“The Future is Analog” (2022) is David Sax’s follow up to “The Revenge of Analog” (2016). In this very readable, incredibly well researched, with a wide diversity of people referenced and interviewed, David Sax offers a welcome version of the future based on the tough lessons that we’ve learned through our experiences of the pandemic. “…we all faced up to the fact that the digital future fell far short of its promise. Yes, the technology worked, but at a tremendous cost to our humanity.” (pg. 258) Through a nifty structure of each chapter being a day of the week, this book does a forensic accounting of the pandemic’s impact and technology’s impact on Work, School, Commerce, The City, Culture, Conversation, and Soul. In each chapter, he pulls in diverse voices and experiences from across the globe (though most centred on the North American, and Jewish experiences), excellent research, and his own personal experiences / opinions as a Torontonian, to present the argument that we’ve learned that technology can never, and should never replace the humanity of work, school, business, the city, conversations and our soul-feeding activities; however, he warns, to do so, we need to safe-guard through intentional and deliberate choice.
If we want our humans needs to come before digital technology’s creators and investors,
then we need to prioritize analog. We need to make space for it and devote the proper
time and resources to encourage health, in all the areas of our life where real human
experiences matter. (pg. 261)
You would be interested in reading this book if you wanted to:
(1) Explore the lived experiences of others throughout the pandemic
(2) Read the research on what transpired when our lives were digitally mediated to the extreme and its consequences
(3) Find out more about how innovation does NOT require technology, and how ‘back-to-nature’ should be emphasized
(4) Know more about education and technology and finding a balance through a blended approach
(5) Understand the lessons learned about the future of technology in these different areas, and how to be productively cynical about the promises of current Technocrats
What I really enjoyed about this book, was how David Sax was able to bring a picture of a well-balanced future into focus. His thesis, as I read it, was that the pandemic brought us to the promised future by technocrats of Zuckerberg, Musk and others, and it failed, and will always fail, because you can’t replace the human need for analog.
What is Analog?
Analog, doesn’t mean a rejection of technology, nor does it mean living ‘off-grid’. David Sax’s first book, “The Revenge of Analog” was an exploration of how people were looking for something less stale, less sanitized ~ like watches, and music experiences, for example. In this recent work, he writes:
“When I use the word analog, I mean simply, ‘not digital’. I am using the term in the broadest,
most sweeping sense…it frames the feeling of a fundamental difference between the [digitally]
mediated world that we experience through computers and the real one we see, hear, feel,
touch, taste and smell when we look beyond our screens.” (pg. 13)
“The Future is Analog” is not about wishing for the good ‘ol days, and ‘let’s recreate the past’, in fact, he spends some time exploring the dangers of this in the age of Trump and Putin; rather, this is about having a healthy level of caution and cynicism for what is happening in Silicon Valley. We don’t want to be driven by digital. This book is about getting people, and is especially valuable for educators in this way, to absorb what we’ve learned through the pandemic, and ‘build a future where digital technology actually elevates the most valuable parts of the analog world rather than replacing them.” (pg. 13)
What did we learn about work during the pandemic? We learned so much about what we want, need and can have when we use technology to elevate work. Currently, as many business and industries wrestle with coming out of the pandemic, we are hearing about companies calling people back to the office entirely, using a hybrid model, or just giving up the real estate of the office altogether. David Sax explores the idea the work is so much more than just efficiency and meeting objectives.
The key ingredient that holds successful organizations together is trust. Electronic
communication is fine for the completion of tasks and transactional matters, but
trust is ultimately established in the analog world. “What ‘in person’ is good for is
creating trust and cohesion, so that the electoronic can then take over and get
things done.” (pg. 36)
This is an overarching theme throughout the work, where David Sax takes the essence of our lives (be it work, culture, school, etc…) and demonstrates how digital can enhance and enliven, not replace or deaden, who we are and what we need as humans. This is beautifully done in School.
I’ll spend the most of my time on this section because it is so significant to the world that I inhabit. “Just the worst” (pg. 60) is how he characterizes virtual school. This chapter explores more than a few of the disruptions, pivots and innovations schools underwent, and the consequences ~ namely that there was very little learning, and lot of harm for students, but a lot of learning for us as humans to consider as we prepare ourselves for the future of learning. Quoting Dr. Sharon Hover, codirector of the National Centre for School Mental Health and professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, “‘For many students it led to increases in mental health concerns. Anxiety, depression, grief and stress went up for most.’ Not all student experienced this with virtual school…” (pg. 63) Indeed, when @jmedved and I undertook our research project, Project 2051, Wellbeing was nowhere on the map of school innovation; however, now schools have everything from programming, student coordinators, and even Vice Principal with the role of stewarding and ensuring wellbeing at school.
