By David Sax
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In The Future Is Analog, David Sax points out that the onset of the pandemic instantly gave us the digital universe we’d spent so long anticipating. Instant communication, online shopping, virtual everything.
It didn’t take long to realize how awful it was to live in this promised future. We craved real experiences, relationships, and spaces and got back to real life as quickly and often as we could.
In chapters exploring work, school, religion, and more, this book asks pointed questions: Is our future inevitably digital? Can we reject the downsides of digital technology without rejecting change? Can we innovate not for the sake of productivity but for the good of our social and cultural lives? Can we build a future that serves us as humans, first and foremost?
This is a manifesto for a different kind of change. We can spend our creativity and money on building new gadgets—or we can spend them on new ways to be together and experience the world, to bake bread, and climb mountains. All we need is the clarity to choose which future we want.
A few years back I was invited to speak about my book The Revenge of Analog in South Korea, where it had become a national best seller, to my complete surprise. The conference was a costly gathering of business leaders from around Asia, focused on the latest emerging digital technologies and the strategies to deploy them in the future. Other speakers included the founders of groundbreaking artificial intelligence and robotics start-ups, brilliant professors of computer science, software magnates from all over the world, and even a cryptocurrency billionaire from a former Soviet republic who dressed in a comically maniacal outfit of black turtlenecks and velour blazers and publicly predicted the imminent end of fiat currency every time he opened his mouth.
After thirteen hours in the air, I emerged into the arrivals hall of Incheon International Airport, exhausted and rumpled, where a three-foot-tall security robot on wheels greeted me with a digital smile and said in a cheery voice, “Welcome to Seoul. Please stick with your luggage.” Suddenly I heard a commotion, looked up, and saw a TV news crew sprinting in my direction.
“David Sax!!! David Sax!!!” a reporter shouted excitedly, thrusting a microphone in my face as his cameraman bathed me in light. “What do you think about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?? When is it going to arrive??”
“The fourth what?” I bumbled, as I stared down the camera, completely paralyzed.
“The Fourth Industrial Revolution!” the reporter enthusiastically repeated. “The convergence of AI and robotics and big data that will usher in our digital future!”
“Oh,” I said, pausing for a second. “I’m more interested in the analog future.”
It was a smart-assed answer. After all, hadn’t I been flown here, to the world’s most proudly digital city, as the token voice of analog dissent?
The reporter’s face quickly adopted a look of genuine concern. “But what do you mean, Mr. Sax? We know the future is digital. It has to be.”
Of course it did.
The future meant digital. Computers. Microchips. Gadgets. Software. This was the future. Born in 1979, I have witnessed the dawn of every significant era of digital computing’s transformation of modern life, from home and office desktops to the rise of video games, the internet, smartphones, and the associated galaxy of hardware and software that now permeated seemingly every aspect of my existence. I remember the day we got our first PC, the drive home from the toy store with our new Nintendo Entertainment System, the rich wood-grain finish of the first car phone my dad had installed on his dashboard. I remember using Windows for the first time and the first alien pop, hiss, and static crackle of my teenage babysitter’s modem connecting over our phone line, as he fed half a dozen floppy disks into the beige Compaq to download Operation Wolf.
I was there at the dawn of it all: Email. AOL. ICQ. Ethernet. Skype. Cell phones. Napster. iPods. Blackberries. iPhones. iPads. The first MacBook I bought after I sold my first article. The first photo I took on a digital camera. The day I created a social media account. The moment I connected to the internet wirelessly, like magic. The first pixilated breast I saw on a computer screen (Leisure Suit Larry behind Josh Dale’s bedroom door)… I remember it all. I entered journalism in an era of paper and felt its rapid transformation into an online-first medium with every diminished paycheck and notice about another shuttered publication.
The promise of the digital future was powerfully simple: successive improvements in computer technology would consistently transform and improve every single aspect of life on earth as we knew it. Everything would become more powerful, easier, cleaner, more profitable, more connected, networked, and streamlined. You could carry the world in the palm of your hand, or on your wrist, or even in a chip in your brain.
