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Yes, the future should be analog
Except for the things that shouldn't be.
In his book The Future is Analog, David Sax makes the case that everything is better in person. That the future we really want is analog. That technology does not always make life better, but that in most cases it makes life worse. “The most meaningful moments in life are almost always physical,” he says. “They happen when we are with other people, or perhaps when we are alone in the natural world.”
I agree that the future is analog. I agree that life is better offline. I agree it should happen with other people. But I disagree with his solution for achieving it: That we should return to the office, to school—that our analog lives should remain compartmentalized to those buckets just because they were before the pandemic. In fact, I think some things are better off digital so that we can make more of them analog.
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The book was written through the lens of the pandemic, so I understand where he is coming from. Because we weren’t able to get together at all during that time, we had to move work and school online and that wasn’t as rich of an experience as living out in the world. But that’s because we were in the middle of a pandemic! If we had moved work online but were still able to hang out with friends, have lunch with coworkers, sing in a choir, act in a play, attend the theater, or travel the world, Sax might have appreciated how remote work allowed us better access to those experiences.
And the pandemic is not a good example of what school would be like if it were remote first. No one thinks school should be relegated to all-day Zoom sessions. But Rebekah Jeanne Austin, M.A., a doctoral student at the Berkeley School of Education, thinks that could be how we finally get kids the individualized learning they’ve always needed. “It’s so different for every student,” she says. “What we’re being faced with right now is a rise in difference and an emphasis on divergent learning. There’s this rise of the Individualized Education Plan (or IEP), but we only divvy those out to students who meet the criteria of a learning disability. What we need is what works for people. What we need is individualization.”
Austin thinks we can achieve that individualization if the learning is done remotely. “Allowing students to use online learning platforms to attend classes and submit work is going to be extremely pivotal. And I don’t mean watching videos of your instructor online. I mean having work that’s assigned to you but it’s up to your own motivation to finish it,” she says. If the instruction takes place online, maybe every kid could have an IEP and a teacher’s time would be freed up for individualized training, one-on-one work, tutoring, and mentorship. “Accountability is still important, but it may not look like sitting in a classroom with 20 or 30 other students. You have to have someone you check in with who keeps you accountable and also teaches you—who can go over the work with you and walk you through it.”
I think this is the core problem with the remote work/school conversation. It’s always framed as though we have two options: we can either sit at home on Zoom or we can sit at an office or school in person. But that binary way of thinking limits our in-person interactions to the cubicle and the classroom. It’s only mildly better to meet up around the water cooler or listen to a lecture in person. Instead, we should be unbundling our in-person interactions from those places so we can explore a greater wealth of analog activities outside of them.
For example: It is BECAUSE my work is remote, that I recently stayed with Austin in San Francisco, where she shared her research into remote learning over dinner and ultimately provided the quotes for this article. It is BECAUSE my work is remote that I met up with the Substack team for happy hour, where a chance conversation with Nick @ Substack and Jasmine Sun about the future of capitalism led to a story I’m now working on about government regulation. It is BECAUSE my work is remote, that I am able to have so much in-person interaction, far beyond my office in Lehi, Utah. And that, in turn, makes my life and work much richer.
There can be no doubt that in-person collaboration is better than online collaboration—that sitting on Zoom call after Zoom call is not indicative of a successful day. But there can also be no doubt that the actual work part is more easily done online. The solve isn’t to send someone everyone into the office or school to make in-person work happen. The solve is to let everyone into the world and make in-person life happen. Let the extracurriculars be the part we bring back in person, not the cubicle or the classroom. The digital enables the analog.
And this is where I can get on board with the latter half of Sax’s book where he discusses the power of in-person theater, art, culture, worship. I agree that the analog is where life really comes alive, that that’s what makes life meaningful. I even agree that most things do not need to be made digital, and in fact that making them digital often makes them worse. I do not need a humanoid robot to water my plants. I do not need a smart home to turn on the lights for me. My Google Home is barely superior to the six-disc changer I had in high school. I do not need a meditation app to meditate. The phrase “there’s an app for that” may as well be synonymous with “something that’s probably better analog.”
