A fist grasps social media likes. Image credit: Billion Photos / Shutterstock
IN A 2013 COMIC MONOLOGUE LOUIS C.K. EXPLAINED WHY HE WOULD NOT
buy mobile phones for his children:
You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones have taken away. It’s the ability to just sit there, like this [demonstrates motionlessness]. That’s being a person, right? . . . Pretty much hundred percent of people are driving and texting, and they’re killing everybody and murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own, ’cause they don’t want to be alone for a second.
Further on, the comedian describes a wave of sadness that once flooded him while driving his car, his immediate urge to text somebody, and the cathartic process he went through by resisting this urge and experiencing sadness to its fullest. The monologue touches on what may be the most important question regarding technology, a question that is both essential and, in some sense, impossible: How does technology affect our personhood? We know it does, although it is not supposed to. The question attracts much concern in popular discourse, revealing anxieties about the way technology can ruin the psychological well-being of our children. It is an impossible question, however, because objects are not supposed to affect the constitution of our psyche. They are, after all, only objects.
Louis C. K.’s monologue is important because it points at a way out of this impasse. It invokes the most radical change in personhood associated with mobile phones. The mobile phone has changed what it means to be a person. It has taken away our ability to bear intense emotions. It has infringed our sense of autonomy and diminished our ability to be alone. Louis C. K.’s explanation for this mysterious effect is important because it bypasses the framework of impact, where a material object is the cause of a psychological change. What it suggests, if read carefully, is not that the mobile phone has changed our ability to be alone; a more basic, factual change has occurred. When we carry a mobile phone, we are not alone. We are in the potential presence of others. It is not that our psychological constitution has changed but rather that our very being in the world has changed. It is the world that has changed, not us.
Before I get back to mobile phones and their effects on patience, I want to recall two classic arguments that take a similar approach regarding the effects of media. A few decades ago, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America pointed to mass media as the driver of a loss of patience in the public sphere.
It is important to return to these texts because both grounded this loss of patience not in psychological causality but in environmental changes—that is, in our ways of being in a world dramatically changed by media. It seems that the influence of these books, particularly Boorstin’s, has somewhat waned over the years. Their mode of an overarching critique of “the media” has gone out of fashion in contemporary research, which is more attuned to nuanced local analyses. The allegations they formulated against mass media have lent them a moral fervor, evident in an overtone of nostalgia for a literate preindustrial society they share. Nostalgia is never a good political guide, and it may make Boorstin’s and Postman’s arguments look simplistic. Cleansing their arguments of their moral fervor, however, one finds in them not simplistic but simple conceptual insights. Being simple denies them neither importance nor depth.
Postman demonstrates the effects of electronic media on political culture by recalling the series of debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1850s. In one of these debates, Douglas delivered a three-hour address, to which Lincoln was to respond. When his turn came, seeing that it was already 5 p.m., Lincoln proposed that “the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk.” What makes such a scene unimaginable today, according to Postman, is the emergence of electronic media, whose underlying form is entertainment, as serious as its content may be.
An advantage of Postman’s argument is that it provides a relatively accurate definition of the vague concept of entertainment, anchored in an ontological transformation brought about by electronic communication. With the advent of telegraphy in the 1840s, for the first time in human history, information could travel much more quickly than people. By this the telegraph “made a three pronged attack on typography’s definition of discourse, introducing on a large scale irrelevance, impotence, and incoherence.” The telegraph could deliver context-free information about faraway places, and its success was accompanied by the emergence of a form of discourse that valued the appropriate features of information: its detachment from immediate human context, the inability to immediately act upon it, and its lack of relevance to one’s immediate social fabric.
Though formally irresistible, Postman’s argument is bound to appear strange to us today. We see information about climate change, for example, as highly relevant to everyone’s life, although it usually concerns things far beyond our immediate social environment. The point is that we refer to such information in a world whose scales of relevance were already redrawn by electronic media. Thus, the discourse on climate change in fact demonstrates Postman’s basic matrix. It is grounded in a vision of “the world” as an aim of political action—an aim that concerns “everyone,” which is a collective with no possible political representation. That is why the discourse manifests a sense of both emergency and impotence, or better yet, emergency, which is the flipside of impotence.
