting records or, you know, all sorts of physical board games to provide a sort of balance in their life. But professionally, in that same sort of example as the Raspberry Pi, you know, one of the best conversations I had, the most memorable, was with a gentleman named John Skidgel, who worked at Google in California. He was at the time, one of their lead user-interface and user-experience designers. And he created a course that’s now all across Google and is mandatory of how to design stuff on paper, how to take, you know, a pen and draw different lines and link up those lines. And I mean, it’s really just like how to draw things, basically. And this course is mandatory because the reason he created it was he was finding that the designs of the younger UI and UX designers weren’t up to snuff. And that was because most of them were just going right into the computer and using, I don’t know, Adobe Illustrator or whatever to create, you know, the new interface for Gmail or YouTube or some other Google product. And he said, you know, the problem is, as soon as they started doing that, they got caught up in the rules and the limitations of the software and all the limitless options that it provided. Or, you know what color—you’d spend 20 minutes deciding what shade of blue to use for a button. Instead of actually doing what they should do, which is getting the idea out there in its purest rawest form without, you know, suddenly falling into this box that that software and the device put it into by the rules that it needed to operate. And so here you have the most advanced digital technology company in the world, arguably, using and mandating the use of paper as the primary tool for the first stage of product design because it provided an advantage in what they were doing and it provided an advantage that the digital technology simply could not. That’s not being a Luddite. That’s progress. Right. That is using the best technology available for the right job.
Steven Cherry So we have now a digital innovation that kind of supersedes all previous digital innovations and that’s 3-D printing.
David Sax You know, like big data, like A.I., it has become so much more of a buzzword than actually a tool that’s come to fulfill the promise of its predictions. 3-D printing is going to change X and Y and Z. And it has in many areas, I guess, aerospace design or prototyping, obviously. You know, we’re seeing in the Covid crisis that early on when the ventilator parts were too expensive in Italy or they couldn’t be made. There were people who made parts on a 3-D printer and people printing facemasks and shields and other things. And that’s great. It’s a wonderful tool. But the idea that, you know, all manufacturing, all handmade stuff will be will be replaced by 3-D printing is again one of these sweeping binary generalizations that happens by people who are sort of either working in this technology and really trying to have such a firm messianic belief in it or just trying to sell it. And I think, again, 3-D printing has a tremendous role and a growing one that we’re gonna see over the coming decades and beyond. But will it completely replace things that have been made mechanically or made by hand? No, because the imperfections in those things, in the process of making those things by hand, are in many ways part of their value.
And we can see this in the 20th century, you know, mass-produced goods. Yes. You can go buy a, you know, injection-molded plastic bowl for your kitchen. Or some sort of mass-produced thing. And yet the one with greater value is gonna be the thing that’s made by hand, because it’s more beautiful, because it has intricacies, because it can be custom made for you in a way that actually suits you physically and aesthetically. And you can talk about this for bicycles or cars or boats or, you know, machine tools that someone actually needs to do a specific job. So there is a place for the great innovations in mass production and customize things. And there’s also going to be a place for that human hand to do the thing that it can do in that three-dimensional world in a non-standardized way, in a non-digitized way.
Steven Cherry It does occur to me that in the writing world, the best creativity often comes from projects that involve the greatest constraints. If you place a lot of demands on yourself, you can sometimes rise to a level of creativity and achievement that wouldn’t otherwise happen.
I’m reminded of sort of old school computer programing where, you know, people would have to create their programs on punch cards and put them in a stack and their job would run overnight. And if they lost a single, you know, dropped a single comma, it would have to run all over again. And people were very thoughtful about their programing because of those constraints. And similarly, people working with 3-D printers now just they try something, they prototype it. It’s not quite right. They throw it away. They change one line of code. They run it again. There’s sort of no constraints. And so they’re just doing this sort of low level iterative process until finally something is the way they want it. Whereas if you were working with a real physical, you know, I don’t know if you were sculpting out of marble, you’d be much more careful about your mistakes, right?
David Sax Yeah. Michelangelo had that block. It wasn’t like … bring me another block. I don’t like ... I don’t like the penis on this David. That’s a self-deprecating joke, in case you didn’t get that.
Steven Cherry I got that. Do you think that one of the reasons analog is often superior is because of the constraints it places on us?
David Sax Of course! Limitations are good; limitations are what spur creativity and innovation. When everything’s easy, then there’s nothing to sort of push us. And also, like, it doesn’t force us to think differently. That’s standardized thinking. So the idea that we can just plug and play everything and have those work without those restraints is not a positive one. Restraints are good. Restrictions are good in everything. I think working within limitations forces us to wrap our heads around what can make sense.
Steven Cherry David, in your book, you describe someone’s astonishment that you would write another book, in fact, at the time it was the book that we’ve been discussing, books take enormous research, time, expense, effort for a relatively small return ... On behalf of readers everywhere, I’d like to thank you for this somewhat thankless task of writing books, this one and the new one. And to thank you for your time today.
David Sax Thank you, Steven.
Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with David Sax, author of the 2016 book The Revenge of Analog, about the subtle but still radical differences between the analog innovations of the past ten millennia and their digital counterparts of the last hundred years. Perhaps not all of them are improvements.
He’s also the author of the new book, The Soul of an Entrepreneur: Work and Life Beyond the Startup Myth.
This interview was recorded May 21, 2020. Our audio engineering and recording was done remotely by Gotham Podcast Studio. Our music is by Chad Crouch.
For TTI/Vanguard, I’m Steven Cherry.
This interview was recorded May 21, 2020. Audio engineering by Gotham Podcast Studio, New York, N.Y. Music by Chad Crouch
We welcome your comments @ttivanguard and @techwiseconv
Note: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners. The authoritative record of TTI/Vanguard’s audio programming is the audio version.