California Typewriter / Revenge of Analog

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David Michael Newstead.

California Typewriter pretends to be a documentary about typewriters, but it’s actually about the limits of technology in our lives. The Revenge of Analog is a book by David Sax about outdated things that have found success again in the digital age precisely because they aren’t digital. I didn’t intend to read that book right after I saw the documentary. It was just by chance. The documentary got put on Amazon Video and then I finally got around to reading something that had been sitting on my bookshelf. As it turns out though, the two go together perfectly.

California Typewriter follows a range of people and their connections to typewriters today. Actor Tom Hanks collects typewriters for fun. Musician John Mayer uses them to write songs. Artist Jeremy Mayer builds elaborate sculptures out of old typewriter parts for Silicon Valley executives. Meanwhile, a small brick and mortar store in Berkley still sells and repairs typewriters and struggles to stay afloat. It’s through these stories and others that some important issues get raised about technological change and obsolescence, the significance of actual tactile experiences, and the need for more balance in our relationship with technology. For me, one of the most memorable parts was when John Mayer talked about digital technology and the cloud as being a kind of glorified trashcan where you can go back and look at everything you’ve ever done, but you never actually do. Another great moment came when a historian explained that all the letters of the word typewriter are located on the top line of your keyboard and were put there intentionally so that salesmen could demonstrate this “high-tech” new product.

The Revenge of Analog follows the revival of industries and activities that seemed like they were near death just a few years ago. In a purely utilitarian sense, most of the things David Sax covers in the book were made obsolete by digital technology and the internet. Yet, they survive and are now thriving, because people want more than just the internet! Some notable examples include the dramatic resurgence of vinyl record sales, the success of companies like Moleskine and The Economist, and people’s renewed love of board games at a time when meaningful interactions are becoming scarcer and scarcer. But instead of this reflecting some hipster trend or baby boomers’ nostalgia, Sax shows the limits of technology’s dominance where people choose an analog option because they actually prefer it. He goes on to discuss the dismal results of some digital initiatives like MOOCs (Mass Open Online Courses) and One Laptop Per Child that were supposedly going to be so world changing. They weren’t. The author writes:

Digital’s overwhelming superiority initially renders the analog alternative largely worthless, and devalues that analog technology significantly. But over time, that perception of value shifts. The honeymoon with a particular digital technology inevitably ends, and when it does, we are more readily able to judge its true merits and shortcomings. In many cases, an older analog tool or approach simply works better. Its inherent inefficiency grows coveted; its weakness becomes a renewed strength.

On page 40, he later adds:

Then there is the question of legacy. In digital, a legacy brand is yesterday’s lunch, because the best digital technology is always the next one, and consumers have no loyalty to the past. In analog, legacy commands a premium. “You can perfectly imitate a Louis Vuitton bag,” Maffe said, pointing at one hanging on the arm of an elegantly dressed woman sitting near us in the luxury hotel café where we were having coffee, “but you can’t sell it for six thousand dollars because you don’t have the heritage. As long as you can convince users the past is relevant, they’ll pay billions for it. There is no rational economic reason behind that. Just marketing.”

I spent some time mulling over this book and the documentary I had watched. Neither one was anti-technology by any means. It’s just that we’re at an interesting crossroads as a society – somewhere between The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror. So if it’s possible to do absolutely everything online, then I think it’s noteworthy when we choose to take a different path. For many people, that doesn’t come naturally, because embracing new technology and discarding old devices was our default for so long. I’m part of a shrinking group that can vaguely recall life before the internet. I remember all the upbeat technological hype of the late 1990s and 2000s. And while plenty of those changes were good, it’s also important to question the extent of technology’s place in our lives nowadays. Or perhaps a better way of saying it: deciding what we want to keep in the real, non-digital world.

David Sax also points out how we value the analog, the real, and the tangible in ways that the digital can’t ever come close to. Nostalgia might play a part in that, but it’s not the driving force anymore. To me, it almost seems like every platform or medium has its own golden age that can be remembered and romanticized, but never quite recreated. After all, radio will never be as relevant as it was when FDR was giving fireside chats or when Orson Welles was dramatizing The War of the Worlds. To people of a certain generation, cassette mix tapes on a Sony Walkman were like love letters. And comic books were once the cheap, brightly colored foundation of many people’s childhoods. Polaroids, paperbacks, movie reels, 8-tracks, newspapers, Saturday morning cartoons: it all meant something to someone. And when I try to recall my own memories of these analog things, it feels like a time capsule that’s meaningful to me, but would probably be inconsequential to someone who grew up in another era. I remember the first CDs I bought and how I eventually alphabetized them all on this rotating plastic rack. I remember the thrill when my family first got a VCR and how fun it was to rent VHS tapes from Blockbuster on a Friday night. I remember being hunched over my desk as I wrote down ideas in Mead composition notebooks that could fill up a shelf. And I remember fondly waiting a week or more for photos to get developed before I knew how a picture turned out. I liked those things and I value those memories. Hell, I own a typewriter. But The Revenge of Analog and California Typewriter aren’t trying to turn the clock back a few decades to some idyllic past. They’re really about living in the moment and nowadays that means not being online all the time.

Watch California Typewriter

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My Annual Journal

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By David Michael Newstead.

