When the Machine Opts In to You

The self-help response to oppressive ways of living only plays into the problem.
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In the spring of 2020, during the height of Covid lockdowns, my children and I began stalking our mail carrier. We knew when he would arrive, we worried when he was late, and, when he didn’t leave any mail, meltdowns ensued. Living in an apartment complex, we had to walk outside, across an island of grass, and down a small path to the mailboxes. We waved to the mail carrier as he finished, exchanged a few words, and that’s when the magic happened: Our key was unsheathed, fought over, inserted, yanked out, re-inserted, and after several more cycles it eventually revealed the day’s coupons and junk mail. As the pandemic forced us inside, going out as a routine, even a few dozen yards, became a life-affirming quest.

The experience became a parable of not only lockdown fatigue but digital fatigue, of the longing for something other than screens to touch. Mail-order catalogs have been making a comeback. One estimate suggests that the number of American hikers in 2020 might have more than doubled over the previous year. The unprecedented retreat from the physical to the digital made us yearn for what many have come to call the “analog.” The term is now often used not just for analog technology — vinyl records, Polaroids, paper books — but for anything that is personal, direct, and touchable.

Reviewed in this article
Public Affairs ~ 2022
273 pp. ~ $29 (cloth)

And yet, while we longed for the analog, the digital revolution kept moving apace. Headlines such as “Is This the Future of the Fashion Show?,” “The Future That Hollywood Feared Is Happening Now,” and “Our Cash-Free Future Is Getting Closer” proliferated. Systems we had built for passive consumption suddenly became a skeleton key for all activity. All those years of binge-watching vampire detectives suddenly became useful for building the only form of school. The convenience seemed irresistible.

But not everyone was comfortably on board the digital bandwagon. In a New York Times op-ed in November 2020, the Canadian journalist David Sax voiced what many of us had on our minds: “The Future Was Supposed to Be Better Than This.” In his 2016 book Revenge of the Analog, Sax had resisted the idea that the march of the digital was inevitable. Now he declared that “learning, playing, socializing and spending all our time on the same screen, in the same pair of sweatpants, in the same house, day after day after day, isn’t the desirable utopian future we had hoped for. It’s a prison of digital luxury.”

His latest book, The Future Is Analog, goes all in on this view. Covid lockdowns were a sort of accidental experiment, a chance to camp in the digital cave and see what it offered. Sax’s conclusion: “The digital future was finally here! And it f***ing sucked.” Not just personally, not just for parents, not just for those essential workers who were hung out as human shields against national collapse. The retreat from ordinary to digital life, Sax argues, was a categorical failure.

If he is right, it’s possible that the promised digital future may already be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the book gives us little reason to think so. Instead, it winds up pointing to how easily we can be reassured about the resilience of human nature against oppression — easily and perhaps falsely.

Organized into seven chapters, one for each day of the week, The Future Is Analog tackles the areas of life that the digital revolution overhauled during the pandemic, both public (like school and city) and personal (conversation, soul).

Sax begins with “Monday: Work.” “By April 2020,” he recounts, “as many as one-third of Americans were working from home.” Software originally meant to aid teamwork in person was scaled up to be used remotely. “We thought we’d cracked the code,” says Jennifer Kolstad, the global design director at Ford Motor Company, about the software her team used during the pandemic for remote collaboration. But, Sax concludes, it turns out that the “limitless options the software offered — endless revisions, tweaks, colors, features, comment threads, chats, and emails — just built a giant sand trap for the Ford team.”

The office turned out to be irreplaceable. A chat by the water cooler is more than just that, as is the painting in the hallway or the bench you eat at every day. What we learn about the physical objects that populate our daily work life, as well as the people, is often tacit but critical:

Out in the real world, information takes on all sorts of invisible forms. It’s the desk arrangement that reveals the true hierarchy, the way one manager dresses, the shift in body language during a meeting…. It’s millions of signals flying through the air every day, big and small, that all of our senses quietly absorb to build up ideas that exist as feelings or instincts: I trust this person. Something smells fishy about this deal…. This information is qualitative but not quantifiable; it is not transferred in a linear way.

Sax follows the same basic structure for almost every chapter. He notes what the pandemic wrought for school or shopping or entertainment, passes along insights from a variety of pertinent experts, and suggests that we have at last realized that the physical presence of people and objects is indispensable:

Digital technology has an inherent bias toward speed…. For years we bought into this, even for our health, investing in fitness trackers and connected treadmills, mindfulness apps and sleep-analysis masks, until suddenly we were home alone, and our bodies and souls cried out for us to slow the hell down. For once, we actually listened. We stopped and went for a walk. We fed the sourdough and spent days on a three-hundred-piece puzzle of a waterfall.

