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Is the Future Analog?
After Covid, most of us know what we don't want.
I went to Toronto this week, partly for book-related purposes and partly for personal reasons. I had been invited by a friend to attend a luncheon at the Arts and Letters Club, where author David Sax was giving a talk about his most recent book, The Future Is Analog. I'd read the book several months ago and enjoyed it so much that I asked Sax to endorse my book, which he kindly did.
Not only was I curious to meet him in person, but I wanted to hear how he presented the topic of "analog" living to an audience. Furthermore, I wanted to see and understand how that audience would respond to it—what reactions they'd have, what their questions and criticisms would be.
Sax presents a compelling message in his book. He points out that, when the pandemic hit in 2020, we got the digital future we'd been promised for so long. All of a sudden, we were catapulted into a bizarre, futuristic world where work, school, shopping, play, entertainment, fitness, and social gatherings moved online and were accessible through a screen—the same screen—all day, every day. The pandemic sped up adoption of technologies that we'd been told were coming at some vague point in the future.
And we all know what happened next: Most of us hated it. It was awful. It didn't take long before the novelty wore off, our kids started having meltdowns, we felt we were going stir-crazy using the same screen from dawn till dusk, and we craved a face-to-face conversation with pretty much anyone. We felt alarmed and distressed by the boarded-up stores and cordoned-off playgrounds in our neighbourhoods, fearful of what the future held. It made us realize just how much we as humans hunger for and rely on those in-person interactions, out in the real world, on a regular basis.
The result is that digital technologies seem far less fun and desirable now that we've lived in a world dominated by them. In reaction to that, we've rediscovered the value of many "analog" activities, with most of us (based on a show of hands prompted by Sax's questions) not continuing to order groceries online or attend virtual theatre or music performances or participate in Zoom fitness classes when we have real-life options available to us.
Sax challenged the notion that "innovation", the darling buzzword of our times, need always be technological. (First it was digital, now everyone's going crazy about artificial intelligence.) Why do we assume that something is an advancement or an improvement just because it falls into that category? Sometimes the best innovation has nothing to do with technology and relies more on doing things in a simpler, more old-fashioned way, e.g., building restaurant patios by reclaiming portions of streets previously dominated by cars or taking your family out to ride bikes along Lakeshore Boulevard because it's been closed to cars. "Picnicking on the heath of the QEW" sounds like something out of a Victoria novel, Sax joked, but these sorts of activities were precisely what brought us happiness in a screen-saturated time.
What About the Kids?
It got me thinking about kids and how disappointed I've been over the past year to see digital media continuing to be pushed hard in education. After the nightmare that was online school, children deserve better. I would've expected (not seriously, but it's nice to dream) that the schools would push back against laptops, iPads, YouTube and "educational" videos with a vengeance, cramming the kids' days full of outdoor, hands-on, creative, and physically stimulating activities to offset, undo, or somehow make up for the long months of sedentary screen-based learning. But instead, now that the door has been opened, it seems like a free-for-all.
My boys tell me about daily computer time, which consists on playing games on the iPad ("teacher approved!" they say). I just signed a form last week allowing the board of education to give my son a laptop when he starts high school in September—a move that's apparently a requirement but will have some very tight rules on our end. I didn't have the heart to say no because he's already the only kid in his class without a phone, a status he does not appreciate.
If we adults are feeling a hunger to engage in analog activities in a post-Covid era, then imagine how the kids are feeling—and yet, we cannot expect them to pull back from their devices on their own. It's too addicting and the kids are too enthralled. It's up to us as parents to establish those limits and enforce them, ensuring that kids are getting outside and running around and reading books and talking to us face-to-face and pitching in around the house. It's up to us as parents to continue organizing and participating in many of the analog activities that offset our screen usage at the height of the pandemic, like going for walks and picnicking and playing board games.
I also think that we, as parents of the current youngest generation, are the last messengers from a bygone era where we can remember a time pre-smartphone and laptop. We lived without being tied to a device. We remember not being able to reach someone at the touch of a button, of sometimes failing to meet up, of having to continue alone, of needing to make plans in advance. We know what it feels like to be bored without distraction close at hand. We can recall sitting through awkward interactions with people without being able to whip out a phone (rude as it is). Because of this, I think we have a unique and pressing responsibility to teach kids how to live in the world without being reliant on or defined by their phones. We need to teach them to leave devices behind, to make eye contact, to fill their time in other ways (if for no other reason than mere diversification of interests and skills)—and we have to do it now, today, immediately.
To be clear, I am not anti-tech (my entire career was built on a laptop while working from home), but we would be foolish to forget the lessons taught to us by the pandemic, namely that technology isn't the lifesaving god it was purported to be. It might be effective at letting the cogs of daily life move onward, but it squeezes out much of the joy that makes human life so beautiful.
So, I think Sax is on to something when he says, "The future is analog." There is pushback happening. I even met a man who's starting a cassette company! And I know that not looking at my phone for several hours while attending that luncheon and presentation made me feel infinitely lighter, freer, and more intellectually stimulated. There really is something to this whole analog thing.
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