When I imagined the world of 2020 back in 2008, I pictured flying cars, virtual classrooms, portable libraries, and AI toasters. As I grew up, I realized that some of these fantasies were absurd. My brother told me that flying cars already existed, and they are called airplanes. When I complained that those two things were not the same, I had to listen to a half-hour lecture about how the aerodynamics of a car is designed so it does the opposite of what an airplane does — it sinks rather than flies. While some aspects of my imagination never came true, others did.
In 2020, all classes are taught online, although not by choice. Almost all students of the first world have their own portable library — they are called PCs. Having access to so much information and being able to learn anything from anywhere is a tremendous privilege. As an avid user of online learning resources such as Crash Course, Khan Academy, and edX, I am grateful for this technology. But, as I now spend the majority of my waking hours on my computer, I feel a certain sense of emptiness and disconnection from reality. I find myself unable to focus, shifting from one webpage to another, scrolling without absorbing much information. With more time to myself, I thought I would be able to be more productive, but I often catch myself trying to fill the void with social media and YouTube videos. And then when a deadline swings by, I regret the wasted hours. The age of information is all about efficiency, but I feel like I am lagging behind.
I may be particularly old-fashioned. I have a hard time studying on PDF versions of my textbooks, and so resort to buying hard copies. I have a Kindle but I barely use it except when I am traveling — crisply turning pages is an essential part of the reading experience. I have an archaic iPhone SE, and I am that friend who responds to a message half a day later. My sentiments against technology are similar to those of older generations’; an example being my mom, who almost had a midlife crisis while trying to figure out how to use Zoom. There is an increasing number of people in my generation who wish to distance themselves from the rapidly improving communication technology and reminisce on the “good old days”. 90s fashion is trending once again with high waisted jeans and scrunchies. Many films are made lo-fi on purpose for artistic effects. Samsung released a flip phone, and rumor has it that Apple will go back to the square edge design of the iconic iPhone 4. I cannot help but wonder if this retro trend is a consequence of our desire to go back to simpler times.
It is saddening to see children on their phones and tablets instead of playing tag outside, or teens sitting with their friends all attached to their screens instead of having conversations. But this growing resistance to technology may not just be about nostalgia. It is also about the digital divide — a gap in terms of access to and use of information and communication technology. For those of us digitally enabled, our lives can go on during quarantine, albeit with some glitches. But for those who lack access or knowledge to utilize technology, it means exclusion from the digital world as a whole. Although telecommunication companies such as Korea Telecom are stepping up to provide free and fast internet for students, there still are many who are harmed by the digital divide in the current crisis. Some see COVID-19 as an opportunity for digital solutions, education technology, and e-commerce. However, as Shamika Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director, suggests, without addressing those who are left behind by technology, we will see a widening gap between “the under-connected” and the “hyper-digitalized”, exacerbating existing inequalities.
What will the world look like when we finally come out of this crisis? Will it be more or less reliant on technology? Perhaps we may see an even further divide between those who are more used to technology that have fared better during the crisis, and those who could not adjust to them fall further behind. It seems that the retro subculture will persist as people who feel alienated by the technocentric modern world reminisce on “the good days.”