Sitting outside a café scrolling through his contacts while waiting for someone, New York novelist Jonathan Safran Foer noticed a girl talking into her phone and crying. When she finished the call, the girl was still crying. Should he go and speak to her? Foer wondered. The story leads Foer's short essay How not to be Alone, adapted from a college commencement speech and published online by the New York Times where I found it after a Facebook Friend Tweeted it.
Our new ways of communicating are making us more likely to forget others, Foer says, and less available to give our undivided attention to one another. And while we use technology to save time, it either takes the time it saves along with it or makes the saved time “less, present, intimate and rich.” Even thinking about whether to speak to the girl, Foer says, is something our iDistractions of choice enable us to avoid having to do.
At one level, Foer, a philosophy graduate, is writing about technology and how it’s changing us. But like his novels Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which deal with difficult histories, he’s also saying something profound about the reasons for human existence, with deeper thinking about technology than the standard doomsaying about computer games and social media and young minds, of which I’m as guilty as anyone.
With each new communication technology, Foer says, we’ve moved one more step away from one another, from the bonds that make us human. And the thing is this. While each technology originated as a poor substitute for what it replaced – the phone when you couldn’t meet face to face, the answering machine when you couldn’t phone, email when you couldn’t write, text even easier than email – we’ve come to prefer these diminished forms of communication. But they’ve taken out what’s human.
I confess we are deviced in my house, retreating to our various desks, beds and couches to check email and social media or read news or play music or games or just surf aimlessly. I have never measured how much of the day I spend doing nothing that makes a contribution to anyone or involves any useful learning, but it’s a lot more than I ever spent in a library during either of my degrees. And even though I know that what makes me happiest always involves real others – seeing the young people who make my coffee at Merlo Paddington each morning, walking a new route to school, swimming with a friend – it wasn’t until I read the Foer piece that it finally hit me. On balance, connection to the world via technology instead of lived life has made me sadder not happier as a person.
I’ve thought of disconnecting but I’m not sure I can or truly want to. Like the addicted gambler, I have a hope that one day, one day, something – I don’t even know what. I tried withdrawing, just for 24 hours, and it was like the first day of giving up smoking. The pull was visceral. Even the practicalities were hard. I started by turning off the internet connection on the computer on my desk. I dumped the browser and email. But of course my phone can check email now, and get on social media. So I dumped the Apps and put the phone in flight mode and threw it in a drawer. Then there’s the other computer in my office. Before I knew it and without thinking, I’d checked my email and was off and browsing apace. So I hobbled that computer too. And then I put up a new picture as a screensaver on both computers. It’s a sign under a bridge over a river that says “Danger! Falls Ahead!”
After that, I still lasted less than the 24 hours, but it was enough to make me realise I could do things differently. I don’t take my phone with me everywhere now, and I’ve left one computer, the one I use most, disconnected.
Being attentive to others might not be the point of life, Foer tells us, but it is the work of life. “It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.”
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 29 June 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!