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 …”