Monday, June 17, 2013

The Jonathan Safran Foer fallacy


Last week, I saw a stranger crying in public. She had just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay ‘How not to be alone’ on her iPhone’s NYTimes app, when she was overcome by a wave of deep sadness. I heard her say ‘why is this person so horrible?’ over and over.

I was faced with a choice: I could interject myself into her life, or I could respect the boundaries between us. Or I could look up the meaning and usage of the verb ‘to interject’. (It was a three-way choice.) Intervening might make her feel worse, or be inappropriate. But then, it might ease her pain, or be helpful in some straightforward logistical way. I say ‘logistical’ because in my spare time I run a company that specialises in supply-chain management.

An affluent neighbourhood at the beginning of the day is not the same as a dangerous one as night is falling. And I was me, and not someone else. Think about that for a moment.

It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to start tapping notes on your smartphone for an essay you plan to submit to the New York Times. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat. The phone didn’t make me avoid the human connection. The fact that I’m a horrible person did. The phone just gave me something to look at whilst ignoring this other human sobbing just metres away.

The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits. I thought of that while someone was crying. Don’t you feel like punching me in the face?

Cares that you are crying

Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. Just imagine! Your reaction to burning your hand on the stove is quicker than figuring out why a person is sad and what you should do about it. Science says so. And the more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care. Nothing to do with being a soulless, self-obsessed narcissist or anything like that.

Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention — even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She said other things as well, but by then I had stopped listening. Get to the point, Simone, for chrissakes! I’m working to a deadline here.

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. (I’m so confident about this assertion, I’m not even going to check it against Wikipedia.) And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it. I’m almost sure that’s right: a computer is just a more complex telephone. Also, the word ‘declension’: yeah.

But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to schlep to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up. Especially our brother-in-law, Frank. How we all hate talking to Frank.

Shooting off an e-mail is easier, still, because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching Frank. And texting is even easier, as the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.

Is it clear enough that when I say ‘we’, I actually mean ‘you’? This is very important. I’m actually a wonderfully caring person. Just look at this bear.


With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present. I feel that this is a very solid point. Pretend that I argued it until you are thoroughly persuaded.

Only those with no imagination, and no grounding in reality, would deny the possibility that they will live forever. I suppose that if you were going to write a parody of this essay, you might not even know how to tackle that sentence. Did I just say immortality is within reach, and that you would be a fool to deny it? Wow. Let’s assume, though, that we all have a set number of days to indent the world with our beliefs, to find and create the beauty that only a finite existence allows for, to wrestle with the question of purpose and wrestle with our answers. Are you still with me?

We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich. I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts. It’s not an either/or — being “anti-technology” is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly “pro-technology”. So let’s all pretend that I hadn’t spent the last nine hundred words blaming technology for my inability to relate emotionally to strangers, and call it a question of balance that our lives hang upon.

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. Especially the woman in front of me, who’s basically drowning in a pool of her own tears by now, and that I plan to console as soon as I’ve filed this essay. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers. This is not the time to question if the last sentence makes any sense whatsoever. This is the time to feel and to care .


We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life.

I have plenty more shitty non sequiturs. There is a market for telling people that their emotional life is impoverished by electronic gadgets, and I’m right in it. It’s me, Nick, and a few others, and let me assure you that we have the genre thoroughly figured out: blame technology for putting distance between people, or between people and nature, implying that before technology the world was more ‘real’; subsume economic and social relations to ‘the internet’ or ‘smartphones’ or ‘social media’ so as to make all of our arguments circular, their logic self-fulfilling; cite uncritically every bit of social science research that supports our hypotheses, and those only; and make a spectacularly dishonest use of the pronoun ‘we’, so as to turn the experience of technology into a bland universal. To really investigate contemporary alienation would require a qualitatively different kind of effort: one that is much more careful in its evaluation of psychological evidence, and much more willing to question the idea that a life less mediated is a life more authentic. One that is aware of politics, and not just of sentiment. But there’s no money or glory in that.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to leave because this damn woman’s incessant weeping is beginning to creep me out, and people are starting to look at me funny.