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analog vs digital

Hey there

Culturally appropriate greetings!

For some reason, I've been fretting over how to begin these letters. So many things seem cliché or patronising and I didn't want that. I searched the traditional "I hope this finds you well" and saw that there is a movement to stop its use — one site, among several alternatives, suggested using culturally appropriate greetings so the line above is a bit of a joke. It can be hard, especially when addressing multiple people, not to fall back on meaningless platitudes but know that I genuinely do hope this finds you well and that you've had a good week.

Moving on...

It's been interesting reading Digital Minimalism during this global pandemic when our lives and social connections are dominated by our devices and the services they connect to. It might well be the worst time to read it, when we have largely been forced to retire into our own small worlds, little bubbles of physical existence without much overlap beyond the digital.

It is reassuring to read of how many are panicking about a return to normality, to know that I am not alone in these feelings — introverts like myself who have relished not having to see people and interact face-to-face on a daily basis will be thrust back into the big wide world and expected to act as though nothing has happened. I wonder how this is going to play out for a lot of folks.

Back to the book.

Before Covid, when we were all in the office, my workplace revolved around email, hundreds of them hitting your inbox every day, most irrelevant in the long term. There has more recently been a drive towards using chat — Skype for Business paving the way for MS Teams — but email still dominates, especially for inter-team communication. Working from home over the past year has exacerbated the situation. With many businesses re-evaluating what the post-Covid work environment will look like, the reliance on these digital tools is only going to increase and that sets an uncomfortable precedent in our lives. Even if we can adequately separate our private lives, it becomes increasingly more difficult to differentiate our behaviour between work and home when we are using similar tools and following similar processes.

If we are only going to be in the office half as often as before we are going to struggle — our analog lives may become irreversibly restricted driving us further into the digital realm and to our devices.

As part of his plan for living a more minimalist digital life, Cal Newport outlines a number of practices one of which is DON'T CLICK "LIKE" describing the Like button as "literally the least informative type of nontrivial communication." Four years ago this very week I called for an end to "minimum viable social actions" — "Likes, hearts, +1s, retweets, re-blogs" all those activities that only take one click of a mouse or tap of a screen, actions we can take without even reading what we are giving our acknowledgement, or implied support, to. Social platforms argue they are driven by engagement but much of it is the wrong type of engagement. I have long advocated for more thoughtful, more meaningful interactions that require us to take the time to consider our response and, thus, build better conversations.

Newport takes this one stage further quoting MIT professor Sherry Turkle from her book Reclaiming Conversation":

"Face-to-face conversation is the most human — and humanising — thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It's where we develop the capacity for empathy. It's where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood."

Turkle makes the distinction between connection, actions that typically define our text-driven online lives, and conversation — typically real-world encounters between individuals. Her definition of conversation is far more precise than anything I may have used: conversation, in her opinion, only occurs via analog means.

Some of Newport's ideas for living a less digital life are, in areas affected by lockdown or social distancing rules, currently impossible to achieve. Even in a world not gripped by a pandemic the advice seems skewed towards those who are better placed to be able to change their lives. Indeed, some of the criticism of Turkle's book is that it "can be read as a handbook for the privileged."

But what of the great mass of people too anxious or lonely to resist the lure of tech, too poor or overworked to escape the vicious circles?

While Newport's suggestions are just that, suggestions, it is the framing of them that causes consternation. By using the financially independent as examples of those who have developed better ways of managing their free time, or holding court in coffee shops so that anyone who wants to stop by for a chat knows when and where to find you, he directs his advice towards certain sections of society, even if unintentionally.

I am all for weaning ourselves off disruptive technologies but our expectations and the means with which we do so must be appropriate.

I have written in the past that society is greatly different to how it used to be, it is more fragmented — not just politically or culturally but temporally and spatially. People used to live and work in the same area, those you were employed with would frequently be your neighbours and friends outside of the work environment. In the modern 24/7 world we travel further afield and operate on different shift patterns, our lives don't align as neatly as they used to. Our colleagues are often no longer our friends and can be from anywhere within a reasonable commuting distance from the office. The ties that once bound communities together often no longer exist, we are all doing our own thing on our own schedule with little in common.

How do we fix this?

Maybe I'm just the wrong person to be reading this particular book or my timing couldn't be worse. I don't mean to be negative and this letter certainly didn't turn out how I expected but I can't see a solution without radical change on a much wider scale than individuals looking to improve their relationships with their devices. Perhaps that is all we have: the control over our own immediate environment and it is up to us to choose wisely and according to our own needs. It is inevitable that such unilateral action is going to require compromise but I'm not as convinced as Newport when he says if you set out your stall that others will accept and adapt.

Over the past few years I have tried to reduce the spread of my interactions, instead focusing on developing individual relationships but these have been digital and not always successful even though the means to reach out is always on hand (or in pocket.) Success in any such endeavour is not determined by the individual but by shared values and goals — if these are difficult to align via digital means then it is so much harder in the analog world separated by time and distance as we are.

And that's it...

I would be interested to know your opinion, how you manage to resolve these conflicts within your own mind or whether you even try.

Until next time, take care and stay safe.

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Colin Walker
Colophon. Content: CC BY-NC 2.0 UK
Colin Walker Colin Walker colin@colinwalker.blog