Have you found yourself checking email at dinner, or skipping from book to screen, unable to focus? The closer the world gets to our fingertips, the more we stand to lose.
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”. Simply put, the more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth – redefining “text” from what fills the hundreds of pages of a novel, to a line of words and emoticons on a phone’s screen – the less likely and able we are to care. That’s not even a statement about the relative worth of the contents of a novel and a text, only about the time we spend with each.
We know that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving drunk. You won’t risk killing anyone if you use your phone while eating a meal, or having a conversation, or waiting on a bench, which means you will allow yourself to be distracted. 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 wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
We think of technologies as wielders of information and manipulators of matter. Google, we all know, is in the business – as they put it – of organising and making accessible “the world’s information”. Other technologies are more earthy – the car propels us over land at speeds our legs cannot attain, and the bomb allows us to kill many enemies in ways our bare hands cannot.
But technologies are not only effective at achieving or thwarting the aims of those who encounter them, but are affective. Technology is not strictly technical. “I love you” – the same “I love you” issuing from the same person with the same sincerity and depth – will resonate differently over the phone than in a handwritten letter, than in a text message. The tone and rhythm of voice craft the words, as does the texture and colour of stationery, as does the glowing font of the text chosen by our mobile phone manufacturer. We love our Macs more than our PCs because Apple was more interested in harnessing and inflecting the affective resonances of its technology and in restricting a smaller coterie of elites to guard and guide these affects so as to create a distinctive ecosystem. We find ourselves “playing” with smartphones in a way we never did with the functional handle of a traditional landline phone because, whereas the first phone was designed by engineers thinking in functional terms, the phones in our pockets nowadays are always built in dialogue with marketers who have carefully noted how colour and curve, brightness and texture, heft and size make us feel.
We consumers forget that technology always plugs into and produces certain affects, the building blocks of emotions, as well as full-blown emotional experiences. We forget this, but successful companies do not. They remember and profit enormously. We forget at the expense of who we are.
Most of our communication technologies began as 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. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a message possible without the person being near their phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster and more mobile messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements on face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.
But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes. It’s easier to make a phone call than to make the effort to see someone in person. Leaving a message on someone’s machine is easier than having a phone conversation – you can say what you need to say without a response; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled. So we began calling when we knew no one would pick up. Shooting off an email is easier still, because one can further hide behind the absence of vocal inflection, and of course there’s no chance of accidentally catching someone. With texting, 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. Or just feeling what’s been designed and sold to us to feel.
– Jonathan Safran Foer
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