There is actually new hope in people’s response to the bleakness of pandemic digital life, in Sax’s view. The stay-indoors mental health crisis of 2020, by calling the bluff of digital utopianism, was a great awakening. Sax wants to scream this as a message of possibility. He dares you to look at the stars from a tent in the mountains and tell him, right here under the sharp glow of impossible beauty, how some Zuckerbergian reduction is going to render that feeling of humility unnecessary to human life.

What Sax never fully addresses is how digital tech is now baked into the system. Maybe we can roll back the worst and most insignificant Covid stop-gaps, like the less-efficient-than-paper QR menu. But online shopping, video chats, streaming wars, and more are here for the foreseeable future partly because they had already been here for years before 2020. This is because, as Sax occasionally suggests, instead of modifying tech to suit our needs, we have long been modifying our needs to suit tech.

The 1973 novel Crash by J. G. Ballard offers us the insight that tech design has perverted its proper ends. As novelist Zadie Smith says of Ballard’s book, “The modification of the person to fit the car, that was his whole argument. We spent thirty years wondering whether machines will become like humans….What’s happening much faster is that we are becoming machines, and not even complicated ones; simple ones.”

Throughout The Future Is Analog, Sax flirts with the same idea. He follows the lead of Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, who decades ago saw “the false promise of a frictionless digital future,…where each activity (work, conversations, meals) had to be maximized for output and minimized for time.” Of course we can use Slack and email and Google Meet, all at the same time and while wearing elastic fitwear, but should that now be our societal default? As Sax writes: “Digital’s constant barrage of stimulation is all active engagement, but this actually blocks the nonlinear brain activities that are necessary for unstructured thinking,” especially for creativity.

The more we are immersed in this barrage, the more we succumb to the input fallacy, the view of automation and digitization as a paradigm for the interpersonal. The tech we use to communicate, to work as a team on a project, often ends up remaking us in its image. The unspoken expectation is a machine-like 24/7 availability, or a machine-like myopia that, as with the designers for Ford, insists the only way to see a forest is to count every tree. In contrast, Sax wants a “humancentric future that reflects where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, and how we actually want to live.”

To this end, Sax has set himself the Herculean task of describing not only how critical sectors of society have been reshaped around Zoom and automation, but how these sectors might reimagine themselves. For example, in his “Commerce” chapter he highlights Shopify as the kind of digital alternative that can both compete with Amazon’s interface and still support brick-and-mortar shops. Unlike Amazon, “Shopify does not sell merchandise.” There is no Shopify Basics brand and there are no Shopify warehouses. Rather, it “sells software that allows anyone to open an online store in a few easy steps,” while at the same time “brick-and-mortar retail businesses retain control of their customers and merchandise.” Where Amazon’s approach often undercuts the shops it hosts by offering its own cheaper products, Shopify is a tool in the hands of the actual shop owners. It isn’t any less digital than Amazon, but it’s an approach that is compatible with walkable downtowns whose businesses survive partly through online orders but whose communal value is still primarily a street footprint.

Here we see an inkling of how Sax’s prescription falls short.

Sax’s optimism about the resilience of the analog is not just because of the clarifying moment offered by the pandemic. It is also because of his belief in the durability of human nature: “The future is analog because we are analog.” The physical nature of human beings will always limit, and eventually trump, the approach of a digital future.

But although this sounds compelling, it is little more than a truism. His best example is Google’s aborted Sidewalk Labs project. Developed in Toronto, Sidewalk Labs sought to develop a “smart neighborhood” in 2017. It was going to build a “mixed-use urban community” where “digital layers of sensors would underpin everything, gathering the data that Sidewalk Labs would crunch” to identify and address citizen needs. In the spring of 2020, the project died amid concerns about costs and data privacy.

Sax insists that the failure of Sidewalk Labs is part of a pattern. Another example is South Korea’s business district Songdo, another “smart digital city,” which is now “so empty and quiet, residents openly bemoan how lonely they feel living there.” If “the actual legacy of smart digital cities is a big old shrug,” as Sax suggests, it’s because the concept misunderstands cities, those indomitable places of personal interaction. New York, Paris, and London are built on “compressed culture: they bring together strangers and expose them to new ideas and places, and over time that combination accumulates a unique history and architecture.” In short, “to get better, cities need the logic of cities, not the logic of technology.”

What this reasonable, even provocative, idea breeds in the book, however, is a loss of both urgency and perspective. It may be true that smart cities tend to be “championed by authoritarian governments” like China, “where the world’s most advanced digital surveillance state uses an armada of cameras, cell phone apps, big data, drones, and facial recognition technology to maintain order, cleanliness, pandemic control, and, above all, loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.” But Sax seems to take this to mean that it can’t happen here. Perhaps in our part of the world the authoritarian creep of surveilled spaces will come not from the government but from a new corporate culture, one in which employers monitor the activity of deracinated workers.

