Pando

Still the luckiest generation

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on April 10, 2017

From The History Desk

We all have our little ways of staying sane, of keeping our heads while all those around us are frantically refreshing Twitter and CNN.com and Facebook and the NYTimes so as not to miss a single moment of the end of the world.

My little oasis of calm, as regular Pando readers will know, is a feature called “In praise of things that just work.” Every couple of weeks I share a product or service -- Murfie, Rinse, Delete.ly-- that delivers on its promise and, in doing so, briefly restores my faith in the tech industry, and wider humanity.

I know the series has at least one fan, because he emailed me shortly after my recent announcement that I was deleting all of my online accounts (except for my work and personal email accounts). “How will you find new things that just work?” wrote the fan.

In other words, how can I talk about web services that I love when I’m no longer using web services?

There are two answers to that: The first is that, as I explained here, I’m not giving up the Internet. I’m simply deleting all of my social and other accounts. Anything that stores meaningful data about me in the cloud that might be weaponized against me, or that demands I contribute endless free content to remain in good standing. That includes Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft etc etc etc. It doesn’t, say, preclude me from making a one-off online purchase from an independent retailer like Thriftbooks, or from keeping a single, secure, personal email account to correspond with friends and colleagues. There should still be plenty of opportunity to discover new products and services that simply work, without ever having to set up a new account.

My second answer is slightly more obtuse. One of the best things about my new digital diet is that it has forced me to rediscover old technologies. Things like landlines and dumb phones and newspapers all of which, in San Francisco, are considered hipster affectations but in the rest of the world are simply… phones and newspapers. Things which it turns out, Silicon Valley propaganda be damned, all still work perfectly well and sometimes even outperform their smarter, more digital rivals.  

This past week, during my trip to London, I accidentally created a perfect storm of old tech when I wandered into a Tesco Metro supermarket outside London and found a table piled high with used books, priced at 50p each as part of some kind of charity promotion. I walked out of the store with an armful of Arthur Hailey’s amazing Airport/Hospital/Trucking reality fiction from the 60s and 70s. That old-tech storm was complete when, absent my laptop, I read “Airport” cover to cover on my wifi-free flight back to San Francisco and was transported through fiction to a world before the TSA, when one could wander, unmolested by security, from curb to gate -- and when pilots exchanged bawdy jokes while puffing away on their pipes in the cockpit.

As I sat, marvelling at how dangerous that world seems (indeed the book’s major plot point involves a man wandering onto a plane with a bomb) but also how wonderfully simple (pipes!) I was reminded of something I first wrote here on Pando almost three years ago: That we are part of the luckiest generation.

Back then I argued that the world was likely to get much worse. I even suggested -- if you can imagine -- that soon we’d see an openly sociopathic presidential contender who would drag us all to hell. But, I wrote, those of us born before the 90s would at least be able to remember a simpler time. We’d have all the benefits of the Internet and other amazing modern technologies, but could remember a time before the Internet and social media made us all awful.

That plane ride made me realize that I’d missed another reason why we’re so lucky to be alive right now, vs a few decades  ago or a few decades hence. Those of us alive today still have the option -- if we choose to take it -- to unshackle ourselves from the alway-on web and to remove ourselves from the cloud. We can still subscribe to newspapers and watch broadcast television and wander into branches of Tesco and buy books for 50p. Almost any example of human technological innovation is still available to buy on eBay, and it mostly still works. You can still buy things with cash, or even with gold coins. You can drive a car, manually. You can write with a pen or a typewriter, and still buy refills for both.

But at any time you choose, you can pick up a laptop, break your digital fast and instantly be thrust back into the future. More importantly you can straddle both worlds -- the old and the new, with very little effort. Future generations won’t have that luxury -- the luxury of choosing whether to receive their news on paper or screen, or both -- the option of typing on a typewriter or remembering when there were no backscatter scanners at airports.

That, for me, is the best thing about forcing myself to abandon my digital accounts -- the realization that, away from the Internet, the analogue world still exists and, for now at least, it still works as advertised.