The revenge of the real

Just as digital didn’t eradicate print, it also failed to kill a lot of other things that were supposed to be obsolete. Here are a few other areas where the world of real things is showing renewed life.

 

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The poster child of analog’s recent revenge is also its most improbable. Since its peak as a format for recorded music in the late 1970s, the vinyl record’s dominance quickly declined, thanks to increasingly more convenient and economically viable technologies (tapes, CDs, MP3s) that replaced it. By 2006, less than a million records were sold in the United States, and record stores were closing daily. But in 2007, these cumbersome, costly, and entirely senseless discs of melted plastic staged a comeback. This year, more than 17 million records are likely to be sold in the US, and new record shops are appearing across the country. Some people say the rebirth of vinyl, which is driven by younger consumers, is about sound quality. Others say it’s merely a fashion fad. But with each new record pressed and sold, one thing is clear: The surprising return of the vinyl record isn’t about the most logical format for recorded music. It’s about the sexiest one.

 

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Cassette tapes may be riding on the back of the vinyl revival, especially among indie groups, but the more significant return to tape is taking place in recording studios. Musicians ranging from D’Angelo and Dave Grohl to Lady Gaga and Jack White are purposefully ditching digital recording software for the reel-to-reel machines that were a staple of the 20th-century music business. While tape imbues a certain audible “warmth,” the real reason for the switch to analog recording is the limitations it imposes on the process. It demands musicians put out their best effort every time it’s rolling. What you get is a recording session where the sound is pure, undiluted, and free of extraneous distractions. A performance. Music as it should be.

 

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Just a few years ago, it was almost curtains for movies shot and displayed on film. Fujifilm had already ceased production of its motion picture stock, and Kodak announced that the economics of the industry weren’t strong enough to sustain its own movie film products much longer. Then the A-list stepped in, with some of the biggest directors (Scorsese, Tarantino, Abrams, Nolan, Apatow) calling on the studios to purchase enough film stock to keep them shooting celluloid as long as their cameras rolled. Suddenly, every director in the movies and even television wanting to establish their cinematic bona fides had to shoot on film, boasting about its unbeatable aesthetic, or the rush of hearing it whirl through the camera.

 

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Like most of its contemporaries in the film business, Polaroid stopped making film by 2008, after several successive bankruptcies. Then something unexpected happened: A small group of instant film enthusiasts bought the last Polaroid factory on earth and got it working again. Today, Impossible Project sells more than a million packs of instant film each year, which works in vintage Polaroid cameras, as well as its own camera, at retailers like Urban Outfitters. Meanwhile, Japan’s Fujifilm saw an incredible turnaround of its own Instax instant photo system, which it nearly scrapped a decade ago. Today, Instax is more profitable for Fujifilm than many of its digital cameras. Even in an age where everyone has a smart phone holding thousands of photos, there are few things more magical than seeing the chemical dance of a photograph developing in front of your eyes.

 

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Played in homes, and increasingly at dedicated board game cafés, the new generation of tabletop games now range from inventively sophisticated bouts of strategy (Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride) to tastelessly side-splitting party games (Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens). Not only is the rapid growth of tabletop games over the past decade a core feature of global geek culture’s normalization, it also happens to be big business. Last year, the North American market for hobby games alone netted more than $1 billion in sales, and shows no sign of slowing down.

 

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When the Moleskine notebook first hit bookstores in 1997, skeptics scratched their heads. Who was going to take notes by hand? What’s remarkable about the rise of the Moleskine, and the wider notebook boom it ushered in, is how its success almost seems to be derived from the digital economy. Despite advances in voice and handwriting recognition software, tablet keyboards, and all other means of capturing ideas on a computer, the rectangular paper notebook reigns supreme for its ease, versatility, and durability.

 

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In 2013, when the online review company Yelp moved into its new headquarters in San Francisco, employees quickly noticed something was missing. In the interest of saving space, the bulk of Yelp’s whiteboards had been replaced by large monitors, and interactive “smart” boards. Apparently the engineering department was so displeased it threatened outright revolt, and today, Yelp’s HQ, like pretty much all innovative companies and institutions, is plastered with colorfully scribbled whiteboards on every conceivable surface. That’s because whiteboards, like notebooks, are the quickest way to take an idea into physical reality, and then shape it without constraints. More often than not, the simplest, most effective solution is the one we actually want, regardless of whether it plugs in.

 

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Today, the hottest thing in online retailing is taking it offline. Just look at recent retail expansions from ecommerce companies ranging from Warby Parker and Bonabos, to Blue Nile, and, yes, even Amazon (which opened its first physical bookstore in the past year). Stores aren’t going anywhere. It turns out that shopping is more than simply a transaction of goods for money at the cheapest possible price. It is an activity at the core of the human experience, and at least some of the time, we want to experience it in the flesh.

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David Sax is a journalist whose work appears regularly in Bloomberg Businessweek, The New Yorker’s Currency blog, and other publications. He is the author of the books Save the Deli and The Tastemakers. His latest book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, was published in November by Public Affairs. He lives in Toronto