The formula for imagining the digital future was simple. Take anything that you knew in the present and transform it with computers. Use the phrase “The future of [blank] is digital” and insert anything between the brackets: Business. School. Work. Publishing. Finance. Fashion. Food. Driving. Flying. Music. Film. Theater. Politics. Democracy. Fascism. War. Peace. Sex. Love. Families… all digital. In every category, in every corner of the world, the digital future was inevitable. It was predestined. It was either our salvation or, if you feared the robot overlords of the Terminator and Matrix films, our doom. But there was no questioning it. If you were thinking about the future, digital was it.
We mostly accepted the promise of a digital future as progress, and we all collectively worked to bring it into the present. Governments promoted the companies developing its technologies, as financiers ploughed their dollars into them. Businesses pushed for the adoption of “future-focused” strategies by competing to digitize their operations as quickly as possible. The creators and cheerleaders of this future were elevated to celebrity status and in some cases downright deified, called on for their thoughts on everything from consumer trends to the shape of politics. Futurists and “digital prophets,” like the elfin Australian David “Shingy” Shing, with his Vegas fountain of wild hair and Elton John glasses, were paid handsomely to interpret the transformative impact of the latest digital buzzword—big data, wearable, drone, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI)—and how it would change everything from the world’s economic order to pizza delivery. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg were widely regarded as oracles of digitization, and we paid careful attention to their latest projections about the future it would form.
The promise of the digital future constantly shaped our culture. From books and stories to TV shows and blockbuster movies, we sat and watched this future projected with awe: the holodeck, transporters, and touchscreen interface of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the hoverboards and giant TV screens of Back to the Future II, the dystopian predictions of Maximum Overdrive, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Lawnmower Man, and, my personal favorite, Demolition Man, where a cryogenically frozen supercop (played by Sylvester Stallone) is thawed out in the future to hunt down his thawed supervillain nemesis (played by Wesley Snipes) in a digital utopia where commercial jingles dominate popular music and toilets automatically clean your bum with three magical seashells.
In many ways, it was incredible to witness so much of what I’d been promised coming to pass. I couldn’t transport to other worlds, like Captain Picard could from the USS Enterprise, but by the time I was twenty-three, I was having regular video calls with my friends and family from thousands of miles away. Robot maids, like Rosie on The Jetsons, were still decades off, but robot vacuums worked pretty well. The office wasn’t yet fully paperless, as predicted back in the 1970s, but I had built a career working remotely from home since the day I sold my first article to a newspaper in 2002. Flying cars were in development, and driverless cars were being tested in major cities, with the promise of widespread adoption before my kids got behind the wheel. “Hoverboards” arrived (though they didn’t actually hover and often caught fire), but at least I owned a digitally controlled bidet toilet seat that worked just as well as the magic seashells. The digital future largely kept its promise.
The self-fulfilling destiny of the digital future was based in the immutable laws of physics… the axiom of Moore’s law. In 1965 Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel and father of modern computing, successfully predicted that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double every two years, exponentially increasing computer power, while simultaneously decreasing cost. Moore’s law only went in one direction. It never wavered or slowed down or moved backward. It was like a rocket with infinite fuel, which accelerated ever faster the further it flew. As digital technology sped up along that curve and Moore’s law held as true as a missile’s trajectory, it was consistently cited as irrefutable proof that the future was inevitably digital. What alternative could you even consider? Those who questioned its promise were scolded as insufficiently imaginative, Luddites, or, worse, the modern-day equivalent of those stubborn fools who scorned Copernicus and Galileo’s evidence of the sun’s central place in the universe, holding humanity back with outdated beliefs.