David Sax also interviews Justin Reich, author of “Failure to Disrupt” (which I reviewed HERE). From this interview we learn that Education “…is a vast, interconnected web of institutions, individuals, goals, actors, incentives, and purposes inseparable from politics, economics, sociology, and just about every other intractable aspect of human life in modern society.” (pg. 67) Because of this, school do not change on a dime, and if they try to, it upends the balance.
Computers deliver subject matter in all sorts of new and innovative ways, but it is essentially
a fancy version of “back to the book” rote learning. Digital education strips down to specific
subjects: math, science, reading, writing, engineering, and so on. The computer favors a
one-way flow of information – from the teacher out to the pupils, wo are expected to make
sense of it from the other end of the wifi signal. (pg. 69)
The main work of school is relationships. It is through relationships that students learn, because learning is an emotional act. It involves feelings, it involves trust and it involves, at its core, strong communication (which I will turn to later). The primary role of schools is to develop good humans, not to get a perfect test score. Excellent educators, who are called into the profession as a vocation, know this to be true: students won’t learn well if they don’t feel cared for. “…in an emotional learning model, human development is the outcome, and learning is the means to bring it about.” (pg. 81)
And I would add, that with an intentional application of wise practices with technology, educators can leverage digital to enhance and enliven learning. With thinkers and educators doing more and more work with Blended Learning, with the likes of Heather Clayton Staker, we know that this is possible, but it will take learning. This is something that I have been talking about in my circles: the radical shift within education from teacher to educator. Where teachers address student needs and wants, ambitions and hopes beyond just the four walls of the subject matter and discipline.
The purpose of our education model has evolved over the years, and now it is landing firmly on the purpose to prepare young people to grapple, wrestle, adapt to, try to solve, and ultimately to mitigate the greatest challenges of our time: climate change, systemic racism, wellbeing and health, and economic inequality. (pg. 88) For this to happen, we need to reframe HOW we educate, and that has to involve technology is a meaningful way.
This chapter accounts for the massive disruption we saw in many industries, such as retail and restaurants, and of course, Amazon. Personally, I was amazed at the level of effeciency when it came to online shopping ~ everything from purchasing to returns, it was all so readily available. But at what cost?
Behind the transformation of commerce, a bigger question emerged for me about the
future we want to build: Does digital commerce need to replace analog commerce?
Does it have to disrupt it or be in opposition to it? Or is it possible to build a future
where e-commerce actually serves the analog stores…?” (pg. 95)
This chapter explores the potential offered by online providers, like Amazon and GrubHub, as well as alternatives that pull out the middle interloper and works directly with the retailers and restauranteurs. With the latter, the human relationship is maintained, and people have a level of service that is good with food that is great, for example. If we continue down the road of commerce as interaction, we will continue to bow to the demands of investors and Silicon Valley, who move into these spaces and hollow out the industry from inside. If you’re interested in the gig economy, there is a dark telling of GrubHub and its relationship with restauranteurs and diners. We need a new alternative framework, one that prioritizes those who have a passion for retail and food, to feed their soul and their belly. If we don’t protect it by doing the research and putting our money where our mouth is, we will succumb to commerce that has no soul. And we neeed more than that to be content: “Retail therapy is a phrase for a reason.” (pg. 99)
I remember distinctly walking my dog in my neighbourhood (almost) every morning during the pandemic, across, down and along empty streets. The novelty wore off quickly, and I was longing for the dynamism of the city life of Toronto. This chapter delves into the conflicting work of Moses, who designed New York City and many other metropolises with an emphasis and priority on the automobile industry, and that of Jane Jacobs, an advocate for liveable cities. He talks about the joy of the early pandemic when there was little traffic, and then the street patios, and increase in bike lanes, and then the return of traffic. What did we learn through this process? It was evident in Toronto that you can bike almost 12 months a year – and I try to! – and that when you make cities more liveable, you win across so many of the pre-determinents of health.
