The Revenge of Analog: a Book, an Idea, and a Phenomenon

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Until about a year ago, whenever I’d start rambling about my love of watches to my closest friends, they would playfully accuse me of having become an analog worshiper, a Luddite, or even a hipster suffering a chronic case of nostalgia. Indeed, my friends like to give me a hard time, but behind the joking was some genuine confusion about how someone they admire and respect could be so daft as to actually prefer analog gadgets over digital ones.

Granted, I am an extreme case. I drive old cars, ride my father’s old bicycle, listen to vinyl records, play a lot of backgammon, and I own about 50 times more mechanical wristwatches than all of my friends do collectively. Calling me a Luddite hipster wasn’t a huge leap.

But something interesting has started happening recently: many of those digitally inclined friends are replacing digital tools with analog ones. I can see at least three reasons for this: they want to reduce screen time; they’re finding certain analog technologies more efficient than the digital counterparts; and nearly all of my friends now claim that analog stuff improves the quality of their lives, especially their relationships, both professional and personal.

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Around 2012, almost everyone I knew was fawning over WunderList, a shared list-making app, but today these same folks keep paper lists laying around the kitchen. I saw one such list with “OrEOs” written in a seven-year-old’s script and a bold adult “NO!” next to it—an adorable keepsake. Recently at lunch a friend needed the time, but his phone’s battery had died; in less than three seconds I retrieved his answer from the GMT on my wrist, and—with as much swagger as a watch-nerd can muster—I added: “It’s 9:45pm in Iceland, in case you were wondering.” Another friend’s Kindle now lives in a drawer, and her coffee table again plays home to alluring stacks of glossy magazines and hardcover books. My partner’s mother has mostly bagged her GPS in favor of paper maps she bought at the hardware store.

Remind me: Who’s the Luddite hipster again?

The recent rise in the popularity of analog technology is masterfully summarized and detailed in David Sax’s book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things & Why They Matter. Published in 2016, this is the only comprehensive look at the resurgence of analog technologies I’m aware of.


A journalist by trade, Sax traveled the world to meet those at the forefront of the analog movement. In Milan, Sax spoke with Maria Sebregondi, the fascinatingly savvy Italian founder of Moleskine, the company that has made simple paper notebooks ubiquitous to the tune of  €100,000,000 in annual sales. Sax met the mavericks behind Vienna’s Lomography, a company that defied all odds and turned analog film aberrations into an international phenomenon and considerable profits. Sax sat down with founders of thriving brick-and-mortar book stores in Manhattan, and he met with researchers in California who gathered data showing the failure of digital technologies to improve schooling. He visited his summer camp in Northern Canada where, today, connected electronics are forbidden, and he hung out in jam packed board game salons in Toronto. Most relevantly to us watch-heads, Sax met with senior staff at Shinola, the Detroit-based maker of wristwatches, turntables, leather goods, and more.

None of these businesses would be thriving if they weren’t meeting good old-fashioned consumer demand for products that improve our lives. Many analog technologies, it turns out, do that better than digital.

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As Sax points out in The Revenge of Analog, the surge in analog products is not indicative of a wholesale abandonment of digital, or even a resistance to it. Rather, the upswing of analog indicates that people are finding that a mixture of analog and digital technologies works best. Sax is also careful to address the problems that accompany running businesses that make and sell analog products—from labor conditions and socioeconomic disparity to elitism and environmental impact. A thoroughbred journalist, Sax isn’t pushing an agenda; he’s reporting on an international phenomenon, warts and all.

Of all the companies Sax examines, Shinola seems to have the most warts. Started by Tom Kartsotis—the founder of Fossil, a mall-staple lifestyle brand worth over $3.5 billion, which left him squarely in the 1% when he departed in 2010—Shinola more or less claims to be reviving American manufacturing. The majority of Shinola’s sales are wristwatches, which Sax describes as “entry-level luxury watches—costing more than a $200 Fossil watch, but less than a $3,000 Rolex . . .” (Sax may need to update that second figure.) He goes on to say that, “. . . the key selling point for the brand isn’t so much its design, heritage, or price, but the story behind it” (p.168). This is where the warts start to show up.