One thing I’ve aspired to do for sometime, but always struggled with, is to have a journal. Like a physical pen and paper journal. It seems like a good way to organize your thoughts and it’s the kind of activity that was probably common once upon a time before binge watching and all the rest. The trouble is, an actual journal would take more commitment and energy than most people have. Also, when it comes down to it, what am I really going to write about on a daily basis, you know? Anyway, those are just some of my hang ups, but I didn’t want to abandon the concept either. This is when I came up with the idea of starting an annual journal a few years ago. So, what does that mean exactly? It means writing a short entry about your life at the end of each year. You can reflect on your experiences in a concise way without it feeling like just another chore, making it easy to start and to maintain. This can also help provide some context to your life when events begin to blur together. By that I mean, I probably had very tangible opinions about 2005 or 2010. Skip ahead a few years though and I remember what I was doing then, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what I was thinking or feeling at the time. And as it turns out, those things are pretty relevant to look back on. So as I sit down to make my latest entry, reminding myself why I started this thing in the first place is the simple part. The hard part will be putting 2017 into words.

Best of 2017

Strange Fruit and Children’s Books

By David Michael Newstead.

Gary Golio is the author of a new children’s book called Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song. In it, he combines storytelling and social justice with Charlotte Riley-Webb’s impressive artwork to create this important lesson about confronting racism in America. Our conversation is below.

David Newstead: What inspired you to tell this story?

Gary Golio: I’d long wanted to write about Billie Holiday, but hadn’t found a story – a way into her life and work – that made sense for kids. And then, in the fall of 2012, with plenty of time on my hands after losing my job as a therapist with teens-on-probation (the eventual fallout of the 2008 Recession in my county), I heard an NPR story about Abel Meeropol, the man who wrote Strange Fruit. What fascinated me was that Abel – a schoolteacher in the Bronx and a Jew – wrote the song in response to a horrific photograph he had seen of a lynching. He was haunted by the image, by the ugliness and horror of what he saw, yet the song was beautiful, and haunting in its own way, unlike anything Abel ever wrote afterward.

And when I read about the path the song took to reach its audience, it became clear that this was a tale of courage. As I heard about the deaths of more young black men and women in 2013, deaths much akin to lynchings, I felt strongly that what I had in mind was a potent and timely story for kids. It would be about the power of art, about collaboration, and would highlight the strength of an individual – Billie Holiday – as an example of what one person can do in the face of racism and injustice. She put her life on the line by singing that song, and she did it with full knowledge of what might happen to her as a result.

David Newstead: That can be difficult subject matter for children. Did you get any push back from publishers?

Gary Golio: My first children’s book was about Jimi Hendrix’ childhood in Seattle – beset by all sorts of troubles like poverty, familial alcoholism, domestic violence – and THAT got a lot of pushback. One editor even told my agent that “This isn’t right, to do a book for kids on Jimi Hendrix!” For Strange Fruit, my agent shopped the manuscript around and received great comments. Not surprisingly, some editors (honestly) admitted that they couldn’t sell the project to their submissions committee, so my agent found me a bold soul, and a bold publisher, at Lerner/Millbrook Press. They understood my desire not to exploit the material in any way, with illustrations depicting the horror of what led Abel to write his song. They also agreed that the story was about the power of art, the importance of collaboration (songwriter, club owner, singer), and the courage of Billie Holiday. And then they found us a black female illustrator, Charlotte Riley-Webb, who had already done a series of works about Billie. I believe Lady Day would approve!

David Newstead: How have readers been reacting to the book so far?

Gary Golio: The many teachers, librarians, and reviewers I’ve spoken to and heard from have been very positive about the impact and importance of the book. From what I understand, they all see it as a valuable resource–particularly at this time in our national history–and want to share it with their students. There are also many people who love Billie and her work, who tell me that they were unfamiliar with the story of the song, and especially with Billie’s willingness to put herself and her career on the line by singing Strange Fruit. Several radio hosts and jazz DJ’s spent considerable time in on-air interviews, and their passion for the book and the subject said a lot to me about the power of Billie’s example as a social activist.

David Newstead: What’s your next big project going to be?

Gary Golio: Well, I’ve got three books in the pipeline. The first, coming out next year and illustrated by the great Rudy Gutierrez, is about the young Carlos Santana in Mexico, and the collision between him and his Mariachi-violinist father, who had no love for electric blues guitar (Carlos’ early passion). The second is about Charlie Chaplin, and the real-life roots of the Tramp character in his London boyhood, illustrated by my friend and Caldecott-winner Ed Young. The third is about the inspirational journey of Blind Willie Johnson, the revered slide blues guitarist whose haunting Dark Was the Night ended up on Voyager I’s Golden Record now traveling outside of our solar system and into the heavens, to be illustrated by the masterful E.B. Lewis. I’m also, right now, hawking my story about Jane Elliott, the teacher who, the day after Martin Luther King’s death, created the in-class Blue Eyes – Brown Eyes exercise for teaching children (and later, adults) about the nature and effects of racism and prejudice. Powerful stuff!

Read Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song

Strange Fruit and Social Justice

By David Michael Newstead.

Patricia Smith wins the first Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award on Nov. 12, 2017. Opening remarks from Ellen Meeropol and Robert Meeropol with musical performances by Pamela Means. The Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award is named for the songwriter behind the anti-lynching classic Strange Fruit.