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Virtual reality, automation and remote conveniences are making our world feel smaller, less tactile, more bewildering. We need to learn how to really connect before it’s too late

David Sax’s latest book is The Future Is Analog: How to Create a More Human World.

In September, I was shopping with my friend Toby at the beloved Toronto supermarket Fiesta Farms. As Toby and I were debating teas, an elderly woman approached us with boxes in hand and asked us which we would recommend for sleep. She was the classic Italian nonna who prowls the Fiesta aisles­ four times a week – conservatively dressed, shopping basket filled with a few pastas and ripe tomatoes, gold saint dangling on a chain around her neck – but she seemed troubled, even sad. “I cannot sleep,” she said, her voice shaking with worry. “I need to sleep. Can this one help me sleep?” Then, after a brief pause, she told us that her husband had died recently. For a second, we both stood there, too stunned to say anything.

There are times when we go through our days as if we’re automated and programmed. Headphones in, podcast on, we zip through the aisles of life, ticking items off the list (groceries, work tasks, news hits, Wordle guesses) with a managed, digitally enabled efficiency that keeps increasing exponentially. The self-checkout terminals of the past 10 years seem quaint, now that we can enter a cashierless grocery store like Aisle 24 in Toronto, grab what we want and have it scanned automatically by some unseen sensor as we breeze out the door. Many of us happily click and wait until the refrigerated truck pulls up outside, depositing its bounty by the door without ever having to speak with, see, or be in physical proximity to another human being.

This is the future many of us are heading toward, if not eagerly embracing. A future that is increasingly streamlined by computers, where digital technology brings us automation and remote convenience, and new software promises exponential efficiency.

Loblaws is now test-driving an automated, driverless delivery truck, while others are looking to virtual worlds for solutions. “Opting into the Metaverse could create new pathways for grocery stores to address staff shortages and increased demand, while increasing revenue opportunities,” predicted the culinary website, The Spruce Eats, this past January. The Toronto grocery delivery company Buggy has even developed a VR-ready shopping app, where you can wander the CGI aisles, gazing at fruit and yogurt, without ever leaving your couch. This digital future, we’re assured, is only a matter of time.

And yet each time I repeatedly fail to scan the QR code on a bunch of bananas, and call out in desperation for help from the human whose job I’m making obsolete, I question the wisdom of that digital future. It may claim to be efficient, innovative and cutting edge, but it is also one that is increasingly devoid of humans, and the things we humans require to live in this world. Where does the grieving grandmother fit in the virtual supermarket? Who will she reach out to, when the food is wordlessly dropped at her door?

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A man is scanned to create his digital avatar at this past August's World Metaverse Conference in Beijing, a showcase for the virtual-reality and AI technology that companies such as Meta are developing.JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images

Early in the pandemic, during the shock, awe and stunning boredom of quarantine, I kept seeing references to the science-fiction story The Machine Stops, written in 1909 by the British writer E.M. Forster. In it, humans live in comfortable underground pods which they seldom leave. Every desire they have – food, medical care, entertainment and education – is taken care of by the all knowing “Machine,” a proto-internet they worship like a god, that links these separate humans with screens and sounds and mechanical arms.

“We say ‘space is annihilated,’ but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof,” the character Kuno appeals to his mother. “We have lost a part of ourselves.”

As I read The Machine Stops on my laptop one rainy day, as my family climbed the walls, Kuno’s words reached out across the void, and struck me as the essential truth we’d all been missing. Bouncing between my own screens, all day, every day, for work, my kids’ school, conversations with friends, Jewish holiday rituals, entertainment and even a few feeble attempts at exercise, I was rapidly coming undone. Here we were, living in what many were gleefully calling “the new normal,” shot into a future where phones and computers and the internet and software now allowed us to conduct pretty much all our essential activities from the safety, comfort and efficiency of our four walls. And yet I (and pretty much everyone else I knew) had never been more miserable, because the digital future forgot to factor in the one truth that had become glaringly obvious: We are humans, and human beings simply need more than what digital technology can provide.

Humans have bodies, and these bodies have evolved to live in this world. “Man is the measure,” Kuno tells his mother, as he argues against The Machine’s manufactured reality. “That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.” Man (and Forster surely meant all humans of any gender identity) is a biological creature built to see varied textures and patterns over distances, hear the shift in the wind, gently squeeze a tomato to gauge its ripeness, then hold it up to our nose and link its scent to a vast trove of knowledge packed into our brains.

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Mannequins keep distance between customers at Montreal's Le Monarque restaurant in July, 2020, early in the pandemic.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

When you think about our greatest angst during the past few years, it wasn’t the fear of COVID-19. For most of us, our unsettling was the byproduct of severing our bodies from the physical world around us.

By decoupling work from the office, education from the classroom, music from the concert hall, prayer from the mosque and even the spin class from the sweaty gym, then simply replacing it with compressed sounds and images displayed on small, flat rectangles of glass, we instantly lost something fundamental to who we are. We became disembodied creatures, lost in space, and yet confined inside like prisoners of luxurious unlimited streaming packages.