Even societally, many of our technological innovations hardly seem so innovative in the light of day. I think social media turned out to be a net negative for society, Slack only made work worse, and the near-instant speed of information can be blamed for a slew of “digital catastrophes,” among them the recent collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank, “It would have been physically impossible for Silicon Valley Bank to receive $42 billion in withdraw requests in 24 hours without the internet,” Anthony Pompliano said in a recent podcast on the topic. “People wouldn’t have even known that a bank run was underway, let alone had the time to get to the bank to make the request.”
We’re still dealing with the consequences of our first round of technification—like when we introduced the car and our cities became loud, dangerous, polluted places that cities around the world are now anxiously trying to undo. Tech companies want to solve the problem by introducing electric, autonomous cars, but cities don’t need autonomous cars—they need bike lanes and wider sidewalks and better parks. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to take out a lane of traffic and put in a park than it is to make another gadget. “Why do you think autonomous cars are so attractive?” the civil engineer Shoshanna Saxe tells Sax in his book. “You don’t have to stop driving. You don’t have to change roads. It doesn’t cost governments a cent. We can still drive, and the government says, ‘Look, all our problems are better!’”
Technology is often heralded as “the future,” as “progress,” but what kind of future? Are we trying to achieve a Minority Report-esque techtopia where The Gap gives us a retina scan on our way in to sell us clothing? Adding technology to something doesn’t mean we’ve made it better—it doesn’t even mean we’ve “made progress.” Often just the opposite. And yet the Luddite has become synonymous with “anti-progress”—as if it’s a bad thing to realize we’d be much happier if we just kept a garden, rode our bikes, and wrote each other birthday cards by hand.
This hyper technologization of our lives, this relentless pursuit of technology at all costs, is not profiting that goal. In her book Post-Growth Living Kate Soper pits the techno-utopian against the alternative hedonist. The techno-utopians “trust digital technology and automation to cut out the drudgery they associate with almost all forms of caring and provisioning work… Their post-work future is conceived as greener (thanks to smart energy) and more idle (thanks to robots and drones doing most things for us), but it is still in essence consumerist in that much of its pleasure is tied to the availability and use of machines and hi-tech gadgetry.”
Meanwhile, the alternative hedonist, who counter-culturally pursues the simpler pleasures of life, “does not aspire to dispense with work performed by humans altogether. Nor would that be desirable.” Instead, “an alternative hedonist would certainly welcome the role of automation and green technologies in making free time more available, but need not accept that domestic and caring task—the work of running a house, and especially looking after children and tending the less fit and able—are just a drain on time, to be handed over, wherever feasible, to automated systems.”
“Somedays I think the only thing that will make me satisfied is to milk a cow,” Mekenna Malan, editor ofUtah Business, recently told me (in-person, at a dinner party). “All of my needs are met, I spend so much of my day sitting at my desk. I truly believe my physical and mental health would improve if I had to engage in some kind of non-digital ‘work’ to sustain myself. I spend most of my day exercising my brain in the digital realm, it would feel good to have to rely on something outside of that.”
Can’t we relate? Moving too much of our lives online has only removed value from it. And that means that yes, we need to return to the analog to re-find it. We need to bake bread with our hands, find books in the tiny libraries nearby, attend an art museum in the neighborhood, walk through a tea store on our lunch break, have a lingering dinner with friends in the backyard, and maybe even milk a cow for the benefit of our own sustenance.
I agree with Sax that the future is analog, but I adamantly disagree that going back to work and school are how we get there. In fact, I think remote work and remote school are among the best uses for technology we’ve come up with so far. It is because we have digitized our work and school that we can do the altogether more important thing and live life in person. It is because we have made those things digital that we can better live analog.
As Carl Honoré sums up to Sax, “Yes, I want my broadband connection to get faster, but I do still want to have dinner with my family.”
Thanks for reading,