I don’t know where the woman and the little girl in the image come from. I don’t know where that train station is. I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. I just know the picture is burned vividly into my brain like a still frame from an old Technicolor movie.
It’s an image which has haunted my dreams for years, but I’ve never experienced the scene in real life. I’ve never been to this place. The girl and the woman both have blonde hair. One has a red coat, because it’s cold outside. The other coat is gray or black. The trains lining the platform are pulled by steam engines, so there’s the sound of hissing pressure lines and the air is heavy with the mist of steam.
Much of the picture is fuzzy. I’m meeting the woman and the girl at the train station. Who are they? Are they arriving? Or have they come to greet me as I arrive? I can’t quite tell. I know it’s my wife and daughter, but the image is like a dream that dangles something in front of me and never quite resolves itself.
Something about this old personal image represents an analog reality that I long for — something which I fear is at risk in an increasingly digital world. I feel as though I’m pounding on the glass of this image whispering, “Please let me in,” but I’m left living in a cold digital world instead.
I’ve been feeling a little numb today as I keep being disappointed by the ugliness and depersonalization which seem increasingly rewarded in this digital space. My rational brain knows and accepts all the good things the digital world is bringing, but the nagging feeling in my gut keeps telling me that we’re losing some precious things in the tradeoffs we’re making.
Some of my thinking makes me feel more and more like a modern Luddite. I was an enthusiastic early adopter of much of the computer technology we’ve come to take for granted — and I was active on the forerunners of social media, such as CompuServe message boards — before most people understood what they were. But the more I watch the changes that these digital media are bringing, the more I’m feeling like the late Neil Postman, who warned in his various books that we were heading down a technological path which we didn’t understand — and which was going to change our culture for the worse.
I’m not going to get deeply into Postman’s ideas deeply here, but if you’re interested, I strongly recommend “Amusing Ourselves to Death” for its prescient warning (in 1985) about the changes being made to us by electronic media. In addition, I also recommend you look at “Conscientious Objections” and “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,” two books of his which I once largely dismissed but which I fear were more insightful than I gave them credit for at the time. I still don’t agree with all of his ideas, but when I notice that some of my current misgivings match things he was warning about years ago, I realize that I need to pay more attention to such curmudgeons.
Nothing about human history prepared us for what we face today. We are analog creatures struggling to adapt to a digital world — or at least struggling to figure out how to remain genuinely human in a world where machines seem more welcome than flesh-and-blood humans.
I don’t quite know how to explain the difference between the digital world and the analog world. Those words have specific technological meanings, but what I’m talking about goes deeper. I’ve been thinking about this for days and I haven’t figured out how to make it clear, so I’m just going to talk about about I’m feeling and hope it will make sense — and hope that I can somehow make it clear how all of this relates to the warm and fuzzy image which I fear I’ve lost.
On a surface level, I love the digital world. It makes much of what I want instant. It cuts down barriers of distance and time. It allows me to know people around the world who I couldn’t otherwise know. It gives me the ability to slice through billions of bits of data to find just the fragments of information that I’m looking for. How could this be bad? What’s not to love about it?
The analog world is slower. It has fewer possibilities. It gives us fewer choices. We know fewer people. We have access to less information. It requires far more patience. A message of love that can be sent across hundreds of miles in an instant today would take days to arrive in an analog world (and at a much higher cost). Much of what we know as the modern world simply could not exist in an analog age.
But the shift from analog to digital is changing us, both as individuals and as a culture. Although we have more amazing choices than ever, I am very uneasy about what we’re doing with those choices.
For instance, I’m disturbed that so many people on social media mock things which they don’t understand — mostly because they’re unhappy people. Criticizing others is the only way they know to get some relief for their hurt and damaged egos.
Mocking others and criticizing others attracts an audience in a digital world. It attracts approval from cold and cruel people who seem to be empty inside — and who are getting their entertainment by seeing others hurt.
Many modern humans increasingly live in virtual worlds as social media has become more popular. Do the people who you know only on social media really exist? Or are they characters you create based on the bits and pieces of reality they show you? If you never really make contact with others — if they never experience your analog self — you can control what they think of you. And getting rid of those unreal people is as easy as clicking “unfriend” or “block.”
Why do we criticize other people and products and companies, most of which we’re not in a position to reasonably judge? Why do we strike out at others? It’s because we’re uncomfortable. We know something’s missing. We’re longing for connection.
I need digital media to spread my work and ideas. You wouldn’t be reading this — you wouldn’t know who I am — if the digital world hadn’t existed to introduce us. And for that, I am eternally grateful. I don’t know how to take the best of digital and combine it with the authenticity of analog. I simply know that something fundamental is missing as the shift in culture is happening.
What we have gained in convenience, we have lost in stability.
What we have gained in choices, we have lost in contemplation.
What we have gained in entertainment, we have lost in connection.
And this gets me back to where I started. It’s about connection between individual people.
When we have all the choices and possibilities available to us today, that affects our values. It affects the tradeoffs we make. I don’t know why, but I see it all the time. It makes us value money and success and going faster and faster — to get to an end which is ultimately meaningless.
The only thing that lasts is love and the connections between people. It starts with every meaningful connection between two individuals. It includes healthy ties between families and religious groups and friends. It includes the communities which grow between families and friends and neighbors who live together and share values.
And the choices we are making in this digital age are destroying those connections.
Most people seem to choose to live in cold and barren homes without authentic and vulnerable love. We close ourselves in cars where we won’t have to see each other as we rush past one another as angry blurs on highways. We fearfully lock ourselves in homes where we won’t have to let others see who we really are — or know us well enough to know how unhappy we are.
That picture from the train station represents something to me which a digital world threatens. I don’t know why. I don’t long for a perfect past, because I know that romanticized perfect past never existed. I just know there’s something missing today which I see in that picture in my mind.
Mostly, it’s that woman and that little girl.
For me, it’s about love and family and the simplicity of physical human touch. We live in a world where we keep each other at arm’s length — literally and metaphorically. That image somehow represents something different to me — a world where I can touch and love and be accepted.
It’s impossible to change the course this world is on. Even if you wanted to change it, Pandora is out of the box. I don’t want a return to something primitive. I just want a return — on a personal level — to something which is real and warm and loving, in the middle of a world where connection almost never happens.
I want to step into that Technicolor image. I need it to be real.
Note: The picture at the top looks nothing like the train platform in my dream. I’ve never been able to find anything that looks like the dream image. The picture is from a 1922 postcard showing trains and people inside Birmingham Terminal Station, which was torn down when I was a child.