Oliver Sacks on Digital Stuff

From The New Yorker, February 11, 2019
(Posthumously? Reprint? Sachs died in 2015)

My favorite aunt, Auntie Len, when she was in her eighties, told me that she had not had too much difficulty adjusting to all the things that were new in her lifetime—jet planes, space travel, plastics, and so on—but that she could not accustom herself to the disappearance of the old. “Where have all the horses gone?” she would sometimes say. Born in 1892, she had grown up in a London full of carriages and horses.

I have similar feelings myself. A few years ago, I was walking with my niece Liz down Mill Lane, a road near the house in London where I grew up. I stopped at a railway bridge where I had loved leaning over the railings as a child. I watched various electric and diesel trains go by, and after a few minutes Liz, growing impatient, asked, “What are you waiting for?” I said that I was waiting for a steam train. Liz looked at me as if I were crazy.

“Uncle Oliver,” she said. “There haven’t been steam trains for more than forty years.”

I have not adjusted as well as my aunt did to some aspects of the new—perhaps because the rate of social change associated with technological advances has been so rapid and so profound. I cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come…