Here’s the thing though… the future is not a microchip. It has no quantifiable transistors or plottable trajectory. It always exists as a vague point beyond the horizon, like the end of the world on a map from Galileo’s time. The future is constantly shifting as the present chugs on, and when we get there, it does an excellent job of upending any predictions about its shape. Most “the future of [blank] is digital” statements tend to collapse when exposed to the cold, hard reality of life in the real world, where lofty promises meet the merciless pull of gravity. Even the best-designed rockets can fall back to Earth in flames.
Still, despite the fact that the most visible beneficiary of artificial intelligence seemed to be illustrators who make stock images of sexy robots holding flowers, our belief in the certitude of a digital future held firm. Rapid innovations in digital technology would eventually usher in an entirely new way of existing. Soon enough, we would live, work, learn, and play anywhere and have whatever we desired brought to our door with the flick of a finger. In the future, conversations would not be bound by space, instantly fostering a community of global empathy and understanding that would rapidly end conflict and divisions across borders, faiths, creeds, and colors. This future, made possible by artificial intelligence, big data, mobile computing, the internet, electric cars, smart scooters, virtual reality, and blockchain, would make us happier, healthier, smarter, richer, and just better-off.
And then one day, just like that, our digital future arrived.
Late in 2019, a sick bat emerged from its cave somewhere in China, pooped near a pangolin (or some other creature), and set off a chain of events that none of the tech oracles predicted (except Bill Gates). The COVID-19 pandemic happened so suddenly and so completely that few people even realized the scope of what they were experiencing. On Wednesday we were dropping our kids off at school, heading into the office, going out for lunch, and seeing a play after dinner; by Saturday we were assessing how many cans of beans we owned and which sourdough recipe was the simplest, while figuring out how to simultaneously stream a yoga class through the television, take a conference call in the closet, and get our kids enough digital devices to do school and play Roblox all day long.
We woke up on that first Monday, turned on the news, read the horrible stories out of New York and London and Milan, and then started hearing from the futurists and digital evangelists, who declared that the digital future they’d long promised had finally, fully arrived! We had leapfrogged ahead, they said, progressing years in just days! The digital world claimed victory like a conquering army that suddenly found itself marching into the enemy’s empty capital, unopposed. Whole industries had been transformed, overnight, like magic. The transition to work from home, distance learning, streaming culture, online shopping, and virtual meetings—all of them long coming and slow to arrive—was instant and permanent. There was no going back. Welcome to the new normal.
As those early days turned into weeks and weeks dragged into months, the futurists’ predictions grew more assured. Not only was our digital transformation continuing apace, but whole categories of the nondigital, analog world were being consigned to the past. The office was permanently dead, and with it, commercial real estate and the downtowns of cities. With that went the stores and restaurants that depended on them, whose goods and meals could now be delivered to your door, the theaters and comedy clubs and music venues, whose cultural offerings could all be streamed to your home, and the city itself, which was predicted to shrink or even die over the coming years as liberated families fled to the countryside. New York? According to one popular post on LinkedIn, it was “Dead Forever.” Start spreading the news.
The new normal meant there would be no return to the life we knew before: Not to offices and Monday meetings, soul-destroying commutes and wasteful conferences in some greige Marriott ballroom. Not to stuffy classrooms, where archaic teachers still used nineteenth-century methods of lecturing to captive students in order to transfer information that could now be easily taught on Google Classroom or through YouTube videos. Not to the wastefully inefficient brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants, with their mismanaged inventories, unexploited real estate, and squandered human talent, when two clicks could bring that sweatsuit or sandwich (or both!) to your door in an hour. Not to that tedious coffee date or family reunion, with its awkward silences and drain on your time, when the Zoom room was waiting, and you were comfortably nestled into the couch wearing those buttery pants and eating that tasty sandwich. Not to the stinky expensive gym, with its blaring music and judgmental looks, when the best spin instructors in the world were shouting your name from the Peloton screen as you furiously pumped your legs in the basement. Not even to the church, mosque, temple, or synagogue, with its tush-numbing pews and droning sermons, when you could watch your nephew’s bris from the comfort of your home, without any of the blood or stale bagels.
