Driving back from a party over break, I witnessed a friend experience something between an epiphany and a mental breakdown. He felt as though technology was engulfing his life and asked whether our generation had sold its soul to social media. “This isn’t what I signed up for,” he confessed, “and I don’t think I want it anymore.”
My friend exited the car swearing to delete his Facebook account when he got home. He might have convinced me, too.
I had just gone to see “Her,” the new Spike Jonze film about a man who falls in love with his artificially intelligent computer operating system. This might sound like the setup for a feel-good rom-com. It’s anything but. The barely futuristic metropolis in which the movie takes place could not be more lonesome — this is a future so devoid of personal authenticity that people hire companies to write their love letters for them.
It doesn’t take much to pick up on the symbolism: This is clearly Jonze’s take on the present day. The protagonist’s computerized love interest represents the gilded intimacy of technological society, and he himself embodies the loneliness of modern man — the absence of personal contact, as well as our transient faith in technology to fulfill our most personal human needs.
“Her” is not the only skeptical voice in the fold. In a recent interview with Conan O’Brien, comedian Aziz Ansari lamented the damage done to modern society by technology. Personal consideration, reliability and communication skills have waned. Dating has become fleeting and transient; everything is casual, nothing lasting longer than a Snapchat. For Ansari, dating is “like you’re a secretary … scheduling the dumbest shit with the flakiest people ever.”
Even before the industrial era, philosophers, artists and social critics expressed anxiety about the massive changes sweeping across Western society. Modernity has intrigued and frightened thinking people for the last two centuries, and the quest to make sense of modern times has given birth to sociology, phenomenology, existentialism and Prozac.
This angst resurfaced in the ’90s with political theorist Robert Putnam’s magnum opus, “Bowling Alone.” Putnam describes the collapse of meaningful social connectedness in the United States. Politics has become an industry, grassroots participation has dwindled and people are giving in to “the one activity — TV watching — that is most lethal to community involvement.”
From Rousseau to Putnam, from Marx and Heidegger to Ansari and Jonze, the diagnosis is the same: Technology and mass society are making our lives lonely, unhappy and empty.
Or do these forecasts of doom and despair — not to mention the finger-wagging of crotchety elders who still use dial-up — simply reflect fear of change? After all, being accused of not living up to our predecessors has become something of a rite of passage for each successive generation. Yet, thanks to the web, old friends are now easy to stay in touch with, and with online dating on the rise, your soul mate might be only a friend request away. Technology has given us the freedom to express ourselves more creatively and publicly than ever before.
Unfortunately, recent studies suggest that happiness is actually inversely correlated with the amount of time one spends on Facebook. For all our reaching out, it appears that the attempt to lose ourselves in a sea of tagged photos has only rendered our experience of the world less authentic. We have never been more connected, and we have never been more alone.
The geezers are right about one thing: It’s a brave new world. And mass media is starting to taste like soma.
Every day, Penn students pass the Love statue on their way to class. It’s a flashy fixture that sits in place for all to ignore, a symbol of something intangible and elusive. It might have been adored were it here in the ’60s, but on a campus constantly scrambling to the next interview — to the next distraction — it is almost a cliche, something to be Instagrammed.
That statue’s the closest thing we Penn students have to a reminder to put down our smart phones and reach out to one another through the crowds of University City — lest we become prisoners of our own devices.
Jonathan Iwry is a College senior from Bethesda, Md. His last name is pronounced “eev-ree.” Email him at ?firstname.lastname@example.org.