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We're already in the promised digital Utopia — and it's failing

DAVID SAX: Do I hear a kid in the background?

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

You've got to just say hey, Reggie.

REGGIE: Hi.

SAX: Hi.

RASCOE: (Laughter). And that pretty much sums up working from home since the pandemic began. It's also a perfect way to introduce our next guest, David Sax. Like millions of us, in March of 2020, he was thrown into a digital world full of Zoom, virtual school and online grocery orders. And though we still had contact with one another, there was a sense that something essential was not right. It was missing, lost. In his new book, David Sax explores what the digital world takes from us. It's called "The Future Is Analog."

SAX: What I'm referring to is the world beyond our screens, the world beyond computers, the world beyond digital. Fifty 60 years ago, I mean, the computer was this thing that was in a room in an office somewhere, and it had a very specific task. Now the computer is everything, right? It's the record player. It's the camera. It's the way you socialize. It's the way you do work. It's the way you connect to school. And often that's just the phone in your pocket or the tablet in your kid's hands. And so it's the all-encompassing nature of that.

RASCOE: So what do we miss, then, when we rely too much on that phone, that tablet - you know, just being connected and plugged in all the time?

SAX: Well, I think what we miss is what you're saying there but in a much deeper sense. It's the connection, right? Connections that are digital are weak connections. Even this conversation - I'm not saying it's weak, but if you and I were in the studio...

RASCOE: I think it's very strong.

SAX: I'm loving it. We would have body language, eye contact.

RASCOE: Yes, yes.

SAX: I would see the way you would raise your eyebrow when I'm saying something. And I would say, oh, that point is landing with her well. Or I don't think she gets that. Or maybe I should change. Or actually, I think she wants to speak now, so I'm going to shut up. And I have none of that now. I just have the sound of your voice that's been processed and is beamed through into my headphones. And so what we miss is the entirety of the world that we as animals, as physical creatures on this Earth have evolved to experience - right? - with all our senses, with all our emotions. For my entire life, the future was sort of predetermined to be digital and increasingly virtual. And now that we're there, and we've had a real taste of it - we had a test drive of it for months or years - you know, if we can't step back and learn from that, then we're just going to keep hurtling on to this direction until - I don't know - we're all sad in the metaverse.

RASCOE: Well, you know, I want to talk to you about, like, what you gained when you unplugged and decided to really connect with your surroundings. There's a section of your book on page 224. Are you - do you have it with you or are you able to read it?

SAX: I do. (Reading) But on the seventh day of quarantine, a Friday, I decided to make a challah, the traditional Jewish Sabbath bread. It had been years since I baked challah, but we were up in the country, and the local bread options were whiter than the gene pool. I figured it would be a nice thing to do for my kids. And besides, who doesn't love fresh bread? Mix the flour, water, oil, eggs, salt, sugar and our only pack of yeast. Let the dough settle, then begin kneading. Fold. Push. Spin. Flip. Thwack. Fold. Push. Spin. Flip. Thwack. Fold. Push. Spin. Flip. Thwack.

RASCOE: So what did that moment mean for you? Like, that physical thing of making the dough, of baking it, of observing Shabbat with your family - like, what did that mean for you?

SAX: To me, it was a reclamation, in a way, and I guess a regrounding because the stress of everything - the deluge of information that I was trying to gather about this virus and the situation, the necessity to do work and to try to get my kids on school and just constantly pinging between screens - it had untethered me from myself, my body and the sort of world around me. And so making that challah, baking that bread, it was the same as when I went for my first walk outside. It was the same as when we went for our first hike in the woods. It's in those moments when we allow ourselves to be away from screens and fully in with our bodies and engage with the world that we are reclaiming who we are.

RASCOE: So, I mean, a lot of what we're talking about when it comes to digital technology is this idea of that - it's innovation, and it helps with convenience, making life easier. But as you're talking, it seems like - and during the pandemic, it seems like a lot of people would agree - that there are unintended negative consequences. So what is that balance between having the innovation, having the convenience but not losing your humanity?

SAX: Yeah, well, I think that's - that is the task that we sort of have to set ourselves to find out in the next years and decades because there's two certainties, right? One is that digital technology is only going to continue evolving and getting more sophisticated and more powerful and having more applications. And the other thing that will consistently remain true is that we are human beings and that the needs we have as physical, analog human creatures on this planet are going to always remain central.

And so the challenge we have isn't accepting the newest innovative technology in the quickest way possible, I think that's maybe where we're going wrong - that when someone tries to sell us something new and say, this is the new way we're doing things, we actually can tap back into the feeling we had during the years of the pandemic when we only had digital and say, is this going to make my life better? Is this going to serve me as an individual or my company or my school or my community or my city? Is this going to aid that? Is this technology going to actually help that and make it better? Or is it going to get in the way?

And I think if we can - each of us, whether it's individually or, you know, a company or an organization or, on a bigger scale, a community - if we can start asking those questions and learning how to balance the technology and judge whether something new and innovative is actually the right thing or what parts of it make sense, then, you know, the future is bright.

RASCOE: David Sax is the author of "The Future Is Analog." Thank you for talking with us.

SAX: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.