The digital future was finally here!
And it fucking sucked.
I’m sure there are nicer words that better writers would use to describe that realization, but for me “It fucking sucked” sums up the experience just about perfectly. In the second week of April 2020, my wife, six-year-old daughter, three-year-old son, and I were living with my mother-in-law in her luxury lakeside weekend home two hours north of our house in Toronto. Like many with the means to escape, we saw the writing on the wall, heard the stories of residents in China and Europe locked inside their apartments, and made a dash for the largest plot of real estate we had access to. We had six bedrooms, four televisions, a reliable internet connection, endless space outside, a Great Lake, woods and trails nearby, a closed golf course to walk on, plus a sauna and hot tub. Go to a dictionary and look up the term white privilege. That’s me, in that house.
And it fucking sucked.
Each time I looked at my phone or laptop, the dread flooded in. My daughter, then in first grade, would get her assignments emailed in the morning, and I’d spend two hours wrangling her to JUST WRITE FIVE LINES, until both of us were near tears. My son, who had broken his leg at the start of March, settled into the twelfth consecutive viewing of the cinematic masterpiece PAW Patrol: Ready Race Rescue! My wife locked herself in a bedroom, taking calls with her career-coaching clients, who all suddenly hated their jobs. My mother-in-law cranked CNN up to full blast on the living room TV, then conducted round-the-clock phone calls with everyone she knew on speakerphone. By lunch, I’d storm into the kitchen growling, shove something in my mouth, and tell my wife that it was her shift. Then I’d lock myself in another bedroom and disappear into a closet where I had set up a blanket fort to quietly record podcast interviews for the doomed book promotion tour that was now happening online. A quick, angry walk at 5 p.m. to ease the tension. The first of several glasses of wine shortly after that. Dinner, bedtime for the kids, half a pie, a few episodes of something, thirty minutes of deep breathing to try to release the tension in my chest, and down for another night of fitful sleep.
Even the things that were supposed to bring me joy sucked. I watched streaming performances of talented singers and theater productions and grew bored after a minute. My mother-in-law would turn on an exercise video, and we’d all jump around the living room, but I didn’t feel anything other than tired. I’d talk to friends each night, all over the world, and it was nice to hear their voices and see their faces, but the calls just felt forced, like we were all going through the motions, describing the same shitty situation. I’d buy books or puzzles online, but discovering what I wanted was impossible, and things took forever to arrive. Each task was just another interaction on the same three screens: phone, laptop, TV. Another app to launch or browser tab to open. TV, laptop, phone. Another unfulfilling hunt through the Netflix queue, like a buffet that gets more unappetizing the longer you stare at it. Laptop, phone, TV. Another scroll through the doom of the news or more doom scrolling on Twitter. Digitally, I was more connected to everyone and everything in the world, and yet I felt so completely alone and isolated… and that was before my first virtual cocktail party.
One day, when we tell our grandchildren about this brief, transformational period in history, we will save the particular hell of the Zoom cocktail party for late at night, when they are slightly more mature and can truly appreciate horror stories.
“You mean you sat by a screen and drank in a room alone, while other people did the same in other rooms, Grandpa?”
“Well, yes. I mean, we poured a drink that first time, but then we looked on the screen and saw that no one else in those small boxes was actually drinking, or even had drinks, so the drink just sat there after the first few awkward sips.”
“But how is that a cocktail party? Aren’t you supposed to share drinks with other people and talk and laugh?”
“Yes, you are, but no one wanted to do either. They felt weird drinking alone. They didn’t want to be the first to talk. There wasn’t much laughter. It was really awkward.”
“How is that different from a conference call, Grandpa?”
“I don’t know,” I’ll say, sobbing into my hands. “I just don’t know!”
