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 …”

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

  1. Louis’ seemed like a funnier, but in some way darker, proponent of Zygmunt Bauman’s version of morality. Proximity and all that. Perhaps something to tie together in a future post.

  2. I absolutely loved what Louis C.K. had to say and I think he would agree that it isn’t just the smart phone and it isn’t just kids being affected by it. I wrote a post on this a few days ago, but with more of a spiritual focus and my influence was a book I’m reading for my Indigenous Spirituality class. In it, the Native elder, Dan, says that our white culture can’t sit silence – that we have to fill the silent air with talk or the empty land with buildings and streets. We can’t be still because, as a professor of mine said two weeks ago, “We don’t want to deal with who we are. So we find something to amuse, entertain, and distract us from that bad part of reality.”

    I resonated quite a bit with Louis C.K. when he talked about his moment in the car – how he stopped himself from texting someone just not to feel lonely. Letting the loneliness and silence envelop us is a major part of being human and I think, as much as one could expect from a popular comedian, he nailed it. But you are exactly right; it’s not just technology. Our areas of distraction are much more nuanced than that.

    Nice post!

  3. The one thing that destroyed everything Louis C.K. said was that he ‘cried like a bitch’. Misogyny conveyed in language isn’t a very smart thing to teach your kids. The value of what he was sharing lost credibility when he had to align his deep emotional experience with the denigration of women and their emotions: I assume he wasn’t talking about a female dog.

    1. If louie is a misogynist no one ever has a chance with you Kelly. Get a grip, it’s a figure of speech. He could have said ” like a faggot ” and you’d probably get all offended too. You clearly are not familiar with his comedy style…

    2. Yes Kelly, you are right, he was not referring to a female dog, however he was not referring to any other female species either. The phrase ‘cried like a bitch’ refers to a male that has been made to be subservient to other males. Contrary to societal beliefs, it is not easy to be a man.

  4. Great post and perspective.

    Over the last three years, I have been attending silent meditation retreats, and it’s by far the best thing I have done for myself. Practicing silent presence is confronting in terms of feeling our own loneliness, and it isn’t easy, but it is worth it. To be with our pain and accept it is not only a way to calm down from our collective obsession with pleasure-seeking, but also to better appreciate and be present when those moment of genuine pleasure do arise. To me, sitting with our pain and loneliness is truly growing up.

    Constant distraction with our phones specifically is a form of seeking (mostly) mindless pleasure and avoiding the real pain that lurks within most all of us, and it’s an endeavor we as a species have always seemed to be consumed with (whether it be social media or mindless gossip or whatever).

    I hope meditation goes viral! ;) anyway, thanks for your post!

  5. Thanks for the post Michael,you seem to be spot on with your analysis
    of the Human Condition as it presently is.
    A question is can we change it?

  6. Your defense of technology appears to be an intellectualization of a very real issue. Brow-beating Louis C.K. just because you feel he should have studied up on Pascal before opening his mouth is unnecessary.

    C.K. is 100% right that cell phones are toxic; they’re killing people on the roads; they’re destroying any semblance of spontaneity; and they bring out the very worst in us, particularly our children, who are driving one another to suicide with a form of bullying made explosive thanks to the very technology you feel should be absolved.

    Having been bullied into oblivion as a child, it’s clear I had it easy compared to what today’s kids endure. Cell phones are absolutely a causal factor. When I hear arguments that it is an over-generalization, I hear NRA members chanting (texting?), “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

    1. Actually, I’m not brow-beating Louis CK. Nor am I absolving any technology. I invite you to peruse this blog so that you might get a better sense of where I’m coming from. The problems you mentioned are indeed quite real, and this is precisely why correctly understanding their sources is so important. That’s what I’m trying to do. I think it’s fair to say that the problems you list all involve human desires, motives, actions, etc. Apart from these, the artifact we know as a smartphone is unlikely to “do” or “cause” anything. In fact, I would say that blaming these issues on the artifact itself is the probably the surest way to avoid a solution.

  7. This is fantastic. I wish it wasn’t so relevant to my own life… but thank you for posting it. It has been a long time since I have read Pascal… perhaps I shall revisit him.

  8. Michael – this was incredibly insightful. I enjoyed the connections you made to earlier authors’ thoughts about the emptiness of human life. I agree that the emptiness of being human has been long acknowledged before Louis C.K.’s bit.

    There are also people who work at technology and communications companies who are aware of this essential emptiness we all have. The emptiness is not new. But the ecosystem of companies and supporting culture to fill that emptiness with products is relatively new.

    And sometimes that “mindful vigilance” takes strict rules – “no smartphones” might be one of those rules for some people.

    Thanks again for what you wrote. It really got me thinking about this at a deeper level.

    1. I’d agree with this distinction – most things that distracted us from death/emptyness in the past tended to be passive/and/or require effort on the part of the user.

      What is scary about smartphones is that they actively attempt to fill that space, be it via incessant notifications for everything that isn’t actually important, or time-wasting games, or just stuff, which turns the user into a passive consumer.

  9. Another topic semi-related I would love to see your take on: the AUTOMOBILE is an even more prime example of antisocial technology. Think about it: human beings are given huge amounts of power (200 horsepower engines are commonplace), wrapped in 2000+ pounds of steel and plastic, and completely isolated from other human beings and body language cues. Sociopathic technology!

  10. This technology that we embrace is not allowing us to embrace people. We can only exist in this world if we seek to have relationships with others, but not by a phone or email – it must be with essential touch and eye contact. Loved listening.

  11. Reblogged this on The Domestication of the Running Rose and commented:
    The way I have seen smart phones used in social setting has been enough to scare me out of wanting one of my own. I like the part about avoiding loneliness with a distraction. There was a time I held my (not so smart phone) phone in my hand all day waiting for a text or a call.

  12. I wish more people took a more critical and less romantic view of technology as we see in this post. Michael dispatched, rightly in my opinion, the meme that anonymity spawns meanness. Yet why can’t we dispatch what he supposes to be the “existential loneliness and sadness” aspect of technology in the same way? Why don’t people rail against crossword puzzles or reading books the way they do digital devices? When I’m reading a book I’m entirely withdrawn from anyone around me. Yet reading books is good, and digital devices are bad, or so the story goes. Ah, so it depends on what you’re doing with the device. Okay. So maybe texting friends and acquaintances or obsessing over followers on Facebook or twitter is a special form of communication that is lacking in meaning. I think it probably is. But is that really any worse than therapeutic reading of romance novels? I doubt it. According to my lights it may well not be as bad, but that all depends on who you’re texting and about. Opra has made a career out of therapeutic romanticism.

    So my view is that at the end of the day if you want to say that some forms of therapeutic activities are better than others, then that is fine. But we need to acknowledge that the need for therapy itself, good forms and bad, are the result of a fallen world that leaves us with “existential loneliness and sadness”. We need to see texting on a sliding scale of therapeutic value that includes a vast array of mindless activity that is just as bad and even worse, and many supposedly benign therapeutic things even curmudgeons do that perhaps aren’t really so benign. Is anyone up for creating a scale of therapeutic activities rated according to certain value criteria? If not, why not see this as a romantic reaction to technology not significantly different from the extreme reactions to the printed book 100 years after the printing press was invented? And the technology of the printed book did change life very significantly. It complicated it too, as Ecclesiastes could have told us. But learning to navigate the dangers of life are what living life is. All the romantic nay sayers about technology are succeeding in doing is contributing to the rise of self-loathing tweeters. How that is an advancement I do not see.

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