Sax loses track of the main issue with digital life. Too many people have been drafted, or at least tricked, into the Matrix, and there doesn’t seem to be a way out.

The problem goes right down to the book’s foundation, where Sax takes it as a given that the physical world and the digital world are simple to tease apart. In the introduction, he informs us that “When I use the word analog, I mean simply ‘not digital.’” He knows that this “definition is messy and imperfect and will result in dozens of messages from irate engineers.” “But analog is the best term we have,” because it suggests an essential 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.” Analog “contains waves of conflicting information” and is “messy and imperfect,” just like the real world.

Perhaps so. But there is a muddle in how Sax goes about deploying the idea. “When you experience culture in a physical format, you are doing it with all of your analog senses,” he claims at one point. Discussing the hollowness of streamed music and stage performances, Sax is trying to emphasize how digitization is a disappointment to our senses. What makes a performance such a thrill is that it is “a full-body experience.” Unfortunately, the phrase “analog senses,” if it means anything, implies quite plainly that I have digital senses too, which I don’t. Worse, somewhere out there an irate engineer would be right to complain about the definition of “analog.” The word can be stretched only so far before it becomes as formless as, say, “holistic.” There is no port on the back of my neck that opens every time I watch YouTube. There, too, I just use my natural senses, disappointed though they may be. The word “analog” just isn’t doing anything for us here.

The problem is not just semantic. Sax’s muddled account of the “analog” — which, remember, is what the future is supposed to be — signals a deeper carelessness of thought. For example, Sax acknowledges that “empathy” has become a buzzword, but then he goes on to use it as if it still had power: “When empathy declines in a society, that is when you get divisions, conflict, and violence.” This saps the book of its directness, its clarity, its desire to talk about school as school and cities as cities and conversation as conversation.

We find the same problem in the cast of experts Sax pulls from the wings to tell us something obvious. “School is about the people,” we learn. “I hope that this really does prime people to ask what it means to keep work human,” another expert adds, and “We have good arguments for saying that we should do this in a more human or grounded way” and “You know the experience of being human, because you’re human.” There is nothing here to disagree with, and the interview subjects are often specific and helpful, but there are so many of these inane statements that the book fails to deepen our understanding. No one seems to know what a human is outside of not a machine, and the reader can only encounter so many experts trying to sell This just in: people have bodies! as a vital breakthrough before the repetition becomes a chore.

When Sax offers Shopify as an alternative to Amazon rather than encouraging us to shop in person, or when he says that “this book is not about dragging us back to some predigital stone age,” he is setting us up for an underwhelming conclusion. “Your future is what awaits you in an hour, tonight, tomorrow, or a week from now,” he writes. “It might reveal dramatic, life-altering changes, but it also might just be the same old soup of existence, warmed and stirred.”

This banality flits to the surface throughout the book, especially in its final chapters. A book’s ending creates meaning, it shoots backward through a text, illuminating certain preceding ideas and obscuring others. In the closing sections, Sax takes the bulk of his text’s insights — earnest, incisive critiques about the limitations of digital solutions — and reduces them to an NFL Play 60 commercial: “In the future, I aim to feel more alive every single day I am breathing. I will do that by spending even more time outdoors, in forests, on the water, or just walking on sidewalks in the sun.”

There is a barbaric yawp released here and there — “Mark Zuckerberg can shove any future where I’m happy to hang out with a hologram on my sofa right up his robotic ass” — but it is all too shallow, too performative. Here at the grand height of digital resistance, Sax is beholden to the same intellectual sensibility as my Twitter feed.

Sax has failed to produce a penetrating analysis of digital encroachment. But worse than that, what he has produced instead is a self-help book. The trouble is that, if digital rot has really crept into our culture as far as the book suggests, these kinds of bromides simply will not be enough.

He hopes, for example, that in the future “the false promise of virtual school takes its rightful place in the garbage pile of history’s terrible ideas.” That would be nice. But this adds up less to The future is analog than I think we can all agree the future should be analog.

What he never even attempts to expose is how powerless most of us are in the face of digital encroachment. Retweet-ready dunks and banalities about enjoying the great outdoors are worthless for understanding this, much less for offering a way out. Changing our personal habits can help at the margins, but surrender to the digital is, for many, already complete.

Sax’s stated goal is to convince the reader that analog, in all its multifaceted variability, is superior to digitization. But the self-help approach, so focused on shifting individual attitudes, winds up conceding a great deal to digital life.

