To say that my first impulse after hearing Louis C.K.’s critique of the smartphone was to grab my own smartphone and tweet about it would be far too obvious an attempt at irony. But it kind of was.
In a world where attention from one person/account/avatar/username often propagates a domino attention effect (retweets! follows! friend requests!) from more and more Instagram-filtered faces, it’s easy to equate personal validation with the number of social network peers who seem to relate to our activities in the cyber universe. It’s also easy to criticize the people who seem to do this. And to criticize those critics. And if social media is the means by which these criticisms are presented, it also becomes the means by which they are shared, and refuted, and added to, and so on.
The human condition comes into consideration (I’m gonna cut this off before it gets super-pretentious, I promise), and the question of why we are glued to our damn iPhones all the time takes a decidedly philosophical turn. In an interview with Conan O’Brien (that even a perpetually-glued-to-her-damn-iPhone college student might find herself chuckling at), C.K. attributed it to our inherent aversion to loneliness. “People wanna risk taking a life and ruining their lives ’cause they don’t wanna be alone for a second,” he said. The texting and driving debate to which this sound bite alludes is an entirely different realm of controversy, and one that even the perpetually-glued-to-her-damn-iPhone college student takes no pause in denouncing. The idea that we don’t wanna be alone, though (especially after having gotten a taste of the gratification afforded by a couple of retweets), is pretty deep. Maybe a little too deep. I’m feeling things. Better go and text someone.
That’s pretty much the rationale that C.K. outlines, saying that,by turning to our smartphones as soon as a hint of sadness becomes perceptible, “You never get to feel completely sad or completely happy.”
Someone with an actual degree in psychoanalysis (not me) might attribute this aversion to technological dependence to nostalgia for pre-smartphone times. With the inability to feel an oxymoronic nostalgia for the unexperienced, it becomes difficult for those who were born into the “techno age” to argue against C.K.’s allegations with perspective.
However, although I can’t compare my “pre-smartphone sadness” to my “post-smartphone sadness,” I can say that the latter does exist. The process by which people turn to social media in sharing their thoughts or emotions isn’t an attempt to escape from sadness. Rather, it’s an attempt to establish solidarity with others by sharing it.
Generalization is always going to be thwarted by the persistent, ever-present outliers. There are attention-whores, exploiting their own sadness in order to gain mass Twitter-fed, iPhone-propagated sympathy from it. There are escapists, who turn to their YouTube or Kik apps as a means to distract themselves from emotional vulnerability. The argument that these behaviors were created with the dawn of the digital age (which is what C.K. seems to imply), however, is what I have a hard time buying. There are ways to stall sadness apart from the iPhone, just as there are ways to receive gratifying attention away from the iPhone.
Malvina Reynolds penned “Little Boxes” in the 1950s. You might know it as the Weeds theme song. The boxes to which the song refers seem to have evolved with the times, applying to smartphones now just as thoroughly as it applied to the uniform houses of suburbia 60 years ago. It’s no question that we’re attached to our little boxes. We may be “experiencing” the physical world less because of this. Denounce our inattentiveness as bitterly and thoroughly as you’d like. But, if an observation is to be made about the ways that technology is changing our general societal outlook, let’s pay attention to our society. People have had complicated relationships with sadness for, I’d wager, a very long time. Let’s not attribute it to the iPhone; there are plenty of other negatives to explore there.
Or, as I drafted for Twitter, “I’m not sure how to react to CK’s comments on our relationships with smartphones. Maybe I’m postponing my potential outrage by Tweeting?”