“Today we have contraptions like nuclear submarines armed with Poseidon missiles that have H-bombs in their warheads. And we have contraptions like computers that cheat you out of becoming. Bill Gates says, “Wait till you see what you computer can become.” But it’s you who should be doing the becoming, not the damn fool computer.”
– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country
The writer Jonathan Franzen has been unpopular as long as he’s been popular, for his epic, important novels, his criticism of the likes of Amazon and Twitter and, of course, being a white male novelist. But, while it’s easy enough to critique him for his strong opinions that seem to come across as hardline, there is something refreshing in his perspective. In a world where being real is more of a tagline than anything else, it’s great to read someone who has real opinions that are not real popular.
In 2011, Franzen wrote a piece called, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts”, where he dissected the lure of technology and its ability to seduce us. He confessed to being enthralled with his new phone, like many people are, but went further, providing an analysis of what we find so enticing about these objects, and what it says about us. Franzen moves on to share what it meant when he stopped merely being a consumer who ‘liked’ things and started really caring about something – in his case, birds. Whether his line is hard or not, there is a lot of wisdom that can be extracted about our cultural fixations.
Everywhere I go these days, people are staring at their phones – on the city streets walking into you; at the park, as the majesty of nature lies beyond them largely unnoticed; in restaurants, as they sit across from each other. It’s like, in the phone, there is a missing key, some unparalleled force that leads us to the focal point of our humanity. But, against the backdrop of the world, one with the violence of ISIS and the uncontested rhetoric of Donald Trump and the rise of economic disparity, it is particularly peculiar. A phone has become an extension – or perhaps worse, a validation – of the self.
From the iPhone to the latest Samsung model, phone advertisements are the new car ad; they’re slick and shiny, possessing a hint at the exploration which, it seems, only a phone can provide. Most phone ads exist with a lone person standing atop a mountain, staring down at the area they have traversed, taking a picture to document it all because it must be documented. The experience, after all, cannot exist in a vacuum where it has not been externally validated or commodified. Is this the kind of world we should move towards?
In an assertion that would madden many, Franzen says:
“The ultimate goal of technology…is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”
Franzen’s been called a Luddite, and it’s something I’ve heard myself, but a willingness to think critically about the march of progress is a necessity for any time. For him, and for many of us, true evolution comes not in having mastery over the areas we trek, but in accepting and attempting to enrich them, recognizing the stake we have in them. Like his passion for birds, the deepest journeys will always takes us back to our nature, even as we stare into the glowing screen of our phones, transfixed by a creation that exists outside of us.