Like Postman’s, Boorstin’s argument revolves around the redrawing of “the world” as a unit of cognition. The first sentence of his book states this very clearly: “The simplest of our extravagant expectations concerns the amount of novelty in the world.”
Boorstin brings to the fore a certain sense of economy that informs the way technology redraws the world as an object of curiosity. He too demonstrates his argument with a scene unimaginable today. When the first American newspaper came out in Boston in 1690, it promised to bring news to its readers once a month. But its editor vowed that it would appear more often “if any Glut of Occurrences happen.” It is not just the frequency of news that distinguishes this lost world from ours, but the relation between reality and its representations in the media. Newspapers must fill more or less the same number of pages every day, regardless of what events should be reported. The world must be made interesting, an object of curiosity, to answer the economic demand of the media. As Boorstin phrases it, “There was a time when the reader of an unexciting newspaper would remark, ‘How dull is the world today!’ Nowadays he says, ‘What a dull newspaper!’”
Postman and Boorstin allow us to view impatience as characteristic of a modern way of being in the world. They trace the origin of modern impatience to how the world, in both real and imagined senses, has changed—a world where information is abundant and fast moving, and a world as an imagined space we inhabit. This loss of patience was clearly aggravated by the advent of social networks, as is evident in the quickly escalating rage that characterizes digital political discourse (and maybe also the lack of clear boundaries as to what makes an issue “political”).
This seemingly self-generating anger is an obvious fact today, yet one should keep in mind its puzzling aspect. Formally viewed, the internet should be a haven of pluralism, where people can express their worldviews and find like-minded people to converse with. Instead, social networks are usually associated with growing polarization of political discourse.
The concepts of echo chambers and filter bubbles have been invoked to explain this counterintuitive development. As the explanation goes, people become radicalized when they are exposed only to like-minded others and filter out opposing views—a feature made possible by the algorithms of networks. One problem with this explanation is that studies show people are in fact more exposed to opposing views on social networks, but in a way that only feeds their anger.
The puzzle can be approached from a different angle, addressing networks as a way of imagining the world and being in the world. A popular meme captures the link between digital technology and increased impatience. It shows the pimpled face of a young adult, a typical image of a socially rejected “beta male.” The upper caption reads, “No, I can’t go to bed Mom,” and the lower adds, “Someone is wrong on the internet.”
For our purposes, let us view this as one prototypical way of being online. The meme portrays being online as an unbearable condition. The internet stands in for “the world” as an object of cognition already redrawn in previous media revolutions. Being in this world is now characterized by a disruption of proportions and distances. It is characterized by a topology of the psyche and the social world, where the infinitely remote and unfamiliar (“someone on the internet”) is experienced as too close to us, an unbearable presence.
Hannah Arendt inadvertently provided a prophetic trope for this situation. “The term ‘public,’” she wrote, “signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it.” This world, however, is composed of human-made things.“ To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.” Mass society is difficult to bear because the world between people has lost its power to relate and separate them: “The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated to each other by anything tangible.”
For Arendt, this image of a séance is a strange simile, yet social networks have conferred on it a new mode of reality. In a sense, on social networks people fall directly into each other, with no objects to separate and relate them. They are both too close to and too remote from each other. Patience relies on assuming a correct distance to the world: to other people, to their difference from us, to their annoying presence, to the faults we recognize in our shared reality. Arendt’s trope should serve as a reminder that patience is not only a mental attitude. It is in part inscribed in the material constitution of our shared world, in the material separation between the private and the public spheres and the material constitution of the public sphere. Arendt’s weirdly prophetic simile proposes a way to address the new dimensions of the loss of patience brought on by the digital revolution. Maybe it has to do with the material and immaterial constitution of a shared digital world.
Noam Yuran is a senior lecturer at the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire (2014).