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The future was supposed to be better than this

Thanksgiving — just like the rest of life — just isn’t the same through a screen

New York Times

At the end of September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted a list of recommendations for how Americans can safely celebrate Thanksgiving this year. Eat all the pie you want (but only with your immediate family). Attend parades and big games (but only on TV). Shop till you drop (from the couch). Skip the flight back home (Zoom with your relatives instead). Give thanks (while maintaining social distance).

As a Canadian, I experienced this virtual version of Thanksgiving in October, preceded by the Jewish High Holy Days a few weeks before that. Normally, on the night before Yom Kippur, I would dress in a suit and walk to a nearby synagogue, to hear my brother-in-law sing the Kol Nidre prayer. But rising case numbers here in Toronto made that unwise, so my wife and I sat on the couch and streamed the Higher Holidays program put on by the college Judaism organization Hillel, and Reboot, a creative nonprofit I’m affiliated with.

The program featured an array of voices representing a cross section of the Jewish experience, from Iraqi cantors and LGBTQ rabbis, to a short film about Black Lives Matter. It was beautiful, meaningful and just one of hundreds of online services we could have tuned into that night. The promised future of Judaism!

Except I couldn’t bring myself back to spend another moment in front of a screen the next morning. My neighbor told me about a service in a nearby park, so we walked over and sat 6 feet apart. The congregation was far more traditional than what I am used to, and I could barely follow along with the Hebrew, but as the sun shone down, and we sang Avinu Malkeinu, a 1,500-year-old prayer for forgiveness, the feeling of those collective voices behind their masks sent a shiver down my spine. Here, for the first time since March, I was experiencing something that was real, visceral and unable to be digitized. It wasn’t futuristic. In fact, it was about as timeless a moment as it gets.

It feels like we heard for years that when it came to work, school, God or groceries, the virtual future — the moment when we’d use screens and technology for everything in life — was around the corner. Then one day in March, that future appeared at our doorstep uninvited.

As experts try to forecast what the world will look like once the virus is behind us, it’s now common to hear that we are just at the start of this “new normal.” Offices and downtowns will be abandoned as many of us permanently work from home. Education will be delivered from a screen. Gyms will flounder, while Peloton flourishes. Ghost kitchens and delivery apps will take the place of shuttered restaurants. The physical, analog world that existed before the pandemic is but a fading relic.

The problem with these predictions is that they are the same ones that have been used to sell us software and devices for the past several decades, with the same promises of efficiency. They almost always typically fall short when they meet the real world.

Seven years ago, the tech investor Marc Andreessen claimed that retail stores would soon go out of business, as e-commerce ate their lunch. But while Amazon and other online retailers grew rapidly during this time, and their growth exploded during the initial peak of the pandemic lockdown, e-commerce in the U.S. still only accounts for around 16% of retail sales. Malls, shopping streets, bookstores and others icons of physical retail, though battered and fighting for survival, are still open and in many cases doing brisk business. Shopping remains a deeply human action that can serve as education, entertainment and community building all at once.

That same thing can be true with work. “Office centricity is over,” proclaimed Tobias Lütke, the chief executive of the e-commerce software firm Shopify, in May, declaring that the firm had no intention of returning to its beautiful and brand-new offices, just blocks from where I live in Toronto. But many of us have found that remote work is anything but dreamy. We cannot concentrate, we feel unmotivated, we have children quite literally crawling all over us. We deeply miss having somewhere to go, a reason to shower and dress up, and most importantly, a collective sense of purpose forged with the people we work with side by side.

Perhaps nowhere has seen the promised Eden of technological futurism run into the hard ground of earthly reality more harshly than in education. In 2018, Vivek Wadhwa, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley, predicted that “the future of education is virtual,” powered by AI enabled VR headsets. Instead, the online learning most students, teachers and parents experienced this spring, and are unfortunately continuing this fall, is best characterized as a vast disappointment. Technical failures abound at every turn, work is left untouched and many feel abandoned. In a recent survey of educators from 59 countries, over half said that the experiment in e-learning had resulted in students learning less than they would if they were in school.

I saw this with my own kids, who started kindergarten and second grade in mid-September, in-person at our local public school. Each day in lockdown was a long battle with a poorly designed software interface, punctuated by vocal battles over assignments. “I miss school,” my daughter said one night in April. I reminded her that she was attending school, just online. “No, Dad, real school!” she replied, breaking into tears, “Online’s just the work, without any of the fun!”

Now, she and her brother put on their masks and run laughing into the schoolyard to meet their friends each morning, while their brave, brilliant teachers prepare them for another day in the world. It turns out that school is more than just facts transferred from textbook or website to learners. It is an immersive environment that facilitates learning through a purposefully designed physical space and carefully crafted relationships that equals something far greater than the sum of its parts. Something that cannot be fully conveyed through a flat piece of glass.

While the digital tools we have clung to these past months are not going away, it is a false assumption that this state of emergency is a sign of the future. 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.

The pandemic has caused us to see the value of the real world; in the mundane joy of a drab office, the miracle of a creaky public school classroom. It’s given us a new appreciation for the singular experience of sitting around a holiday table — talking politics with relatives that we both love and cannot stand, eating way too much turkey and pie and experiencing the emotional and physical fullness that feast induces. Reality is still where the action is, and though we are forced to stick to the virtual for our safety, as soon as the pandemic ends most of us will come running back to the world beyond our screens.

David Sax is the author of “The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.”