Why We Need a Return to Real Life

It’s time to return to real life. I think we all feel it. Perhaps few acknowledge it because of the consequence implied by the action: get off Facebook, put down the smartphone, and get face-to-face with someone. You can’t curate your existence as you stand in front of someone. “We have become so accustomed to our illusions,” Daniel Boorstin wrote many years ago in The Image, “that we mistake them for reality.”

But illusions fade. We cannot keep reality at bay for long. Perhaps this is why analog products are making a comeback.

For example, I’m writing this article in my Moleskine with a Micron 03. My Saddleback leather Moleskine case squeaks as I write. No tabs opened, no popping notifications annoying me, creating that anxious checking thing we do when we should be working. It feels good to write with a pen on paper.

Journal and pen are forms of technology—but an analog form. I experience something visceral as I press my hand into the page to keep it flat as I write. I’m not tapping keys or scrolling with a magic mouse. I’m holding and moving a real object. It’s like the difference between working out on an elliptical machine and actually sliding and gliding on cross-country skis in a forest filled with snow. One experience evokes emotions and is impossible to fabricate in a gym.

“Analog experiences can provide us with the kind of real-world pleasures and rewards digital ones cannot,” writes David Sax, author of the new book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. Mr. Sax, like me, also hails the benefit and pleasure of using pen and paper over a keyboard. But he is quick to remind readers that it’s not about pitting analog and digital against one another. He says we are conditioned to think in false binaries, as if there must be a clear-cut choice between analog and digital, but that this is misguided. Real life, he says, is multifaceted; it is layered, multi-colored, and infinitely textured. It is the imperfections of analog, like recording on two-inch tape in a recording studio rather than Protools, that are able to communicate human imperfections in voicing and performance.

Perhaps it is this life-like feel, this beauty in the imperfect, that so dazzles us. Analog products are steadily finding success in the market. Fuji and Polaroid have brought back the instant camera. Vinyl record sales show a marked increase, climbing to the highest point since 1988. Real books, over digital products, remain the top seller in the publishing world.

New products like Volta, a powerful desktop computer “designed for life,” recently launched. The Volta is a computer completely housed in a stunning hardwood encasement. Volta’s designers claim it was inspired by “honestly made wooden furniture products,” suggesting that functionality and design are turning in the analog direction.

But this is not a trend of hipster influence. It is a turning:  Away from a cold digital world where obsolescence creates anxiety in consumers. It is a turning towards real life.

A recent article in the Independent reported that many millennials are leaving social media in search of real life—or at least a happy life. The article, based on a recent study by Anxiety UK, canvassed millennials who are active on social media. Those interviewed affirmed the study’s findings, stating that they either had to turn off their phones to get a break from social media, or bag social media altogether to regain some balance and happiness in their lives. Perhaps these millennials should check out Light Phone; a credit card sized phone that only makes phone calls. Its whole purpose is to declutter our notification-heavy lives.

David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, reminds us that our brains are not three pound machines that can just keep plugging away, consuming the digital world. Our brains, in fact, need time to recalibrate. “If you can have the experience of being in the moment for two or three days,” says Strayer, “it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.” For Strayer, who is an avid backpacker, brain-breaks are best given in nature. After a few days on the trail or camping, our brains and senses reboot; we smell and see things we’d otherwise miss or pass over.

Our culture will continue to progress in the realm of digital technology. But real life is crucial as well. It is served up away from the noise and distractions and involves things we can touch, see, and smell. Even in the late nineteenth century the mountaineer-philosopher John Muir knew the benefits of real life over the machine world.  He wrote:

“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”

Need a remedy for anxiety, distractions, and your tired brain? Go for a hike, bike to work, leave the phone off on the weekends. There’s no mistaking reality, if we just take the time to disconnect long enough to see it.

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