The dilemma of our devices was the topic of the commencement address at Middlebury College delivered this year by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. “Technology celebrates connectedness but encourages retreat,” he said in The New York Times’ adaptation of his speech.
Preserving our humanity in the age of technology has become a theme at commencement this year. Earlier, journalist Leon Wieseltier, at Brandeis University, defended the importance of the humanities at a time when science and technology are looked to increasingly as a solution to our social ills.
Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” In his remarks he described the ways our electronic devices encourage us to retreat from human contact. He was at a restaurant, he said, when he saw a young girl sitting nearby having a tearful phone conversation with her mother. He might have intervened to offer help or comfort. And yet he was preoccupied, scrolling through his contact list on his own phone. It would not be easy to reach out to the girl. Even to decide whether to reach out would be hard. It was easier by far to preoccupy himself, not think about it.
In these small decisions our habits form. “The flow of water carves rock, a little bit at a time,” he said. “And our personhood is carved, too, by the flow of our habits.”
In Foer’s view, each advance in communications technology has reduced communication, made it cruder, less full, less real. The telephone enabled us to communicate while we were at a distance. It was more convenient, but it was a less demanding, less complete form of communication than speaking face to face. Answering machines enabled us to communicate by phone without actually having to speak with anyone. Email allowed us to avoid the whole business of using one’s voice. Texting has put a premium on brevity to the extent that communication shrinks to a few words. Each of these was a “declension,” according to Foer, a diminishment of the form for which it became a substitute.
But as Foer said, we began to prefer the substitute. It allowed us to escape the responsibility of actually paying full attention to the other person. “Each step ‘forward’ has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity,” Foer said. “The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes.”
Foer quoted Simone Weil, who wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Attention to the other is what we are losing.
To look at and see the full humanity of the other could be a way out of the atmosphere of animosity and division that seems so pervasive today. Much has been said about how, more and more, Americans are ghettoizing themselves, living with their own kind, speaking with and listening to their own kind, in a cycle that is bound to reinforce one’s thinking and to calcify biases.
Would Trayvon Martin have found himself in a fatal encounter with George Zimmerman if the white Zimmerman were accustomed to living among black people? It’s not just our devices that are isolating us. It is our fear.
Foer said that all of us can use attention, a kind word, empathy from others. “There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs,” he said.
The human story is something each of us can tell because each of us lives it. It is also something each of us can be attuned to hearing if we are willing to listen. The human story is the substance of the humanities, which was the topic of Wieseltier’s speech at Brandeis. The human story is also what we are living in the flesh every day among the people who make up the flesh-and-blood world around us. The prevalence of the devices that distance us from the flesh and blood is what has prompted these writers to issue their appeals that we pay attention to what is human.
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