For more than half a century, we had fantasized about a future where we could stay at home in comfortable clothes, eat, play, work, learn, socialize, exercise, shop, and entertain ourselves without ever getting up. This was the promise at the heart of every science fiction fantasy, each tech company’s annual pageant of new products, every pitch from a digital start-up and slickly produced Kickstarter video, every sappy commercial from your overpriced national telecom conglomerate, featuring the happy family of four on their own devices in every room of the house, enjoying the benefits of unlimited streaming data (*innumerable restrictions apply).
The digital future we worked to build our entire life finally arrived, and instead of finding ourselves thrust into the liberating, utopian place it had promised, we awoke in a luxurious, dystopian prison. Yes, digital technology allowed us to continue working and learning, speak with distant friends and loved ones, procure food and goods without going out, and stay on top of the news, and most of us were extremely grateful for that. But for the most part, this reality was not a vast improvement on the life we had experienced before.
Absorbing the world in its entirety through our screens proved terribly claustrophobic. Our eyes and heads ached from the strain of looking at these small rectangles of light for hours on end. It was anxiety provoking. Deadening. Boring. Antisocial. For many, it proved bad for business, learning, relationships, conversations, political stability, health, heart, and soul. Humanity lost control. This was not the futuristic terror of rogue robots killing us, enslaving us, or stealing our jobs but the everyday realization that the computer technology we placed so much faith in for the future was lessening our experience as human beings right here in the present. When the highlight of your week is scoring an expired packet of yeast in the supermarket, you’re a long way from utopia.
Of course, this flavor of future was also foreseen. In his 1909 story “The Machine Stops,” author E. M. Forster conjured a world where humans lived underground, in vast connected hives, isolated and alone, with their needs comfortably met by the all-knowing Machine, which brought them food, music, conversation, lectures, and medical care at the touch of a button. In the story, the son of an older resident begs his mother to leave her home, travel by airship across the world, and visit him to speak face-to-face… an arduous journey she undertakes with great terror at encountering the world outside her comfortable pod, only to find out that her son has attempted to escape the Machine and now openly questions its benevolent existence.
“We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now,” he admonishes her. “It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralyzed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops—but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds—but not on our goal.”
The Machine was our future, and then it was our present.
For the first time in human history, the entire world was able to road test the future we were building. We kicked the tires, poked around under the hood, and got behind the wheel to experience firsthand what life in that digital future actually felt like in all the areas of our lives that truly, deeply mattered. The future was supposed to be better than this. Maybe it still can be.
If the pandemic was a preview of the digital future, what did we learn? Where did the promise of the digital exceed our expectations, and where did it fall short? Where were we happy with what it brought us, and where were we desperate for something more real? What if we define the future not by what we could theoretically build with digital technology but by what we actually want as humans? What if we can learn from the months and years of the pandemic, not as a brief deviation from our steady march toward a promised destination but as a valuable lesson in digital technology’s limitations and the kind of future we actually want? Where did we look at that contrast between what was on our screens and the real-world spaces, interactions, and relationships that had been replaced and realize we had actually neglected our most human needs?
What is the promise of the analog future?
Before we go any further, let’s take a step back for a second. What exactly do I mean by an analog future?
This is the question that I first had to answer in the cold light of the Incheon airport and did my best to define days later, in front of those Korean executives, who had spent hours hearing about the digital technologies transforming our world. It was one I had thought about often since my book The Revenge of Analog was published in 2016, but I really only began to confront it during those tense first weeks of the pandemic, climbing the walls of my mother-in-law’s house, as reporters from around the world reached out for my thoughts, which I delivered from a blanket fort in a closet. Yes, they wanted to know about the future of the vinyl records and board games and bookstores I had written about, but more than anything, they wanted a sense of the bigger fate of the real world; of the tangible people, places, and interactions between them from which we had just been jettisoned without warning.
“What does this mean for the future of analog?” they all asked, looking for the rebuttal to the digital futurists penning obituaries for the office, school, city, supermarket, museum, and other pillars of a physical, human-centered world that now seemed relegated to history. What value would the real analog world have going forward, now that the “digital future” had arrived?
