Digital technology helps us stay in touch with our loved ones. It gives us new ways to communicate with our family members and closest friends. So it supports and expands our ways of loving, right?
Jonathan Franzen, an award-winning author, says “No.” A couple of weeks ago he delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. (You can listen to it here.) An adaptation of that speech appeared in the New York Times on May 28, 2011. When I first read it, it had the title “Technology Provides an Alternative to Love.” It now appears online as: “Liking is for Cowards. Go For What Hurts.”
Franzen begins be noting how technology gives us a world that we can control at will. This seems great, until we consider the implications for love:
To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.
Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
I think Franzen is on to something here. If technology allows me to have it my way, and if I get so used to this reality that I think that’s the way everything should be, then I will not be able to tolerate a love relationship with a actual human being, someone who has an independent will.
Franzen is particularly concerned with the whole issue of “liking.” He writes:
And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard.
Franzen lays out the difference between liking in a generic sense and liking actual living things. He uses the example of his own recently-discovered love for wild birds. Caring for actual birds, rather than for “the environment,” has refueled and refocused Franzen’s environmentalism, but in a new vein. Thus, he concludes his speech/essay:
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.
And who knows what might happen to you then?
So, is technology a threat to love? Is Franzen right? If technology forms our consciousness to expect everything on our terms, then it is such a threat. If, because I use various digital devices all day, I come home and expect my wife to act just like them, I will be sorely disappointed, and she will understandably sore.
Moreover, if technology limits my experience of actual people and the actual world, then it will inhibit my experience of and ability to love. But, if my life in grounded in actual loving relationships, then technology may give me new ways to express my love.