Sax raises questions about how much of Shinola’s revitalization of American manufacturing is real and how much is hype. On the surface, Shinola is selling us its employees and their noble manual labor. Black and white photos of African-Americans sporting tin-cloth aprons next to steam-punky machinery inside an old industrial building encapsulate that message. I’ll confess that I enjoy looking at those images, but they also stir up what I hope is a healthy ruefulness on my part as a relatively conscious consumer who hasn’t done manual labor in over two decades. Something feels off to me on a gut level.

It turns out that I’m not alone. Shinola has come under scrutiny for glorifying a labor force that—when stripped of its stylized veneer—appears to be working under the same socioeconomic disparities that have always plagued the American labor class. And, so far, there’s no significant improvement of Detroit’s post-industrial despair, let alone the whole country’s. Of course, that’s far too tall an order for one company that sells analog watches in the era of the smartphone, but it hasn’t stopped Shinola from pushing the story that its small workforce is the tell-tale of a new Industrial Revolution.

Sax spoke with Shinola’s VP of leather goods, Jennifer Guarino, who was abundantly aware of just how delicate these topics can be. “We get criticized and people say ‘Well, you only give them $12 an hour,’ well, that’s a good wage, and a step on the ladder.” she told Sax (p.160). Her defense—if not her defensiveness—appears well rehearsed, and navigating criticism seems to have become de rigeur for Shinola’s management.

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I conducted my own informal investigation at the Shinola store in a mall near me, asking the young store clerks what they thought of the criticism Shinola receives. The three of them shot each other glances that said, “you do it, not me,” and then one of them rattled off a pat reply about the watches being assembled in Detroit. “Did someone train you to say that,” I asked. Glances again shot among them, and then the young woman arranging watches in a display case chuckled and said, “Well, kind of.”

As a watch-head, I’m interested in whether watches physically embody the stories behind them, and Shinola’s timepieces offer an interesting example. Decidedly 20th Century American in appearance, all but a very few of Shinola’s watches are, nonetheless, powered by foreign-sourced quartz movements. These quartz watches might be the perfect metaphor for Shinola’s enterprise: an outer appearance of old-school authenticity belied by the truth of its inner workings. Where a micro-brand might tout the fact that it was able to source excellent Swiss or Japanese quartz movements, Shinola famously got busted by the United States Federal Trade Commission in 2016 for a slogan that led consumers to believe that their products were entirely American-made. Transparency, it seems, likes to travel in small packages.

Sax eventually balances the abundant criticism of Shinola—not so much by offering hope that Shinola will one day deliver on its claims, but by contextualizing the brand within today’s globalized economy and rapidly expanding digital networks. Romanticizing America’s industrial past, as Shinola does, not only paints an inaccurate historical picture, it also misses entirely the nuances of how both businesses and individuals are weaving analog stuff into an increasingly automated digital world. That’s a complex topic, not the stuff of slogans, and certainly worthy of the thorough investigation found in The Revenge of Analog.

And this brings us back to the fact that my friends now mock me less for my analog proclivities than they used to. Our newfound common ground suggests that analog products are not merely the fixation of nostalgic Luddites and other contrarians, but that analog goods are meeting the demands of consumers who want simpler solutions than digital can offer: a pad and pen, a glossy magazine, an unconnected wristwatch, and so on. From the physicality that engages all five of our senses, to the face-to-face interactions and reduction of screen time, to the arm’s-reach convenience, choosing analog stuff often just makes simple common sense. And while common sense may not explain why I own dozens of watches, it does go some way toward explaining why I wear one every day. The Revenge of Analog

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At age 7 Allen fell in love with a Timex boy's dive watch his parents gave him, and he's taken comfort in wearing a watch ever since. Allen is especially curious about digital technology having inspired a revival of analog technology, long-lasting handmade goods, and classic fashion. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in The Hudson Valley with his partner and two orange cats.
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