“The difference in these cities is immense. They are safe, cleaner, friendlier, and
more attractive for both residents, tourists, and businesses. As Danish architect
Jan Gehl put it, all the key objectives of city planning – lively cities, safety,
sustainability, and health – are strengthened by encouraging people to walk and
bike and fewer to drive.” (pg. 143)
In Toronto, David Sax, also explores the brief love affair with “Sidewalk Labs” – an extention of “Alphabet” (Google’s parent company). He delves into the allure of smart cities, and data driven neighbourhoods. Just like GrubHub and Amazon, they offer a sterilized version of what should be a very human experience: lonely and without soul. Then offers an alternative that is right on his overall theme:
A smart city adapts innovative new things. But it doesn’t let innovative new
technology control things. A city is about people and people don’t want to be
controlled by technology. So instead of using technology in smart ways to
improve the city, they tried created a city out of technology…[But] A city resists
control and standarization, which is exactly what the digital smart cities
promised in the future. Cleanliness. Order. Logic… but they prioritize tech
over anything.” (pg. 147
These smart cities that do exist, however, inspire feelings of loneliness, sterility and isolation. They are not connected to anything other than fibre optics. A city needs to be alive with the chaos and mess that comes along with it.
This chapter is a fascinating look at music, improve, performance and connection. In it, David Sax relies heavily on his experiences with his own improve troupe, and the impact of Zoom performances. He interviews musicians, speakers and performers who all agree on one thing: “…part of analog culture’s appeal and its staying power is the mystery behind its continued relevance, despite more than a century of recorded media. There’s something going on when you see a show, whatever that show is. Something magical. It elevates the experience.” (pg. 176)
A great example that he cites is the performance of Hamilton. This was the last live experience that I saw prior to the shut down, and I wonder if I was at the same show as David Sax! Despite an incredible technological and intimate experience that is available of Hamilton on Disney+, it is still selling out, and getting its run extended in cities like Toronto. Why is that? it’s because of the shared, embodied experience that amplifies the emotions, the connections to others, and the impact that it has on you.
Using his example of his own Book Club – of which I have become very jealous of, David Sax, explores the magical connection and important of conversation. He does an incredible job of demonstrating how conversation differs from communication. Communication is what Social Media does and what its promise was – to be able to communicate from anywhere at anytime. Taken to the extreme, the lack of context and meaningful connection (here the author shares a great analogy between road rage and social media rage – that we are protected by metal and glass so we can say what we want, and any gestures, and then drive away; not dissimilar to social media!) deteriorates quickly into polarization and cruelty.
Conversation, however, is full of context both broad (the place, the people, the food, etc…) and intimate (body language, tone and facial expression, what people are wearing, etc…). “Conversations are the glue that makes all human relationships possible. Simply put, friends are people you have conversations with, and conversations are what make friendships.” (pg. 191) Interestingly, conversations are connected to our wellbeing so much so that Poland has put in a pilot project called “Happy to Chat” discussion benches, and the National Health Service in the UK is prescribing conversations as a health promoting and preventative measure. (pg. 195)
For anyone interested in the argument to unplug and get back to nature as a wellbeing measure, this is the chapter for you. Drawing on his obsession with lake surfing (on Lake Ontario during all seasons!) David Sax addressing what we learned about feeding our soul during the pandemic. We need to have a balance, not deny social media and the apps, but ensure that there is a balance. For David Sax, it is making bread and lake surfing, and hiking. For others, it might be gardening, or like for me, swimming, biking and running. He is not advocating to deny or escape difficult emotions, but he does emphasize, as do many others, that escaping into the ‘casino-like’ condition of social media, the echo-chamber and cathartic release with no consequences arena, is not the answer. Engaging in healthy, nature-based activity is what our human bodies crave.
He has a great interview with Michael Rich, from Harvard who works on the effects of screens on children’s mental health. “Rich framed the work he does around digital media as similar to nutritionists promoting a healthy diet. Prohibiting junk food will only go so far, and the same is true for digital technology. We have to provide better analog alternatives to what digital offers us, rather than ban it.” (pg. 233)
This chapter also address the role that spirituality might play in feeding the soul.
“Sure there are the digital prophets like Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweill, who
preach a future where we upload our souls to the cloud and transcend our
earthly bodies to rule as god sin some virtual universe. But for most of us,
the internet is a soulless place. The most meaningful moments in life are
almost always physical.” (pg. 246)
As an educator, I highly recommend this book, as it pulls on threads from many other distinguished authors to explore, and account for what we’ve learned from the pandemic. Wellbeing is to learning, as the Pandemic was to our Future. If we have strong wellbeing, we will learn; if we take the lessons from the pandemic and really and truly heed them, we can create a digital future that is at its core human. This is the power of “The Future is Analog” – to present to us a future that we can see, feel, touch, taste and smell. A future that is enlived by technology, not through it; where we use technology, not become its users; and, he is able to paint a future where we can face our biggest and most urgent challenges, from climate change to political instability. Whereas a digital future only gives us a new way to hide from life. “We need to confront reality, not cower from it in some interactive [metaverse] cartoon.” (pg. 259)
By the way, here is a great convo’ with David Sax: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goS-hkR2Hh4