“[We were] missing the tactile,” said Michael Rich, director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, and one of the world’s leading authorities studying screen addiction in youth. What Dr. Rich saw during the pandemic was nothing new – it was the same symptoms he has observed for decades, but cranked up to 11, as every family around the world endured them. What concerned him most in children wasn’t academic learning loss, but the greater loss of their human experience, their ability to live and thrive as full sensory beings. “I think the ability to appreciate the variability of life disappears,” he said. “You don’t get it. It doesn’t translate [online]. There is so much more richness in a walk in the woods than the greatest movie ever made.” Even the best online experience was a sensory-poor simulation of the real world.

At some point over the past few years, each one of us hit a wall. We had spent too much time inside, online, and suddenly had to break out. We went on long walks that felt more restorative than all the substances we were drowning our anxieties in. We picked up new hobbies that directly engaged our hands – jigsaw puzzles, sourdough baking, home repair – and lost ourselves in the intimacy of the task. We rode bikes like we had never been on two wheels before, explored lakes on paddleboards and kayaks, and rediscovered camping and the limitless balm that comes from sitting on a rock, and just looking out for an hour at the world, with nothing else to do. We dined out on patios and fed our bodies, and even our souls, with the world beyond our screens.

“I think when we’re constantly in the digital world, we’re in this reality that’s very two dimensional … that’s just not as satisfying,” said Emily Esfahani Smith, a journalist, therapist and author of the book The Power Of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness. “There’s this deeper third dimension that we can’t really access if we don’t step away from the screen.” Raised in Montreal by parents who ran a Sufi Islamic centre, Ms. Esfahani Smith draws a direct link between our need for human reality and spiritual fulfilment. “Without that you just have these surface digital experiences that don’t penetrate the soul and give people the deeper experiences,” she said. “Without them people will feel more anxious and depressed. Without meaning, people suffer, and there’s a limit to what people can get from a screen.”

Ms. Esfahani Smith told me that deeper meaning wasn’t some mystical, inaccessible, sacred thing. Despite the breathless sales pitches of meditation apps on Instagram, or tech bros praising the enlightenment of psychedelic retreats, truly soulful moments occur whenever humans stop and reflect on our reality in this world, even for a few moments, when you spot a particularly beautiful tree bursting with colour on your walk to work. “When you ask people about the most meaningful things, it’s always those analog experiences with nature, people, and spirituality,” she said. Even talking to another person can be transcendent.

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Illustration by R. Fresson

“I am so sorry that your husband died,” I said to the woman holding the teas, stunned at the rawness of this moment, on a Monday morning in the supermarket aisles. She just nodded, looking at the boxes in her hands.

“You must be having a hard time,” Toby said.

The woman nodded, saying “Si. Si,” in a quiet voice.

“Here, try this one,” Toby said, pulling a box of tea off the shelf and handing it to her. “I think it will help.”

Later, I asked Toby whether he had ever tried that tea.

“No,” he said. “But she didn’t need tea. She needed someone to talk with.”

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A migrant worker in Bogota makes a video call to her children abroad.Ivan Valencia/The Associated Press

Somehow, over the years, we confused our ability to communicate across distances with the need for face-to-face conversation. We made great advances in technology: letters and telegraphs, phone calls and texts, video and audio, and all of those things wrapped into sophisticated communications platforms that get us to speak to others in various ways. We “talk” to each other with images on Instagram, and words on Twitter, by posting on Facebook, or dancing with emojis on TikTok. We text and implore people not to call, and stack video meetings into the calendar like Lego bricks, while raining messages down on Slack at all hours.

But digital communication is not the same as having a conversation. It is a fundamentally different act than what happens when two or more human beings make sounds with their mouths, connect eyes and move their bodies to express ideas in a shared space, in real time. Online, a conversation is requested and scheduled. It has a start time, end time and set topic. The physical cues around which conversations are built – the setting, and the background noise, the things we see, and hear, and people we talk about, the coffee we’re drinking, plus all that body language that several hundred thousand years of evolution has perfected – all of that shapes a conversation. It imbues it with context, and potential turns. It opens up new ideas and forges memories. It allows for surprise and spontaneity.

At the start of The Machine Stops, Kuno calls his mother Vashti on a sort of video screen, and implores her to visit him.

“But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?”

“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine. … I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.”

How many times during the past few years did we cry out like Kuno for a real conversation, and go to extraordinary lengths to have them? We stood on opposite sidewalks and chatted across streets. We walked for hours in snowstorms with friends. We set up lawn chairs in parking lots and held family reunions. We convened board meetings on picnic blankets. We transformed backyards into bars and book clubs. We grasped for these precious conversations, and the full body experience they required, like our lives depended on them. Because they did.

“Our biology is triggered by in-person interactions,” said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neurologist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the emotional growth of the brain. In the brain, the same system that manages our physical survival also manages our social survival. In fact, the two are closely linked. “We need to be in contact with other people,” she said. Conversations aren’t something nice to have. They are an essential requirement for living, and our very survival depends on them. “Humans have social needs,” she said. “You literally don’t grow your brain properly without social communication and intense social relationships.”

