by Bill McKibbin, New York Review of Books
Everyone I know seems a little ashamed of the compulsive phone-checking, but it is, circa 2017, our species-specific calling card, as surely as the bobbing head-thrust identifies the pigeon. No one much likes spending half the workday on e-mail, but that’s what work is for many of us. Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.
There may, however, be islands in that digital whitewater, spots where we could haul ourselves out of the rapids and rest, remembering what it was like Before. Or if we are too young to remember, then experiencing it for the first time. David Sax’s thesis in his new book, The Revenge of Analog—and it’s a beguiling one—is that these islands are growing larger and more numerous. He brings us tales of these analog refuges, crankily safe from the instantaneous and universal. Places where we can relax, and maybe even think, as opposed to click. Places where we can touch actual physical objects.
Like, for instance, vinyl records. Sax begins his tour of the resurgent analog in a record-pressing plant in Nashville, where workers feed pellets of polyvinyl chloride into record presses, “great bulky assemblages of hydraulics, heavy-gauge buttons, pipes, hoses, and thick slabs of metal made decades ago.” Even five or six years ago, these presses were almost silent, the workers manning a six-hour shift every few days. After all, first the compact disc and then the streaming Web had digitized the music business; now, for a monthly charge half the price of a single LP, Spotify will deliver virtually every song ever recorded to your phone. By 2006, just 900,000 new vinyl records were sold in the entire United States, or roughly a quarter of what Disney’s High School Musical soundtrack did in combined CD and download sales that year alone…. Vinyl records were, by any objective metric, dead.
Since then, however, vinyl sales have grown more than 20 percent a year—there were twelve million LPs sold in the US in 2015. Record stores have opened up across the continent and around the world—Berlin alone has more than a hundred. Why?