Last Updated

In his 2013 article in The New York Times,“How Not to Be Alone,” novelist Jonathan Safran Foer examines the role technology plays in our society and interpersonal relationships, as well as the consequences of living in an increasingly technology-oriented world. Foer contends that “technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.” He suggests that, while technology cannot erase human contact from our lives, it can successfully pacify us into suppressing–even forgetting–that we have the opportunity for it.

According to Foer, the danger in our growing dependency on technology to provide us with forms of entertainment and social crutches lies in its ability to make us apathetic. Our preference for these “diminished substitutes,” as Foer coins them, over genuine communication poses a threat to future generations’ abilities to care.  In essence, future communication will be so unrewarding that we will lose interest in communicating entirely.

Foer links the advent of technology in our personal lives to various other human phenomena, like attention, which he claims will become an increasingly rare commodity in future generations.  Foer cites a model of personal technology use that demonstrates clear diminishing returns:

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 upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

Foer believes that these methods of communication–texting, e-mail, telephones–are less stimulating and consequently less rewarding. Their popularity lies in their ostensible efficiency and ease (“hard news is easier to leave; it’s easier to check in without becoming entangled”).

However, they also make in-person communication less efficient by ingraining in us habits of emotional apathy and short attention spans.  Foer writes, “The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time. And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.”

As well, Foer acknowledges the benefits of technology.  He forewarns of the dangers of being vehemently on either side of the technological renaissance. Horse-drawn carriage is no longer the popular mode of transport, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy riding one through Golden Gate Park. Instead, Foer treads down the middle, preaching moderation in our use of ‘i-Distractions.’ And the threat of dependency on them is so grave that Foer truly believes our lives hang upon it.  In response to distraction, Foer’s proposed antidote is to be militant in our attentiveness. “We require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion,” he says. Foer wants us to actively care.

His argument is both sincere and cogent, if trite in its execution. He recognizes that it is misinformed to argue totally against our use of technology, and wilfully ignorant for us to ignore technology’s adverse effects.  Yet Foer’s writing lacks practicality; essentially, he is preaching a philosophy that exists merely as an abstract objective.  Our ability to navigate the right amount of exposure to technology in our lives is contingent on our ability to think clinically about our behaviours, not necessarily our entire worldview.  Foer believes that our daily use of communication will ultimately lead us to forget others.

However, Foer never considers how he would be shaped by a life of the opposite.  Would he be able to function in a world where not everyone–indeed, not even the majority of people–are willing to eschew technology in their everyday lives? Could Foer acclimate himself to a professional life less efficient and less immediate than to what he is accustomed?

Perhaps the future he urges us towards exists merely as a vague concept, not a tenable reality. And, more to the point, this may be its only palatable form.  As Foer says, “With each generation, it becomes harder to imagine a future that resembles the present.”

The obvious irony here is that his article is written, disseminated, and consumed all on a computer.  He writes, “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.” However, in this blanket statement, Foer discounts all the good that can come of online relationships: people can match with others who share common interests (Tinder), introverts can express themselves more freely (blog posts), and we can partake in what before were seen as “impossible activities,” like communicating with friends and colleagues overseas (Minerva’s Active Learning Forum, or ALF, on which all Minerva students take their classes in an online seminar format from locations around the world).  Foer dismisses the nuances of social media and its inherent power in uniting its users.

Using personal technology, not only could a reader read Foer’s article instantly, he could also write an immediate response, and start a dialogue with others. 20 years ago these things weren’t even known unknowns–they were, as Rumsfeld famously put it, unknown unknowns. Even before Facebook launched 12 years ago, we had no ways of predicting how social media and technology would shape our lives. These are possibilities that previous generations never had, and that future generations may take for granted.

This is the crux of Foer’s argument: the more we take our “diminished substitutes” for granted, the more we will take for granted the relationships we have in our “physical lives”. Foer conflates the concept of a “physical life” (in essence, the life we live outside of the internet) with our “real lives.” Is our Internet usage not as much a part of our real lives as our in-person interactions? What is more intimate: a relationship you have with a professor you see once a week for a three-hour lecture, or one with whom you debate twice a week on the ALF?

Foer is right in warning us of the dangers of dwindling attention spans and “diminished substitutes” for real interactions. However, his simplistic view of technology (that it encourages us to accept little from others and “feel little” ourselves) lacks the nuance of a proficient Internet user, someone who can manipulate the Internet’s resources to explore, connect, and learn from a variety of rich sources.

Thus Foer’s essay is less a manual in “how not to be alone” as it is in how not to be lonely.  The easier it becomes to use our personal devices to isolate ourselves from others, the more vigilant we must become in using technology to forge meaningful relationships.  The technology in our lives causes distractions, but it also helps us discover and learn.  Foer is right in preaching moderation in our use of technology. The task each individual faces is evaluating when it is appropriate to use technology in our personal lives, and when it is necessary to exist, however briefly, exclusive to our personal technology.

As Minervans, we see our computers for–at the very least–three hours a day. But do we have the willpower to close our laptops after class ends and unplug from our e-lives? Perhaps a school whose success rests on our ability to acquaint ourselves to our computers inevitably ends up instilling in us habits of dependency on them.  What kind of consequences could the indirect conditioning that learning always happens on a computer have on us?

Instead of using technology to forget about the human interactions we can make in our lives, we should use it to remind us of the importance of being fully attentive and available to others.  Foer worries “that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.” This is valid concern.

However, that statement also acknowledges–however tangentially–the power of the Internet age: the concepts of “the world” and “our” are ever expanding, encompassing more cultures and peoples than ever before.  If we let the technology in our lives placate us into a generation of indifference, we have failed.

However, if we can use our technology to care more than ever before, and to be more attentive than ever before, we have not only succeeded. We will know that we are not alone.