Louis C.K. Was Almost Right About Smartphones, Loneliness, Sadness, the Meaning of Life, and Everything

“I think these things are toxic, especially for kids …” That’s Louis C.K. talking about smartphones on Conan O’Brien last week. You’ve probably already seen the clip; it exploded online the next day. In the off-chance that you’ve not seen the clip yet, here it is. It’s just under five minutes, and it’s worth considering.

Let me tell you, briefly, what I appreciated about this bit, and then I’ll offer a modest refinement to Louis C.K.’s perspective.

Here are the two key insights I took away from the exchange. First, the whole thing about empathy. Cyberbullying is a big deal, at least it’s one of the realities of online experience that gets a lot of press. And before cyberbullying was a thing we worried about, we complained about the obnoxious and vile manner in which individuals spoke to one another on blogs and online forums. The anonymity of online discourse took a lot of the blame for all of this. A cryptic username, after all, allowed people to act badly with impunity.

I’m sure anonymity was a factor. That people are more likely too act badly when they can’t be caught is an insight at least as old as Plato’s ring of Gyges illustration. But, insofar as this kind of behavior has survived the personalization of the Internet experience, it would seem that the blame cannot be fixed entirely on anonymity.

This is where Louis C.K. offers us a slightly different, and I think better, angle that fills the picture out a bit. He frames the problem as a matter of embodiment. Obviously, people can be cruel to one another in each other’s presence. It happens all the time. The question is whether or not there is something about online experience that somehow heightens the propensity toward cruelty, meanness, rudeness, etc. Here’s how I would answer that question: It’s not that there is something intrinsic to the online experience that heightens the propensity to be cruel. It’s that the online experience unfolds in the absence of a considerable mitigating condition: embodied presence.

In Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, his unnamed protagonist, the whiskey priest, comes to the following realization: “When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity … that was a quality God’s image carried with it … when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate.”

This is, I think, what Louis C.K. is getting at. We like to think of ourselves as rational actors who make our way through life by careful reasoning and logic. For better or for worse, this is almost certainly not the case. We constantly rely on all sorts of pre-cognitive or non-conscious  or visceral operations. Most of these are grounded in our bodies and their perceptual equipment. When our bodies, and those magical mirror-neurons, are taken out of play, then the perceptual equipment that helps us act with a measure of empathy is also out of the picture, and then, it seems, cruelty proceeds with one less impediment.

The second insight I appreciated centered on the themes of loneliness and sadness. What Louis C.K. seems to be saying, in a way that still manages to be funny enough to bear, is that there’s something unavoidably sad about life and at the core of our being there is a profound emptiness. What’s more, it is when we are alone that we feel this sadness and recognize this emptiness. This is inextricably linked to what we might call the human condition, and the path to any kind of meaningful happiness is through this sadness and the loneliness that brings it on.

Because it’s worth reading over as text, here, one more time, is what Louis C.K. had to say about this:

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.

And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it…

That’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”

Okay, so I appreciated this part because I already agreed with it. I already agreed with it because I bought into this understanding of the human condition when I read Pascal years ago and because it resonates with my own experience. In his Pensées, Pascal wrote, “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.”

Want to know what else he wrote? This:

“Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself.  So who does not see it, apart from young people whose lives are all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future?  But take away their diversion and you will see them bored to extinction.  Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

Pascal wrote this stuff not quite 400 years ago. Four hundred years. Now, the question this raises is this: Doesn’t that undermine Louis C.K’s whole bit? If the problems he associates with smartphones clearly predate smartphones, then isn’t he fundamentally off-base in his criticisms?

Yes and no.

Let me borrow some comments from Alan Jacobs to clarify what I mean. Over at his recently revived blog, Text Patterns, Jacobs wound his way from a discussion of Leo Tolstoy’s influence on Mikhail Bakhtin to make a very useful point about how we understand technology:

It seems to me that most of our debates about recent digital technologies — about living in a connected state, about being endlessly networked, about becoming functional cyborgs — are afflicted by the same tendency to false systematization that, as Levin and Pierre discover, afflict ethical theory. Perhaps if we really want to learn to think well, and in the end act well, in a hyper-connected environment, we need to stop trying to generalize and instead become more attentive to what we are actually doing, minute by minute, and to the immediate consequences of those acts.

In other words, rather than generalizing about “smartphones” or “digital technology,” let’s pay attention to specific practices. Granting, of course, that Louis C.K. is a comedian giving a short routine, not a philosopher writing a long monograph, he might’ve done well to take a cue from Jacobs.

The smartphone itself is not the “real” problem. The “real” problem, if we can agree that it is a problem, is our inability to abide, at least sometimes, the existential loneliness and sadness that are somehow wrapped up in the package of realities that we call “being human.” That problem is not in any essential way connected with the smartphone (as Pascal’s observations attest).

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant. It is part of a practice that is itself a manifestation of the problem. The problem is not the smartphone, it’s this thing we’re doing with the smartphone, which, in the past, we have also done with countless other things.