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Handout images from Meta imagine a woman using the Quest Pro headset to design a skateboard that another man renders as a virtual 3-D construct.Meta, via Reuters

A year ago, unveiling his plans for Meta, Mark Zuckerberg confidently told the world that the future of conversation would be speaking with holograms, a prediction he has continued to make ever since. “To me,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in a recent interview with the podcaster Joe Rogan, “what virtual reality unlocks is that it really convinces your brain that you’re there.” So that’s your future in the metaverse: a cognitive parlour trick, delivered by digital slight of hand, to tell your brain “No, really, you are having a conversation with your mother there on the couch … just don’t look behind the curtain or try to hold her hand or read into her body language too much.”

If strapping screens to our eyes and chatting with pixels is our destiny, then humanity is doomed. If I sound alarmist, consider this fact: One of the most pervasive health crises growing across the world is an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Studies have demonstrated a clear link between how socially isolated individuals are, and their life expectancy. The more isolated someone feels, the higher their risk of premature death from a variety of causes: heart disease and diabetes, substance abuse and suicide, even accidental deaths. Any future where we spend even more time at home, alone, interacting through screens, is a deadly one. Humans have genuine social needs, and if those needs aren’t met, we will actually perish.

For the past few years, we overdosed on digital. Now, we’re reckoning with an epic hangover. We face a choice: strap on our headsets, double down and plunge deeper into the metaverse. Or step back, reconnect to our bodies and the world, and find a way to build a more human future.

There are hopeful signs that may be happening. Users of the pandemic’s digital darlings, such as Zoom, Netflix, Peloton and even Amazon’s e-commerce, are trending down, as people vote with their feet again for lunch meetings, movie theatres, gyms and the analog efficiency (heck, joy), of buying a pair of socks in a store. What was the last streaming performance you tuned into or virtual birthday party you attended? Could anyone seriously propose today that the future of your kids’ school, let alone global education, will be delivered through a screen, without being laughed at, or run out of town like some 19th-century snake oil salesman by an angry mob of students and parents and teachers? No way. Been there. Done that.

Sure, people and companies are ploughing money into escapist VR fantasies, but institutions and governments are also making long-term investments to strengthen human social connections. Recently, the organization GenWell was awarded a federal grant, along with the Institute for Social Connection, Simon Fraser University, and a number of other researchers, to develop a series of national guidelines and practices around social health. GenWell’s founder, Peter Bombaci, explained that he sees it as the social equivalent of the public-health advice we get around exercise and diet. “Human connection transcends every illness, every cause, every crisis,” Mr. Bombaci told me. “None of us recognize all those benefits. We think of connecting with other people as necessary … but no one ever taught us about the value of those relationships.”

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Residents hug at a yoga class in Sao Paulo.Nacho Doce/Reuters

As our world turns increasingly inward, we have to actively teach people how to reconnect as humans, and why that actually matters. Think BodyBreak, but for social health (and without Hal and Joanne’s track suits). A conversation a day keeps the doctor away!

One of the most promising examples is the growth of “social prescribing.” It is a practice, first developed by the U.K.’s National Health Service, which uses facilitated human connections to treat individual health disorders. A doctor or social worker may prescribe social activities to an individual who appears lonely or isolated, or experiences other issues (anxiety around finances, or even chronic diabetes) that can benefit from increased social connections … basically, friendships. These interventions can take the shape of seemingly simple things: gardening clubs and fishing expeditions, or even group walks. But the impact can be tremendous on individual lives, and over the long term, the hope is that social prescribing can ease the strain on our overburdened health care system, by introducing a degree of preventative care that actually keeps people from getting sick.

“What we build is a community,” said Sonia Hsiung, the director of the newly formed Canadian Institute for Social Prescribing (anchored by the Canadian Red Cross) which is bringing together multi-sectoral partners to advance social prescribing in Canada. “When we say community, we mean consistent relationships where you have conversations and you feel part of something. And you know it’ll be there next week or next month.” Real people. Getting together. Speaking face to face. Being human.

Finally, what we often need the most as humans is to feel the world. Standing there in Fiesta Farms, after Toby placed the tea in the nonna’s hands, I remembered what Marie-Anne Essam (a pioneer of Britain’s social prescribing system) told me. “Don’t forget the hug! I think that’s critical. Even the touch of the arm,” she said, noting that most people really just needed someone to remind them that someone in this world cared. “That did them more good than any medicine.”

So I reached out and offered my hand to the woman. She gave it a brief squeeze, we looked each other in the eyes, and in that moment, it took everything in my power not to burst out into tears. Human beings are not digital. Our destiny is not preordained on some exponential curve. The future we deserve is based on real experiences. Visceral emotions. Meaningful relationships. Physical communities. The full-body roller coaster that is human existence on planet Earth. Bound by biology and all its quirks, we experience life on this spinning rock in all its richness, risk, beauty and misery. When we try to replace that reality with a digital facsimile, we are lost. The future is analog because we are analog.

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