In addition to penning one of the funniest single scenes I’ve ever read in a novel, Jonathan Franzen proves via his editorial in May 29th’s Sunday Times that he is also capable of disarming candor, one of the only angles capable of rendering poignant anyone’s thoughts on a subject that has now been written on to the point of obscenity; the relationship of human beings with modern technology.
“The ultimate goal of technology,” Franzen says, “the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”
He goes on to deliver an indictment of the ways in which our obsession with personal technologies and “social” media feeds and enables a staggering narcissism. The reality he laments is instantly recognizable to anyone living in 21st century America. We are hounded by a constant temptation to check our devices, turn on our screens, and generally tend to our own business at the drop of a hat regardless of the circumstances or company we find ourselves in. Any day now we’ll hear of some groom Tweeting about his vows from the altar. Actually, we’ll probably see a photo of that moment captured on the best man’s smartphone.
To drive this point home, try having a conversation with someone who is actively reading a book. You’ll very quickly feel one of three things; their annoyance, their disconnection (they’ll ignore you), or you’ll find them setting the book down and turning to face you. It’s impossible to be simultaneously invested in both reading and conversing and be doing either well. And yet the social norm is listing more and more towards a place where it’s acceptable for people to perform any manner of tasks and activities on their phones or computers while supposedly spending meaningful time with other people.
Corporations and consumer culture couch the invitation to buy or utilize their products in the language of “connection,” when in fact we are being lured into a state of profound disconnection. Tellingly, we don’t see the dangers of overstimulation, the bleeding of our privacy, or the temptation to narcissism as such. No, we see them as our rights. We feel entitled to be plugged in; to both acquiesce to and indulge in a system that includes what author John Freeman has labeled “the tyranny of e-mail.”
The perversion of the verb “to like” is one of the most compelling lenses through which Franzen examines the perfect storm whipped up between the forces of consumer culture on one side and narcissism on the other. “Liking” becomes a replacement for loving when we only “like” those people or things that are either predisposed to like us in return or who do not have the capacity to reject us. We seek through our technologies, he ultimately asserts, the means with which to escape the pain of facing the reality that we, along with everyone we love, must suffer and one day die.
What does it cost us to remain present in each moment? To not send a text, scroll through iTunes, or fondle our mobile devices for the duration of even a fifteen minute face-to-face conversation with another person? The answer is that remaining present will require bearing the joy, sadness, and sometimes the hunger for love of another human being. We’re ambivalent about connecting to other people. We’re ambivalent about looking at ourselves in the mirror, for fear of what we will or will not find.
I was recently at drinks with a friend and was in the middle of telling a story when his phone buzzed. He immediately picked it up and started typing out a response to the text he’d just received. I stopped speaking, waiting for him to finish. Suddenly self-conscious, he said, “Keep going, this is time sensitive. I just have to respond to XXXX.” I didn’t keep going, though. He looked up at me again after a few seconds of silence, then set the phone down, visibly annoyed. I continued with my story. I didn’t apologize for his discomfort. I don’t think I needed to.