The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

A 2015 research report in the United Kingdom found that the main consumers of vinyl records that year were 18- to 24-year-olds, and research group MusicWatch noted that more than half of vinyl buyers were under 25. Not ageing, retro hipsters. Not crusty old dudes.

All digital music listeners are equal. Acquisition is painless. Taste is irrelevant. It is pointless to boast about your iTunes collection, or the quality of your playlists on a streaming service. Music became data, one more set of 1's and 0's lurking in your hard drive, invisible to see and impossible to touch. Nothing is less cool than data.

Campers handwrite letters on a form that is scanned into Walden’s computer as PDF files and e-mailed home three days later. Parents can e-mail Walden with notes for their child, and these are printed and delivered to campers three days after being received. The delay of three days on either end was designed to intentionally mimic the same lag that Canada Post experiences, which is crucial, according to Birenbaum, to preserve something he referred to as “the transfer of authority.” “Let’s say a kid is getting bullied in a cabin by another camper,” he said, using a recent example. “If she writes an e-mail home on her phone, her mother reacts immediately, advising action to her daughter, and contacting me to remedy the problem. The mother retains authority. But with a six-day delay from the time the daughter sends her letter to the mother’s response, the camper has to deal with the problem of the bully. Eventually, the camper realizes that ‘Hey, maybe this eighteen-year-old staff member taking care of me is someone who I should talk with,’” and you suddenly achieve that transfer of authority from parent to counselor that is crucial for Walden’s social cohesion.

Choosing from every book ever published seems like a dream, until you’re forced to sift through hundreds of thousands of titles on your Kindle, and all the reviews attached to them, hoping to find something good.

clear enough. I asked Birenbaum what he was ultimately trying to preserve by keeping Walden technology free. Was it the land, the cabins, and the lake, and leaving those spaces undisturbed by the outside world? Or were his efforts to keep the digital barbarians at the gate driven by a desire to preserve something deeper, that universal truth that not only made Walden what it was, but drove the Revenge of Analog in all its various forms? Birenbaum didn’t hesitate to answer. “We look at the heart of what we do, and it is interpersonal relationships,” he said. Any debate about technology’s use came down to a simple binary question: will it impact interpersonal relationships or not? “This camp could be wiped out by a meteor tomorrow, and we could rebuild across the road and we’d still be Walden,” he said. What mattered were the relationships and the uniquely analog recipe that enabled their formation. First, you place lots of people together, and have them relate to one another with the guidance of caregivers, who encourage and enforce mutual respect. Next, you mix in a program that creates various stresses, frustrations, and challenges that campers need to confront. This ranges from the simplest task of getting to breakfast on time to ten-day canoe trips in the harsh Canadian wilderness where twelve-year-olds might be expected to carry a 60-pound canoe on their head for a mile or more in the pouring rain, as blackflies gnaw at their ankles. These situations eventually lead to individual perseverance and self-respect . . . what most people call character. And that character is the glue that allows the relationships built at camp to last a lifetime, as my own friendships formed at Walden have. “You go a bit out of your comfort zone, endure a little hardship, people push you and help you to succeed, and you end up with friendships, confidence, and an inner fortitude that ends in a sense of belonging to a greater, interdependent community,” Birenbaum said. “This is one of the most basic aspects of the human condition.

Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.

Even the best educational computer programs and games, devised with the help of the best educators, contain a tiny fraction of the outcomes of a single child equipped with a crayon and paper. A child’s limitless imagination can only do what the computer allows them to, and no more. The best toys, by contrast, are really 10 percent toy and 90 percent child: paint, cardboard, sand. The kid’s brain does the heavy lifting, and in the process it learns.

