I became a vegetarian because of my love of books.
You see, my favorite author is Jonathan Safran Foer, who hooked me with Everything is Illuminated and made me a fan for life with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. After a long hiatus from publishing, Foer released Eating Animals a few years ago. While I’ve been ambivalent about eating meat for a long time, I was willfully ignorant about factory farming and other reasons that might push me over the fence, away from being a carnivore. However, the chance to read more from my favorite author was too tantalizing to pass up – so I read Eating Animals. I haven’t eaten meat since (with one exception for a burger made from a cow my brother raised, slaughtered and processed – an exception of which I think Foer would approve).
So this morning when I opened the New York Times to see that Foer had written an article about the drawbacks of our connected world, I was a bit worried. If Foer, an author whose work and integrity I trust, made a convincing enough argument – what would be the consequences in my life?
Of course, after reading the excerpt from Foer’s commencement speech at Middlebury College, I’m not going to turn in my smartphone or my Chromebook. But in conjunction with some other reading I’ve been doing lately, I’m definitely thinking about how to balance the authentic aspects of my life, whether they be digital or face-to-face.
In the article based on his speech, Foer describes online communication as a “diminished substitute” of true, face-to-face communication, placing texting as one step in a lineage that starts with the telephone and travels through answering machines and emails. To him, each step was “not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument, and while logically it appears to make sense at the surface, there are some underlying assumptions that give me discomfort. The primary one is that face-to-face, real-time conversation is holier than all other forms of communication and the ultimate form that all people should use. You’ll never find me arguing that face-to-face communication isn’t necessary, but I also don’t think that it is necessarily better or more authentic than other forms of communication. Just as those of us who advocate for educational technology often discuss the appropriateness of a tool for a given task, I think we should also appreciate many forms of communication for their appropriateness to a task.
Online communication and social networking provide opportunities for those who have traditionally been marginalized or ostracized to connect authentically with others. Think about a gay teenager who is the ‘only one’ in his rural high school, finding a supportive community of those like him online. Think of a person with autism for whom face-to-face conversation produces debilitating anxiety, able to use non-synchronous communication to engage with others. Think of the many examples around the world of social media being used to bring together people for life-changing causes, or to spread messages far beyond one person’s typical reach.
Foer says he worries “that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.” Our ever-present networks make it easier to be absent from human interactions and we run the risk of leaving one another alone. In the examples I describe, however, I believe that the network truly makes us less alone. If these online interactions lead to face-to-face connections, that’s wonderful. But if not, I think the tool has still served its purpose – true connection between humans.
In the end, I agree with Foer’s beautiful words about the need to be there for one another:
We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.
I agree that it is messy and complicated and difficult to be in relationship with others. I just think we can do this messy and complicated work, and truly be present for each other, even if we are not together in the flesh.
What do you think? Does the increased use of technology to communicate make us more alone, or more together? I think we hang in the balance and each of us must decide for ourselves how to live in this messy and complicated world. Foer may not have changed my food choices with this article, but I hope that his words do change my intellectual diet, and that I become more conscious of how I am authentically present for others in my life.