Unfortunately, recognizing that the problem isn’t essentially connected to the smartphone leads some to discount the problem altogether. That would be a mistake. The problem is no less real. It’s just that smashing our smartphones is not a solution. If only it were that simple. That promise of simplicity, in fact, might be why it is so tempting to causally link personal and social problems to certain technologies. It offers a certain comfort to us because we don’t have to look to our own crooked hearts for the source of our problems, and it holds out the promise of a relatively painless and straightforward solution.

The opposite is the case. The problem here, and in most cases, is (in part at least) buried in our own being, and tending it requires a mindful vigilance that must abide complexity in the absence of silver bullets.

So, then, rather than opening his bit by saying “I think these things are toxic, especially for kids,” Louis C.K. should have said, “I think this thing we do is toxic, for all of us …”

Hawthorne Against the Techno-Utopians

I’ve had occasion to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing a time or two in previous posts. In his journal, he noted the manner in which the train whistle broke into the natural idyll he was enjoying — “But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive” — inaugurating a long-standing literary convention which persists to this day (see Sherry Turkle).

Elsewhere, Hawthorne anticipated de Chardin and McLuhan’s metaphorical rendering of the electric age: “Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?”

Hawthorne and his generation were grappling with the consequences of industrialization. We are grappling with the consequences of digitization. These two are not necessarily analogous, but they share one variable: human nature. Hawthorne in particular had a keen sense of our faults and foibles. While his stories did not always dwell on technology explicitly, they imaginatively explored the darker proclivities that human beings bring to the techno-scientific project.

In the opening paragraph of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne writes,

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

This is a grim observation, but it seems incontrovertible; and it applies with equal force to all techno-utopian projects and hopes. Wherever we go, there we are and our imperfections with us.

Pascal observed that the error of Stoicism lay in believing that what can be done once can be done always. I would offer an analogous framing of the techno-utopian error: Believing the wonderful use to which a technology can be put, will be the use to which it is always put.

Better, it would seem, to go forward with a hopeful skepticism that avoids the cycloptic vision of either the techno-utopians or the techno-cynics. And reading a little Hawthorne might be a good way of nurturing that disposition.

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Over the past couple of years, the folks at The New Atlantis have been publishing a series of reflections on a handful of Hawthorne’s short stories as they bear on Science, Progress, and Human Nature. These are each thoughtful and engaging essays.  

The New New (Actually Old, Pascalian) Atheists

So I thought this was interesting. In a discussion of the New New Atheists (no, that wasn’t a typo) in Harper’s, Christopher Beha cites Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher at Duke, who “insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will.”

Now, is it just me or wasn’t that kind of Nietzsche’s whole point some hundred and twenty or so years ago? So at least one of the New New Atheists is actually just like the Old Atheists. In any case, I appreciate the consistency.

Of course, this is a gloomy picture and Rosenberg acknowledges that it can create a certain angst in some:  “There is . . . in us all the hankering for a satisfactory narrative to make ‘life, the universe and everything’ (in Douglas Adams’s words) hang together in a meaningful way. When people disbelieve in God and see no alternative, they often find themselves wishing they could believe, since now they have an itch and no way to scratch it.”

So Beha asks Rosenberg what can be done about this. Response:

“Rosenberg’s answer in his book is basically to ignore it. The modern world offers lots of help in this effort. To begin with, there are pharmaceuticals; Rosenberg strongly encourages those depressed by the emptiness of the Godless world to avail themselves of mood-altering drugs. Then there are the pleasures of acquisitive consumer culture—the making of money and the getting of things.”

Well, at least this is honest — and oddly Pascalian in an inverted sort of way.

Hole In Our Hearts

Many thanks to Kevin Kelly for linking to Matt Honan’s “Fever Dream of a Guilt-Ridden Gadget Reporter.” Writing for Gizmodo, Honan describes his experience at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and it reads like a passage from Augustine’s Confessions had Augustine been writing in the 21st rather than 5th century.

The quasi-religious overtones begin early on when Honan tells us, “There was ennui upon ennui upon ennui set in this amazing temple to technology.”

Then, a little further on, comes the passage that caught Kelly’s attention, and deservedly so. Honan writes:

“There is a hole in my heart dug deep by advertising and envy and a desire to see a thing that is new and different and beautiful. A place within me that is empty, and that I want to fill it up. The hole makes me think electronics can help. And of course, they can.

They make the world easier and more enjoyable. They boost productivity and provide entertainment and information and sometimes even status. At least for a while. At least until they are obsolete. At least until they are garbage.

Electronics are our talismans that ward off the spiritual vacuum of modernity; gilt in Gorilla Glass and cadmium. And in them we find entertainment in lieu of happiness, and exchanges in lieu of actual connections.

And, oh, I am guilty. I am guilty. I am guilty.

I feel that way too. More than most, probably. I’m forever wanting something new. Something I’ve never seen before, that no one else has. Something that will be both an extension and expression of my person. Something that will take me away from the world I actually live in and let me immerse myself in another. Something that will let me see more details, take better pictures, do more at once, work smarter, run faster, live longer.”