I visited McBeth’s eleventh and twelfth grade classes, which were both working on prototypes for projects they had approached through design thinking. One was a revitalization scheme for Toronto’s waterfront, and the other was creating an indoor agriculture system. The students were producing all sorts of creative solutions, from elaborate models of their waterfront developments to fish farms where the fish’s own waste would fertilize the plants that cleaned the water. It was loud, messy work. At one point, three girls were hand-sawing a piece of lumber balanced between two desks, and sawdust quickly coated their preppy uniforms and hair. With a few exceptions, all the students said they preferred to work without computers on this type of project. They felt they had more creative freedom, were less distracted, could be more accurate to their vision, and gained a better understanding of the scale and materials involved. It also seemed more fun. The groups building models and contraptions around the room were laughing and joking as they glued and taped and cut and broke things. The only ones working on computers were two girls who gave up on a model and decided to make an app instead. They sat side by side, quietly checking out the pricing options on various app-building websites, flipping over to Facebook whenever McBeth was out

Just as the digital dominance of the recording studio seemed complete, analog had its revenge. Musicians, producers, and engineers searching for the sound of the music that inspired them—roots Americana, blues, and classic rock—began thinking about how the process of recording affected the sound. These artists, including White, Dave Grohl, and Gillian Welch, began experimenting with old tape machines and vintage studio equipment, returning to the analog methods they’d once used. Critics and fans noted that these albums sounded different—more heartfelt, raw, and organic—and the industry began to take notice.

Numerous studies have shown that handwriting notes is simply better for engagement, information retention, and mental health than is writing on digital devices.

students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes,

Technology, as it becomes more sophisticated and mature, eventually gets displaced by newer or more effective technology,” Raffaelli told me, describing the traditional path of creative destruction. “But there are these odd circumstances where there’s an alternative path, where these dead technologies get repositioned for new life.

the elevated anxiety he’s observed in this generation of campers is directly related to the constant hovering of their parents, who use digital technology to keep tabs on their children around the clock. They cannot surrender their authority. Many of the phones that Birenbaum has seized from campers over the past few summers were sent on the insistence of parents, who wanted to remain in touch.

The MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who has devoted her career to studying and writing about the impact of digital technology on our lives, once wrote that sociable technology always disappoints, because it promises what it cannot deliver. “It promises friendship but can only deliver performance,

The previous day she had been on a conference call with a younger Urban Outfitters marketing team member (the chain now sells more vinyl and turntables than anyone else in America), who asked Braun what the little lines on the records meant. “I had to tell her those are the songs,” she said.

These kids all just want e-books.” When she studied students in Canada and Israel, McNeish discovered something interesting that linked them all: students overwhelmingly prefer paper not out of any sense of nostalgia or a resistance to new technology, but because paper learning materials simply work better. “It’s a lot of work to use these e-learning systems. And a lot easier to just learn from a textbook,” McNeish said. “These kids are skilled with technology for entertainment, but they are not so skilled at technology for learning.

These kids are skilled with technology for entertainment, but they are not so skilled at technology for learning.

These people needed a place that proved the continued worth of their profession, which had been dragged through the mud in the public consciousness. They needed to see books lovingly displayed in windows, and a place where book lovers could gather and buy books in each other’s presence. They needed a place for children to discover books, and for parents to read to them and buy them books. A city without a bookshop to take your kids to was a horror to Doeblin. “We’re doing something seriously good,” he said. “We know this. That books do ultimate good. That’s an idea I can sell.

When I think back on the twenty years I spent in school, what sticks with me isn’t any particular subject, learning tool, or classroom. It is the teachers who brought my education to life and drove my interest forward, so that my passion for learning continued, despite the long days, the hard chairs, the difficult problems. These women and men were giants. They were underpaid, and they put up with all sorts of crap, but they made me the person I am today vastly more than the facts they taught. That relationship is what digital education technology cannot ever replicate or replace, and why a great teacher will always provide a more innovative model for the future of education than the most sophisticated device, software, or platform.

You see, writing and talking breathlessly about how technology changes everything might seem harmless, but, in practice, it acts as a distraction from more mundane issues—and an excuse for handling those issues badly.