Keep baking that sourdough, and change the world

(Photos: David Sax’s website)
The pandemic has produced so many depressing artifacts: the mountain of masks, the gallons of hand sanitizer, and the baton-length nasal swabs. But one of the worst might be the Work From Home Office Playset by Fisher-Price. At first, the thing was a much-needed parody. Then suddenly it was actually on the market, including a wooden laptop and headset, fabric apps, and a simulacrum of a disposable coffee cup.اضافة اعلان

This joyless toy is mentioned briefly in David Sax’s new book, “The Future Is Analog,” which claims to be “a manifesto for a different kind of change,” but is in equal part a moan-ifesto about the particular woes of quarantine for an upper-middle-class parent of young children. “I spent most of the year on home-school duty,” he writes about 2020: “manning our kids’ iPad and laptop, fixing printers and dropped connections, dragging them outside for recess, and constantly slinging quesadillas like a weary Oaxacan street vendor so my wife could get her work done.”

Sax interviewed almost 200 people for this project, but street vendors do not appear to be among them, though there are an eye-crossing number of business consultants, many of whom also have books to promote. Generous with his praise, Sax deems various of these “delightful,” “wonderful”, or “fabulous.” I would call his new one “OK,” “perfectly fine”, and “not a complete waste of your time.”

Whiter-collar than the old commercials for Wisk detergent bingeable on YouTube, “The Future Is Analog” is a sequel of sorts to the author’s 2016 hit “The Revenge of Analog,” wherein he pawed through record bins, scribbled in Moleskine notebooks, and played board games, making an excellent case for the value of offline experience. (A little perversely, I read “The Revenge of Analog” in ebook form, albeit checked out from the good old-fashioned New York Public Library, and agree — it is just not the same.)

“The Future Is Analog” also makes an excellent case for the value of offline experience, but unfortunately somewhat at its own expense. Hamstrung by lockdown, Sax, a journalist and public speaker, had to resort to reporting by Zoom, which he himself argues is a fast-food version of IRL. Famished for color, he clocks one source’s guitar collection as if he were Room Rater and watches as another’s child runs by in a Harry Potter costume. Complaining about confinement at his mother-in-law’s “luxury lakeside weekend home”, a six-bedroom with sauna and hot tub, even as he acknowledges his good fortune, the author cannot help sounding a little whiny. Arguing about “Caste,” by Isabel Wilkerson, with half a dozen other “white men from privileged backgrounds” at a backyard book club feels ever so slightly blinkered.

But Sax is no George Jetson, reclining on a conveyor belt at the end of a hard day to receive his pipe and slippers. “Give me a delivery person who says hello,” he all but growls, “not a robot that rolls down the sidewalk with my lunch.” I hope he is an excellent tipper.

The book is not entirely without adventure: Sax shops for a wet suit at a local store in his hometown, Toronto, noting the superiority of this personalized retail experience to the Amazon clickathon; recalls a charming-sounding “forest library” he once visited in Seoul (though betcha people check their phones there).

He bakes challah for his family, enjoying the “fold, push, spin, flip, thwhack, fold, push, spin, flip, thwhack, fold, push, spin, flip, thwhack!” sensation of kneading.

The trouble is that here in the fall of 2022, when most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, the revelation that such simple activities warm a digitally chilled soul feels as stale as our sourdough loaves. And some of Sax’s precepts, novel under our shared duress, now seem obvious or under-interrogated. Theater is better in person, certainly, and too much online shopping and scrolling can leave one feeling hollow. Are digital conversations more “ephemeral” than physical ones, as Sax contends? (“They disappear into the void.”) Or is it exactly the opposite, that they can be screen-shotted or forwarded and come back to haunt in ways never anticipated?

The freshest exploration in “The Future Is Analog” is of the role of the office in human society, an ongoing puzzle that urban planners, government tax authorities and corporate managers are straining mightily to solve. This is interesting because Sax has only ever worked in one for six weeks, quitting after the copier caught fire. He cites a team at Ford who in three hours “crushed,” in the positive sense, a design plan they’d been trying to lay out remotely for months — after they got together in a boardroom and pinned up ideas on a wall. “What is an office?” Sax asks, and maybe the answer is just a party, with Post-its.

And what is a book? “The Future Is Analog” might have been better as that old-new phenomenon, a podcast. A brand extension writ antsy, it also seems to have suffered from an automated spellchecker, referring to a show in Sax’s “Netflix cue”; to a heckled standup comic who “expertly diffused the situation”; and cold water “crushing my skull in a vice grip.” Analog this.

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