Here is the confession, the thrice repeated mea culpa, alongside a truly Augustinian account of our disordered attachments and loves complete with a Pascalian nod to the diversionary nature of our engagement with technology.

I call this an Augustinian account not only because of the religiously inflected language and the confessional tone. There is also the explicit frame of an unfulfilling quest to fill a primordial emptiness. Augustine’s Confesssions amounts to a retrospective narrative of the spiritual quest which takes him from dissatisfaction to dissatisfaction until it culminates in his conversion. He famously frames his narrative at the outset when he prays, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” The restless heart knows its own emptiness and seeks, often heroically and tragically, to fill it. It loves and seeks to be loved, but it loves all the wrong things.

Pascal, writing in the shadow of Augustine’s influence, put it thus:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

In his post, “Making Holes in Our Hearts,” Kelly agrees to a point with Honan’s diagnosis, but his interpretation is quite different and also worth quoting at length. Here is Kelly:

“If we are honest, we must admit that one aspect of the technium is to make holes in our heart. One day recently we decided that we cannot live another day unless we have a smart phone, when a dozen years earlier this need would have dumbfounded us. Now we get angry if the network is slow, but before, when we were innocent, we had no thoughts of the network at all. Now we crave the instant connection of friends, whereas before we were content with weekly, or daily, connections. But we keep inventing new things that make new desires, new longings, new wants, new holes that must be filled.

Yes, this is what technology does to us. Some people are furious that our hearts are pierced this way by the things we make. They see this ever-neediness as a debasement, a lowering of human nobility, the source of our continuous discontentment. I agree that it is the source. New technology forces us to be always chasing the new, which is always disappearing under the next new, a salvation always receding from our grasp.

But I celebrate the never-ending discontentment that the technium brings. Most of what we like about being human is invented. We are different from our animal ancestors in that we are not content to merely survive, but have been incredibly busy making up new itches which we have to scratch, digging extra holes that we have to fill, creating new desires we’ve never had before.”

Kelly is on to something here. Discontentment is generative. Dissatisfaction can be productive. When Cain, having murdered his brother, is cursed to be forever a wanderer alienated from God and family, he builds a city in response. Here is an allegory to match Kelly’s observation. The perpetually wandering, alienated heart builds and makes and creates.

But does it follow that we should then celebrate discontentment, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness? I don’t see how. It is hard to cheer on misery, and it is a certain misery that we are talking about here. Perhaps the more appropriate response is the kind of plaintive admiration we reserve for the tragic hero. They may posses a real nobility, but it is finally consumed in despair and destruction.

The narrator of Cain’s story tells us that he built his city in the land called Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for “wandering.” This touch of literary artistry poignantly suggests that even surrounded by the accouterments of civilization the human soul wanders lost and alienated – never satisfied, never home, never secure.

There is at least one other reason why we need not celebrate generative misery. Misery is not the only fount of human creativity. Love, wonderment, compassion, kindness, curiosity, beauty — all of these might also set us to work and marvelously so.

Augustine understood that finding rest for his restless heart in the love of God did not necessarily extinguish all other loves. It merely reordered them. Having found the kind of satisfaction and happiness that our stuff (for lack of a more inclusive word) can never bring does not mean that we can never again create or enjoy the fruits of human creativity. In fact, it likely means that we may create and enjoy more fully because such creation and enjoyment will not be burden with the unbearable weight of filling the primordial vacuum of the human heart.

The simplest and only way to enjoy penultimate and impermanent things is to resist the temptation to invest them with the significance and adoration that only ultimate and permanent things can sustain.

Saint Augustine by Phillippe de Champaigne, c. 1645

Jacques Lacan, Jansenist?

If I imagine a Venn diagram consisting of one circle representing those interested in Jacques Lacan (a modest circle), and another representing those who read this blog (a rather tiny circle), then the overlapping area probably includes one person … if I count myself.  Nonetheless, I’ll post this anyway.

In conversation with a friend I was made aware of an article that contains this intriguing anecdote (if you’re in that overlapping area in the Venn diagram):

Jan Miel was, he says, the first to propose translating a text of Lacan’s into English and as a result had been invited to lunch in his country house in Guirrancourt, not far from Paris.  After the meal during a stroll in the garden Lacan turned to him and said:  ‘You are neither an analyst nor an analysand, so why are you interested in my teaching?’.  Miel found it difficult to answer because, he admits, he really did not know what he found so fascinating in Lacan’s work, so he eventually stammered:  ‘Well, my main interest is in Pascal.’  To which Lacan replied, ‘Ah, I understand’ and led him back to his library where he showed him a quite substantial collection of Jansenist books.  So if reading Lacan leads to Pascal, it appears that reading Pascal may also lead to Lacan.

“Ah, I understand” — loved that, and wondered how many times those same words were uttered in a Lacan seminar!

The article goes on to explore the use Lacan makes of Pascal’s Wager and presents some helpful background material on the Wager.  Be warned though, some math is involved.