I’m Not Alone, Thanks: A knee-jerk reaction to Jonathan Safran Foer

My Facebook feed has been riddled recently with editorials about how we’re losing something in our lives as we plunge ahead into the iWorld. This sentiment seems pervasive: witness the high-larious Toyota ads that remind us how silly the internet is when compared with “real” life. It’s annoying to me. And while it isn’t exlusively the point of his piece, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “How Not to Be Alone” is blowing up my Facebook feed this week. Congratulations, Mr. Foer: you have officially damaged my calm.

I read a really interesting piece dealing with privilege a couple of weeks ago. I recommend it highly, even if the word “privilege” scares you. Seriously, it won’t hurt you. Check it out. Basically, Doug Muder analyzes privileged distress through the lens of the movie “Pleasantville” and its patriarch, who finds his world crumbling around him.

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.

We can feel sorry for George. We can acknowledge that he’s not a bad person and doesn’t want his loved ones to suffer. But at the same time

George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.

See, there are all these other people in Pleasantville who eventually come to the realization that life could be better if they stepped outside the framework making George’s life so beautiful. And those people and their preferences exist and matter.

I think Mr. Foer is the George in this stretched metaphor. I think he, and millions of people like him, likes human contact. It may even be true that for Mr. Foer and his ilk human contact — profound, in-the-moment, personal contact — is the optimum kind of social stimulation. That’s great. You’ve had thousands of years of human civilization in which it was pretty much the only kind of social stimulation, and the culture that’s created (in a very big sense, where “culture” encompasses every culture of human history) is a thing. It’s not malevolent. You didn’t decide to participate in human society in a way that makes other people miserable. It’s just the privilege of people who do well in those contexts to have enjoyed those contexts, if you see what I mean.

But I’m going to postulate that throughout human history there have been people for whom your happytimes have been work. Way back in the cave of our hairy foremothers, I bet you had one or two protohumans who really didn’t like chatting much. Maybe those were the people who ended up doing most of the doodles on the cave walls or inventing arrowheads because they were banging rocks together. I believe they still had things to contribute, even if they weren’t inventing dance and reenacting mammoth hunts around the fire. And I believe they existed, and I believe they mattered, and across the millenia I would like to give them a hug.

I’ve often thought that I’d like to go out for a drink — because yes! I do occasionally enjoy in-person outings! — with Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott. I think both women were frustrated and bored by the drawing-room cultures that were their lot. I think both women found solace in their odd little hobby of writing, and I imagine that a lot of their contemporaries thought they were kind of weird. I bet a few of the Concord socialites of the day worried that Louisa May just needed a little encouragement to fully blossom as the social butterfly they knew was in there somewhere. I like to imagine Louisa May wishing she could escort them handily outside into the Concord snowdrifts.

I’m not knocking the argument that we all need to slow down. But we all need all kinds of things, and we each need those things in different quantities. Some of us probably need to party less, and some of us probably need to go out more. Some of us need to put our digital devices down on date night. Some of us need to learn how to upload photographs already because it’s really frustrating that they can’t share pictures they take of their grandkids (ahem, MOM). But the fundamental truth is that we all need to figure out this new culture… and we all need to figure out how it works best for us.

Because the thing is, Mr. Foer: I’m not alone. I’m the exact opposite of alone… when I choose to be. When I wake up at 3am after a gut-wrenching nightmare and I want a community of people online playing Candy Crush, I can find that. When my guinea pig dies, I know where to find a community of people who know exactly how I’m feeling, and even “knew” my guinea pig personally through my stories and posts. When I’m bored someone’s around to chat. When I have an insightful thought about a Dr. Who episode, there are legions of geeks ready to explain to me why I’m wrong. I’m not alone. And I absolutely, positively refuse to concede that the way I and my kind socialize is somehow less worthy than your preferred networking.

I am working on quieting my own ADD-y mind now and then, and being in the moment. I find those practices refreshing and helpful. They are useful tools in the toolkit I use as I navigate adulthood. Most of the time, I find having sixteen windows open on my desktop and three or four IM conversations going on even better.

“Shooting off an e-mail” may, in fact, be easier for me “because one can hide behind the absence of vocal inflection” — but that condescendingly implies that vocal inflection provides useful information for everyone. In this day and age of autism awareness, I’m disappointed that you don’t see this condescension yourself. Not everybody easily understands social cues. And people who use atypical vocal inflection in their own communication find themselves misunderstood, ostracized, and lonely. But they exist and they matter.

As we learn more and more about the permutations of the human brain, I wish we could stop bemoaning the technology that allows some of us to finally feel socially successful. If you took away my Facebook, Mr. Foer, I don’t believe I would actually develop the skills needed to flourish in your drawing room. I think I’d end up in the back of the cave, banging rocks together and being pretty damn sad. Why wish that on me? If you don’t want to come play in my chat room, feel free to go for a walk instead. The beautiful thing about the diversification of our culture is that now we both have the option to pick activities that feel good to us.

That’s the bottom line for George in Pleasantville, too. He has two options. He can feel betrayed and bitter because he’s no longer king of his little patriarchy and he can go form a political party that says offensive things about women. Or, he can try to build a life that is maximally enjoyable to him while also not oppressing Betty. Maybe if he talks to Betty about why she likes her life better now, they can learn things about each other and benefit from each other’s experiences. Maybe they can even work something out where she makes the occasional pot roast if he’s on perpetual standby to come kill the bugs. But if he just runs around yelling that Betty’s headed on a path of inevitable destruction — that our digital future, if you will, ends in people who exclusively “communicate without speaking or moving” — he just kind of seems like a jerk.

Betty likes her Facebook friends just fine.

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