You know how Germans always have the best words? The nice long words that they seem to make up on the spot, words specifically tailored to capture a hyper-specific feeling? I wonder if they have one yet for “That feeling I get when I encounter something that everybody thinks is brilliant but which I think is full of shit.” Case in point: comedian Louis C.K.’s almost instantly-legendary rant against smartphones. This thing lit up the Internet over the weekend; everybody was linking it, and one person I know cited that in her epiphanic decision to downgrade from an iPhone to a dumbphone. But when I heard the rant, I thought, “That guy is ridiculously full of crap”.
And I say that as someone who (a) has enjoyed Louis C.K.’s work in the past, and (b) who does not own a smartphone. So I don’t exactly have a dog in this fight, and in some ways, I’m a bit sympathetic. I’ve noticed that people spend an awful lot of time staring at their phones, absolutely. But are they really? Is that an accurate snapshot? As I write this, I’m sitting in Panera Bread. The dining room is mostly full; families, couples, and single parties abound. And off all the people in this room right now, guess how many people are looking at a glowing screen? Exactly one. Me. And I’m writing.
And you know what else? It’s not hurting my engagement with the world. I’m not shutting things out. A little girl at the table next to mine knocked over her drink, and I noticed enough to pass over a few extra napkins I had. I see another girl, an employee on break, using her smartphone. She’s not staring at it as she texts, though. She’s talking into it. Like a phone. While she does her homework, with a pencil.
When I see lots of folks looking at their phones, what are they doing? Are they really staring at it for long lengths of time? Stopping to think of it, I have to admit…not really. Most take them out, glance at them, and if they do anything at all, it’s to tap out a quick text and then put the thing away. Yes, I have seen folks who take it too far. I’ve seen guys who go into the restroom and text away with one hand while they use their other to…well, handle administrative details pertaining to urinal usage. (Ahem.) I’ll be blunt here: I ever find out that anyone texts me from the bathroom, I’m blocking their number. Or something.
Frankly, what I see people do the most with their smartphones is keep them in their back pockets, pulled up just far enough so that one corner sticks out, visible. Phone as fashion accessory. Well, why not? That’s why we have expensive wristwatches, and I remember an outfit from which I bought fountain pens back in the day marketing them as “jewelry for men”.
But back to Louis C.K.’s rant, which strikes me as just another version of the “Isn’t it awful what the kids are doing these days” thing, albeit more poetically delivered. But much of it is deeply, deeply misguided and/or silly. And that’s after it starts off with him saying something that stopped me in my tracks and made me actively hostile to whatever else was to come in his argument.
I think these things are toxic, especially for kids…they don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘you’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write ‘you’re fat,’ then they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun, I like that.’
Now, let’s break that down a little bit. To start with, “Kids don’t look people in the eye when they talk” is not a new complaint. Not by any stretch of imagination. I heard that all the time when I was a kid, and that was in the 1970s and 1980s. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” is an admonition that is as old as the hills, predating cell-phone use by…well, I’ll bet they were saying this in Ancient Egypt.
But then there’s the bit about kids “experimenting” with being mean, and his notion that when they see how much it hurts a kid’s feelings when they call them fat, they’ll realize they don’t feel good or something.
I have to wonder if LouisCK ever actually knew any other kids, or if he ever saw any bullies at work, because I remember being a kid, and I remember that even as the kid who was often on the receiving end of the bullying, if I managed to say something to someone else and saw hurt in their eyes, I wasn’t thinking, “Oooh, that didn’t feel good.” What I actually felt was, “Ooooh, that hurt him! I’ve got me a weapon!” And remember, I was the fat kid getting picked on a lot. How do you think the normal kids responded? Or the actual bullies? Seeing the hurt in someone’s eye when you say “You’re fat” is, for a kid, not a bug. It’s a feature. The actual reaction is, “Now we got ourselves a show.”
LouisCK is completely full of crap on this point, totally and utterly. It’s not a good start. But he keeps going:
You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.
And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it…
That’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.
No. No, no, no, no, no.
First of all: why do we need this ability to just sit and do nothing? What’s so great about sitting and doing nothing? Where’s the virtue in that? And how is it desirable? Standing in line at the DMV, waiting at a doctor’s office, whatever – are we supposed to lament the fact that we’ve somehow lost the ‘Zen’ of such things? Well, I’m not sure there was ever that much ‘Zen’ there to begin with. Standing in line, just being there, just being “a person”…was boring. It was a waste of time. Now, I’m a bit less prone to boredom in such circumstances because I can always kick my Writing Brain into gear and start working internally on some stories. But I do that anyway, and I suspect a lot of people do, too.
More importantly, though, how is that being “a real person”? This seems to me just another example of the notion that online interactions aren’t real, that only physical world interactions are worth anything at all. I’ve long rejected this notion. You know what? If and when I become a published author, it will be with the help of an awful lot of people I’ve never met. Real people.
Which is why I think the rest of LouisCK’s bit here is just a bunch of goofy existential twaddle. Ultimately we’re alone? Meh, not really. And we’re using our phones as a way of pushing away that loneliness? Meh, not really. People aren’t texting and driving because they’re afraid of being alone. They’re doing it because they aren’t rationally and realistically appraising their abilities to do two tasks at the same time, both of which are complex tasks that only seem simple. There’s no need to appeal to Sartre here. People text and drive not because they’re trying to push away the intrinsic loneliness of life. They text and drive because they are idiots.
And then he tops it off with some more stupidity:
And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’…then I said, ‘you know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.’
And I let it come, and I just started to feel ‘oh my God,’and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.
And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.
The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.
Again: No. No, no, no, no, no.
This is another sentiment that’s been around forever: that people aren’t allowing themselves to really feel what they feel, that they avoid high flights of emotion, et cetera. Again, we don’t need to drag smartphones into this at all: many people are uncomfortable with those high flights of emotion. LouisCK is doing nothing more than taking old complaints and using them as a cudgel against something he doesn’t like, all by itself.
And besides, who is posting or tweeting or texting everything? Really, who is doing this? There are people who post more than we would, but that’s no the same thing as posting everything. This distinction seems lost on Louis, but even if not, so what? If someone posts that a certain song made them feel a certain intense feeling or set of feelings, you know what? I frakking love that. I do. I think it’s awesome. If someone shares with me something that gives them a feeling of some kind of passionate level, that’s great. It gives me an insight into them, and it helps me to find things that may create similar feelings in myself.
Sharing is not bad. I like sharing. I don’t share everything. Some folks share more. Others share less. And I know people who share a lot more than I would ever feel comfortable sharing, but that is, again, not a bug but rather a feature, because that’s the only way I ever get to know what is to feel certain things. When we complain about “Those people sharing everything on Facebook!”, it seems to me that what we’re really complaining about is “Those people who are sharing an awful lot of stuff on Facebook that I do not personally find interesting!” Which is, of course, a different thing entirely.
We are obviously more connected now than ever before. But I am not one bit convinced that this means we are more distracted now than ever before. Believe me, I have always had great ways of wasting time. In fact, I remember teachers occasionally castigating me for daydreaming. Which means I was just doing the simple act of sitting there, doing nothing, staring into space, not much paying attention to anything at all. That’s was LouisCK wants back. The wheel does turn, doesn’t it?
Finally, I also wonder if part of this isn’t born of my general sense – and here I’m mainly talking off the top of my head, with no real well-considered evidence to support it – that, aided by technology, a world which has been long-dominated by extroverted people is starting to tilt in the direction of the introverts, and that is making an awful lot of extroverted people really uncomfortable. But that’s a post for another day.