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November 18th, 2020
Pascal once wrote “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to set quietly in a room alone.” Left alone, we’re left with our thoughts, and how is it that nature has created man which has birthed a language that fills his mind with a kind of talk that is hard to stand if left alone with it? Male cheetah spend about 99% of the year on their own. Marine turtles will regularly swim hundreds of thousands of miles alone between mating and feeding grounds. The wandering albatross regularly circumnavigates the Southern Ocean, often doing so three times in a year, more than 75,000 miles - alone, and only meeting up with a mate every two years.
It begs to wonder, what exactly has mankind done by introducing this pesky habit of thought into our consciousness? Do we pester our selves away from tranquility?
But the modern era of the last couple decades has equipped each of us with an evermore companion: the phone. At any moment, a stranger’s thought, a bickering argument, an outrage, and dare we say a calm and thoughtful notion is but an arm’s reach away at all times, tucked away in a pocket or lighting up at the edge of our vision while focusing on something that is almost always bound to be more important. Phone calls and texts aside, the primary use of the phone as leveraged by social media companies, has become an extraordinarily bizarre form of company. It’s one thing to walk into a busy coffee shop and listen to the comforting humdrum of many conversations and all sound effects culinary. It’s quite another to enter a coffee shop and get a specific and detailed view of what each and every person is thinking, specifically, and in manner that people never have the impetus to announce to a coffee shop - but for whatever subtle and seductive reason made desirable by social media companies - is within perfect comfort to spew across the internet. Imagine going to that coffee shop. Imagine if the cost to enjoy a cup of coffee was to also be subjected to a thought, claim or protestation of each and every person in the coffeeshop. This would be terrible to an absurd degree and coffee shops would go extinct faster than if the event had been aided by an meteor strike.
And yet this is much the experience on offer from social media platforms. Much like Pascal said that humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone, the issue seems to be addictively exacerbated by the addition of a whole bunch of other thoughts, from others, and with a bare faced honesty that has rarely graced the public sphere before.
Being alone with a phone is far from being alone. The experience is strangely more intoxicating and intense than the company of most real people. How many dinner tables and even dates are marked by a constant preference to check phones.
The default is to lambast the technology and exalt the traditional while castigating the individual for not doing a good enough job. But what does the excessive and overwhelming company of a phone have to tell us about what’s going on with our very real human relationships? Posts on social media are marked by a lack of reservation - a willingness to say what we really think when in person most would think better of it. Perhaps the inverse conclusion is better to ponder? What if we’d be better to learn from the soothing abandon of social media and inject such facile and comfortable expression into our human relationships? Could it be that a sense of propriety or a sense of embarrassment is keeping us from expressing more that would actually make for a richer in-person experience?