When I use the word analog, I mean simply “not digital.” I am using the term in the broadest, most sweeping sense and fully acknowledge that its definition is messy and imperfect and will result in dozens of messages from irate engineers and the kindly professor in Germany who patiently explained its faults to me in a lovely handwritten letter. But analog is the best term we have, because it frames the feeling of a fundamental difference between the 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. Digital deals in binary absolutes, ones and zeros, but analog conveys a whole spectrum of color and texture and contains waves of conflicting information that somehow harmoniously exists. Analog is messy and imperfect, just like the real world. This is why Moore’s law was never an applicable tool for future prediction beyond its original use. Humans are not microchips. Neither is the world we inhabit. And the future does not unspool in a straight line.
This book is not about dragging us back to some predigital stone age. I am writing this book on a computer, not a typewriter, and I will happily binge another season of The Mandalorian the second it drops. But make no mistake, we are at a critical juncture in the struggle for the future. On the one hand, we can continue moving forward blindly, following Silicon Valley’s imperative to create a world where digital is the driver and anything analog is simply disrupted out of existence. Or we can pause, absorb the hard-learned lessons of the digital immersion we experienced during the pandemic, and build a future where digital technology actually elevates the most valuable parts of the analog world rather than replacing them. Real experiences. Visceral emotions. Meaningful relationships. The full-body roller coaster that is human existence on planet Earth.
- “[A]pproachable, witty… [a] deft, colorful discussion."—Kirkus
- “[P]rovocative… This up-close look at the costs of digital convenience delivers.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- “David Sax convincingly argues that the dream of an effortless digital future is deeply flawed. If we learn anything lasting from the pandemic, it should be that a meaningful life requires messy, wonderful, analog connections with the world around us.”—Cal Newport, New York Times–bestselling author of Digital Minimalism and Deep Work
- “Please read this book (the paper version if possible) and discuss it with friends and colleagues (in person over a coffee if possible).”—A.J. Jacobs, bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically and The Puzzler
- “There is magic in live. There is magic in real. There is magic in analog. This book is a loud and much-needed back crack for our twisted techno-obsessed society.”—Neil Pasricha, #1 bestselling author of author of The Happiness Equation and The Book of Awesome
- “The Future Is Analog is a must-read book if you want to return to what really matters in life: authentic connections, conversations, and depth of character. My only wish is I could have submitted this quote in pencil.”—Ari Wallach, author of Longpath
- “Sax brilliantly investigated how we saw the future living online during the pandemic and were reminded of the ineffable beauty and humanity of being present without screens. The Future Is Analog is the perfect guide to help us stay focused on what matters in the blinding light of a technology-filled world.”—Tiffany Shlain, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, founder the Webby Awards, and author of national bestseller 24/6
In The Future is Analog, David Sax paints a sage and intimate portrait of our digital present, unpacks the promises of what comes next, and reminds us of the physical, un-virtual beauty of living in the analog world. It’s the book for right now.
—Nathan Englander, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and Kaddish.com
Considering our abuse of the natural world, more pandemics are on the way. But with or without virulent viruses, the epidemic of human loneliness is bound to grow. No vaccine will be available for that chronic affliction, but in his fine book, The Future is Analog, David Sax prescribes ongoing treatments designed to physically reunite humans within the wider family of nature.
—Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle
- “With facts, humor, and relatability, The Future Is Analog is an insightful snapshot of society’s current state. Even more important, it’s a call for readers to examine what makes us human and to strive to build more of it into our daily lives.”—Brand Outlaw
- “[A] quirky and fascinating book… This is an entertaining book; Sax is no dour traditionalist… Sax’s “analog” framing permits a whole cavalcade of social critiques to reside comfortably in the same book.”—The Bulwark
- On Sale
- Nov 15, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages