Technology & Apathy/Empathy

In Dave Eggers new book, which I haven’t read, because it came out today, he writes about a fictional company called The Circle – a quasi, Twitter, Facebook, Google mashup – where people are becoming so obsessed with their likeability and statuses online that they completely leave the actual world.  Sound familiar?  It’s a topic I’m familiar with thinking about, but also a topic with which I’m hypocritically engaged.  Social media is how I keep in touch with friends, share my writing, keep up with the literary and sporting worlds.  The allure of all of these worlds does intrude on our ability to be alone, to read, to write.  It’s a world I’m fascinated by, a relationship I think about all the time, and wonder if I’m guilty of sins I write about in others.

I’m worried that we’ve replaced experiences with consumption.  It was Plato that said, long ago, essentially, that we’re looking always to fulfill a void in our life, to increase the experience of living.  Somewhere along the line, this switched from learning something new or experiencing something new into buying something new.  That having more, essentially, is the key to filling that void.  And to have more, we have to make more.  To make more, we have to work more, and what we sacrifice then are the elements in our lives that we deem on surveys and at holidays and in cards to be the most important elements: our kids, our parents, our friends.  It’s an odd paradox that what we say we value is often contrary to what we actually do; but what we say we want is often in contrast to what we value.

And while I proselytize about this, I look down at a kitchen table with an iPhone, two iPads, a MacBook.  My stance has always been one of evolution in these matters, and maybe now I’m just realizing the superfluousness of these things.

The core of man’s existence comes from new experiences.  That is what the protagonist of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild wrote once in a letter.  Now, we’re accustomed to routine and oftentimes it’s easier to stay on the shore with this magnificent view than to sail to the horizon.  We’re all guilty of it.  When we think of the most pleasurable experiences of our lives, we tend to think of firsts: first kiss, first love, first beer.  When we revisit a place that was so special to us on our first visit, we often say things like, “It’s not as good as the first time.”  That’s because the first time experiences are, well, new.  We’ve never seen the sun set from this angle, I’ve never felt this way about a person before.  It’s all very grandiose.


What I’m worried about is that there is this great big world out there, places to see and people to meet.  No one is doing it anymore.  These are practices we used to value: families would jump in vans and drive across the country on a summer vacation, kids looking lazily out of the windows at an Iowa cornfield bored out of their minds.  We don’t have this option anymore.  Boredom is no longer an option and with it we’re losing creativity and the excitement of discovering something new.  Instead of I Spy or 20 questions, we play car games by ourselves on our tablets or phones; Instead of a car-wide musical selection, we each have our individual options to be placed within each of our ears.  We’re connected to our friends at home 100% of the time.  Even on vacation, rather than meeting other people on vacation, we have the ability to go on Facebook and stalk that girl we like but never really got the courage to talk to in person.

We’re stripping ourselves of our experiences.  What our interest in stuff and consumerism is not connecting us to a larger whole of the world.  It’s making us part of a very large machine, like everyone else, despite the clever marketing campaigns that tell us buying this product will make us an individual.  Moreover, it’s making us lonely.  We don’t share experiences anymore the way we share music or YouTube videos with one another.  There are no more families laughing at the dinner table, or at a picnic site at a national park, those families are laughing, to be sure, but alone, in front of a screen.

In a spectacular interview with the Huffington Post, Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder said, “It’s very difficult to give yourself the time to breathe and appreciate the joy and beauty that might be just right around us. Maybe part of staying healthy is that you do what you can to address certain situations during the day, and then you just allow yourself that one or two hours to appreciate and be present and in the moment.”

I think that’s sound advice, and I know people (and have been that person) to consciously leave my phone at home (returning to no missed calls, no missed text, no important tweets).  But he’s speaking through the prism of having grown up in a world where the technological intrusion wasn’t so vast.  A new generation has a much more organic relationship with technology.  There are problems, too, with apathy and empathy in a generation raised in front of screens.

Comedian Louis C.K. has a viral hit on Conan O’Brien recently when he railed against cell phones in part by describing the meanness of kids.  Being mean to someone’s face, watching them cringe is not necessarily a nice feeling.  There’s an empathy built.  But doing so behind a screen, where they can’t see the other’s reaction, is a completely different story.

Vedder feels another way, “Part of what happens, though, is that there’s so much information, and so much tragedy coming at such a high rate, that people start to feel overwhelmed and everyone is coming down with apathy.”  Shitty things happen, essentially, the best recourse is to not care, so long as that tragedy is not happening to me.  We’re seeing this with head injuries in sports.

Technology, ultimately, is too young to understand the long term effects on our apathy, empathy, social skills.  There just isn’t a big enough sample size yet.  Maybe the intent of social media is to keep itself in the front of our minds and, with an article like this, it’s doing it’s job even if the article ostensibly wonders how good it is for us.

(Just as an aside: I’m not trying to preach here. I’m not in the midst of some manifesto-length anti-technology epistle. Railing against technology and social media would be like railing against boiling water. These are the issues and topics that interest me. I want to know more about the “why?” in the world than any other questioning. It’s more of an evolution than a stance, as I’m trying to work out the world just like everyone else.)



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2 responses to “Technology & Apathy/Empathy”

  1. Scott William Ladley (@WilliamZed) says :

    What impresses me is that up to this point, Dave Eggers has managed to create wonderful stories from this perspective. It never seems to be cynical or apathetic, but you get the impression he’s aware of all this and chooses to make great work. I just hope his new one does the same.
    As for Eddie Vedder, his eloquency is always refreshing…….cause I can’t understand a word he says on stage.

    • matthewmosgood says :

      Well put on both Eggers and Vedder.

      Eggers seems to have his fingers on the pulse of the bigger areas of the collective conscious, whether it’s compassion during Katrina, business being shipped overseas, or our relationship with social media and/or each other. He’s a sharp social critic without being preachy. Don’t you think this is the role of a good novelist?

      I’m gripped by the thought Vedder seems to put into most of his responses. It’s an over-analysis that comes out in a way that most people can’t articulate. He’s also a bridge between generations, in a way. A central figure in the narrative between people who grew up pre-what we know now of technologies impact on society.

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