The In-Betweeners

Since my childhood, I have been an in-betweener: one foot in the digital world; one foot in the real world. I'm still doing that today, in 2024 - spending half my days completely offline. Here is what I learned from this.

The In-Betweeners
A photo of a woman (me!) seen from the back, looking at a mountain range in Northern Italy. The left side of the photo is normal; the right side is fully pixelated

Capturing Gen Z’s attention

In early December I was invited to give a 30 minute presentation about The Realists for recent graduates of a prestigious business school in Paris. Their teacher told me that the students were already aware of many of the topics I typically write about – Big Tech, surveillance capitalism, behavioral manipulation – especially after watching the documentary The Social Dilemma. My task: to keep my presentation fresh and original to impress an audience that grew up online.

In the days leading up to the lecture, I was really intimidated. I had shown my documentary The Illusionists to auditoriums with over 300 spectators - but presenting to a class of 30 or so Gen Z students felt far more daunting. What could I possibly tell them that would grab and hold their attention?

Until I found an angle – that the audience eventually appreciated.

Meet a Geriatric Millennial

I am a geriatric millennial: I had an analog childhood in the 1980s; discovered the Web 1.0 in my teens, and the birth of social media once I was a university student.

I have this unique perspective of being in between worlds: I experienced socialization away from screens for most of my childhood and early adolescence; and the tidal wave of the internet and the monumental changes it brought to us as humans once I was already a young adult.

My dad worked in technology and would bring home early computer prototypes. Our first laptop, in the late 1980s, came in a heavy grey plastic suitcase that opened to reveal a keyboard on one side and a small orange, low resolution screen on the other. The availability of the internet would be a few years away… all I could do was play around with DOS commands and Paintbrush.

An IBM computer from the 1980s. Source: Wikimedia

At home, I would be engrossed in these new technological tools. At school, none of my classmates could relate to these experiences, as personal computers were still rare and prohibitively expensive in Italy at the time.

While preparing the presentation for the class of business graduates in December, I realized that I have always felt in between worlds. One foot in the digital world; one foot out in the real world. It’s been my normal my entire life. And being an in-betweener can offer a powerful perspective to what is happening to our world today.

An in-betweener doesn’t accept new things as normal; an in-betweener is reminded of what “normal” used to be like and questions every innovation. Maybe this is why I am so drawn to the writings of the late Neil Postman - especially his superb book Technopoly - as he held the same critical attitude towards technology.

The Last Generation

I belong to the last generation that grew up offline. The LAST one. Generations that came after me experienced the internet and social media from middle school… or even earlier. The only people who could relate to this are my late grandparents. They were born in a world without television… and then, in their adult years, they discovered this “magical” box that would bring the outside world in their living room.

As a geriatric millennial I distinctly remember what friendships used to be like - nurtured in the real world, away from screens. Sure, I would spend hours on the phone talking to friends in high school, once I got home from school. But there weren’t technological companies involved in mediating our communications, gamifying our interactions with hearts and likes and visible metrics. I am not saying one way is better than the other. Do not mistake this as nostalgia for a time now gone. Mine is just the testimony of someone who remembers what it was like to hang out for hours with friends in the afternoon, after school, in the absence of the internet, social media and the walled gardens of Big Tech.

I was an in-betweener as a child and adolescent, dipping in and out of two worlds. And I am still an in-betweener today, in 2024. How? You may wonder.

Half the day online; half the day offline

I wake up at around 6am every day. I immediately go online to read the news (bad habit, I know) or resume reading a book on my Kindle. Then I have coffee, get ready, and wake up my little one at around 8am. As soon as my child is with me, the phone goes in my back pocket… and stays there until I drop her off at daycare. I go home to work, power up my computer and tablet and dip back in the digital world for about 6 hours. When, at 3:30pm, it’s time to go pick her up from daycare, the computer and tablet shut off for the rest of the day and the phone returns in my back pocket… where it will stay for the next 5 hours, until my child is asleep.

I’ve been putting away my smartphone when I’m with my child ever since she was born: I never wanted to give her the impression that whatever appeared on this small black rectangle was more important than her. My number one priority has been - for 3 years now - to give her my undivided attention.

It’s fascinating to see how we model behaviors to our little ones and how much they learn by observing us.

Ever since my child’s toddlerhood, she has often yearned to imitate what mommy does. At home, we have had an unplugged, inactive cordless phone lying around in the living room. I explained to my child that that black object is a phone. Next time I caught her playing with it, she was trying to shove it in her back pocket - even if her pants that day didn’t have one. So she simply took the phone and sat on it. And then looked up at me and said “phone pocket.” It was hilarious. And incredibly endearing and powerful. When it happened my girl wasn’t even 2 yet… maybe she was 18 months old. And yet, she knew what I kept in my back pocket was a phone. And that it belonged there when we were together.

Takeaways from a tech-free, TV-free life

What happens when a 3 year old doesn’t have access to television, smartphones or tablets for “entertainment”? The entire world around them is an object of wonder, to be observed with the utmost curiosity and vigilance. A 360° interactive playground.

For example, on the way to daycare in the morning, she often screams “Mom! The moon!” The first time it happened I thought to myself: “what is she talking about it’s daytime” But then I looked up to the sky and saw a banana-shaped tiny sliver of light. Sure enough, there was a crescent moon barely visible behind some fluffy clouds.

It takes my girl less than 5 seconds to spot the moon on a clear morning, whenever we leave our apartment building. The moon… planes… cats perched on a windowsill… my offline, screen-free toddler spots interesting things all the time – an inspires me to be present, in the real world, and to notice interesting things too, so I can point them out to her.

Conversely, on the way to daycare, we often come across people walking while staring down at their phones, completely oblivious to the world around them. How many crashes have I averted! When I’m in a rush, pushing her stroller, I often feel like I’m playing a real life video game. Think: Frogger, but the obstacles and dangers are not cars and trucks… they are fast-walking humans whose eyes are hypnotized by cell phones and who do not notice incoming pedestrians.

Frogger Arcade via GIPHY

It’s a bit awkward to be with my toddler and observe her observe these people who are completely engrossed in their screens. Whenever I get on public transportation with her, we are often the only people not staring down at a screen during the journey. She often tries to smile and establish eye contact with people - especially if someone is dressed in her favorite color - but it’s rare to have people look up and smile back. Fellow moms and dads, or people over the age of 70… but that’s about it. Luckily I always pack books, so we can read stories… and I can pull her attention away from this new normal of disconnection. My explanation to her “they’re probably writing to or reading a message from their mom.” Ha!

The Pursuit of Human Happiness

Seeing what makes my child tick, what she needs to be happy (attention! love! safety! her favorite stories!) is the biggest drive for me to make a documentary on technology and how it is changing us as humans.

Kids a decade older than my child are witnessing an epidemic of depression and anxiety – that has coincided with the introduction of smartphones and gamified social media platforms.

The idea that my child’s happiness will one day depend on social media metrics and online popularity - subject to an opaque algorithm - just about breaks my heart and infuriates me at the same time. I intend to fiercely protect her from this ugly digital world for as long as I can… and when she’s old enough, educate her about the mechanisms driving it and teach her to question everything and to follow the money.

My child may one day see me as an out of touch dinosaur, but I will be in the position to remind her that there used to be another way. And that there still is another way - if she chooses it. The Realists’ way. Informed, aware, and keen on using tech in a mindful way, instead of being used by it.

Thanks for being here.


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THE REALISTS teaser from Elena Rossini on Vimeo.