“Analog engagement,” he writes, “requires vulnerability and even bravery.” Maybe, but that’s a poor selling point. One reason that we should ditch many digital systems is that they simply don’t work as well as the non-digital systems they replace.

Let me offer an example. As a public librarian, my job mostly deals with digital technology. A surprise, I know! Not software and hardware, per se, but guiding people past all the technical barricades we have erected as part of modern life. Every desk shift, I spend a sizable chunk of my time recovering patrons’ email passwords, their logins for the DMV, creating their ID.me accounts, and so on. When people want to apply for jobs at Walmart and Home Depot, they struggle to create and upload a résumé; in a previous era, they may have struggled with typewriters. But the phrase I hear every day is the same: “Just making it more complicated, aren’t they.” Yes, they are! They want you to recover your email so you can recover your application login so you can scan and upload your cover letter and your license, and if you can’t recover your email to recover your application login, you also can’t create a new login because some brainless software recognizes your name and birthday as being from an existing profile.

These are real, everyday issues, and merely the tip of the iceberg. I have, for instance, helped multiple patrons lie to our state’s DMV phone line. When they call to make an appointment, they are asked if they have filled out the online scheduling form. No, they haven’t, which is why they are calling. But if they answer truthfully and say, “No, I haven’t, that is why I’m calling,” the phone-tree suggests that they do so and hangs up on them. Sax is of course right that chatbots and Slack will never replace human conversation, not fully understood. But just because some realms of life will remain untouched doesn’t mean that we will stop dealing with these frustrating systems any time soon. Digital utopias erect automated mazes in which most of us must live, and what Sax never shows is the evidence that they will stop trying.

Not everything is as dire as the DMV, but we should stop talking as if “logging off” is some quixotic bid for the impractical, as if “going analog” is a spiritual vegetable. Analog alternatives are often superior in the most pragmatic sense — they are often easier, cheaper, and more reliable. When my car stopped working last summer, it was because a sensor that helped with shifting malfunctioned. The transmission was fine, the gears were fine, a computer simply got confused. Is this middle-management design really better than metal turning metal? It certainly wasn’t cheaper. That’s not always the case, but we should start using convenience as a selling point of non-digital systems, not always a sin to be avoided. Keeping track of all those iPad apps, all those streaming queues, and the screen-time monitors for your children is a lot more work than just not having an iPad.

The Future Is Analog feels stuck on pandemic life right as we are settling into post-pandemic life. Even Sax’s frequent use of the plural “we” mirrors the early days of lockdown, when we looked to World War II and talked of flattening the curve. But the virus of Silicon Valley disruption has been spreading in America for at least two decades, and the idea of inexorable progress — the “myth of the machine,” to borrow from Lewis Mumford — for much longer. Why, then, should we have confidence that the moment of clarity we achieved during lockdown will stick?

I couldn’t agree more, for example, that the “promise of virtual school” during Covid turned out to be false. That doesn’t mean unnecessary tech is now on the retreat in our classrooms. A May 2022 special report on technology in schools published in Education Week notes that “the 1-to-1 computing landscape in K-12 schools expanded at a rate few could have imagined prior to the pandemic.” According to the survey, 66 percent of school districts had one computer per high school student before the pandemic. By 2021, the number was up to 90 percent, and had likewise jumped from 42 to 84 percent for elementary school. Elementary school!

Without the pandemic’s emergency federal funding, and in the face of too much tech everywhere all at once, it is possible that even these artifacts of our Covid response will be junked. But the computer trend predated the pandemic in a way virtual school didn’t, and threatens to persist more aggressively, too. Not only do seven-year-olds not have much of a choice; neither do parents, and, from talking to the teachers I know, neither do they. Who is making these decisions, and why can’t they be stopped? Sax doesn’t know, and he doesn’t even ask. This particular pandemic-enabled tech invasion seems essential to his case for a non-digital alternative, but instead of exploring it he assures us that “the future of school isn’t the rapid, sweeping disruption Silicon Valley keeps promising.”

Sax begins and ends by assuming that in the future the indefinable sense of being alive in the world will win out. I hope he’s right. But if a digital bug has infected our approach to work, school, entertainment, and much else, then feel-good optimism is not going to stop the spread. Not every battle is about self-improvement. If we wage our resistance in this way, we can react to the digital future only after it has come to pass. We will start to fight only once we’ve already lost.

Joel Cuthbertson, “When the Machine Opts In to You,” The New Atlantis, Number 71, Winter 2023, pp. 123–132.
Header image: A rendering of an ad for the W Hotel in Philadelphia / Courtesy W Hotels

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