A core anxiety: Fear and trembling on the social networks
By Louis René Beres
A visibly deep pleasure is embraced by cell phone talkers. For tens of millions of Americans, there is almost nothing that can compare to the ringing ecstasy of a message. It also seems that nothing can bring down a deeper sense of despair than the palpable suffering of cellular silence.
Perhaps half of the American adult population is literally addicted to cell phones. For them, a cell, now also offering access to an expanding host of related social networks, offers much more than suitable business contact, personal safety, or even a merely prudent ability to “stay in touch.” For these anxious legions, conversing or messaging on a cell phone grants easily accessible personal therapy. It permits both the caller and the called to feel more important, more valuable, less anonymous, and (above all else) less alone. With “rugged individualism” now reduced to a convenient national myth, cellular communication in its many forms promises to provide almost everyone who is “linked in” a direct line to stature, inclusion and happiness.
“We are the hollow men,” announced T.S. Eliot, long before the advent of cell phones. Today, still, most of our “whispers” remain “quiet and meaningless.” Aside from rare emergencies and common daily chores, cell phone conversations or messages usually transmit only innocuous prattle, mind-numbing blather, or monosyllabic grunts. This is especially plain on university campuses, where anxiously-connecting students defensively compress their entire universe of personal meanings into the distinctly limited lexicon of “cool,” “awesome,” or the ever-popular “incredible.”
The known universe is probably many billions of light years “across.” Yet, here, in America, and elsewhere as well, most humans are still desperately afraid to become individuals. “Why bother?” they reason. Why take the risk?
“Look at me, please,” is the unspoken but desperate cry of the public talker, or “texter,” or “Twitterer.” I am here. I am important. I have human connections. I count for something. I am not (heaven forbid) unpopular. I am not alone.”
The cell phone has not caused people to display pathos and freeze in terror. This tiny machine itself is not “the problem.” It is, after all, just a tangible instrument, a tool that identifies and magnifies what would otherwise lie dormant in our adrenalized and breathlessly-frenetic society.
Each ring promises to reveal more than just an incoming message. It also serves to confirm that we have become a very lonely crowd, an excruciatingly “hollow” society driven openly by imitation, conformance, fear, and trembling.
There exists a universal human wish to remain unaware of oneself. But this subversive hope always leads individuals to stray dangerously from their true personhood, and toward the deceptively available security of the “herd.” Sometimes, when a terror gang and a sports team effectively become competitors for group loyalty, any herd will do. Obscuring what might otherwise express an incapacity to belong, an inability to become a good “member,” the apprehensive American learns very quickly that authenticity generally goes unrewarded, and that courage is typically punished.
We humans sometimes fear exclusion more than anything, sometimes even more than death. Oddly, perhaps more than anyone knows, this is a vitally important personal calculus, one that may be largely responsible for war, terrorism and genocide. The human need to belong can become so overwhelming that many will literally kill others – any others – rather than face personal isolation or ostracism.
“I’m trying to get as far away from myself as I can,” sings Bob Dylan (“Things Have Changed”). Unexpectedly, this single insightful verse may unwittingly explain a great deal about the root causes of violence in world politics.
Although never widely recognized, the inner fear of loneliness expressed by cell phone addiction gives rise to another huge problem. Nothing important, in science or industry or art or music or literature or medicine or philosophy, can ever take place without some loneliness. To be able to exist apart from the mass – to be tolerably separated from what Freud called the “primal horde,” or what Nietzsche termed the “herd,” or Kierkegaard the “crowd” – is actually indispensable to exceptional intellectual development, and determinative creative evolution.
There is more. To achieve any sense of true spirituality in life, we must first be willing to endure at least some aloneness. For better or for worse, all of our principal religious founders consciously sought deeper meanings “inside,” in seclusion, within themselves.
I belong. Therefore I am. Turning Descartes’ fundamental wisdom on its head, and at a time when we desperately need more of what Ralph Waldo Emerson had once promisingly called “high thinking,” this pitiful reasoning is the sad credo expressed by all cell phone addiction. In essence, it presents a not-so-stirring manifesto that social acceptance is immanent to personal survival, and that any necessary individual satisfaction is simply the ironic privilege of private mediocrity.
One can be inconsequential anywhere, but a relentless sadness in America now appears to grow more intense wherever private fears seemingly become incommunicable.
Cell phone addiction is certainly less a diagnosable illness than an imagined therapy. Ultimately, in a society filled with garrulous devotees of a pretended and rehearsed ecstasy, it offers tantalizing electronic links to presumably new forms of “redemption.”
Here, in these fearful United States, the noisy and uneasy mass has fully infested our solitude. Indeed, upon most of us, the telltale traces of herd life may already have become indelible. Now, embracing an indecent alloy of banality and apocalypse, we Americans ritually seek purpose and excitement within widening cellular-connections. It will, of course, remain an utterly disappointing, vain, and misbegotten search.
In the end, life is always death’s prisoner. Until we can come to grips with this disturbing but still-overriding truth, we can never experience our decisively numbered moments with any intense pleasure. Today, despite our manifold efforts at cell calls, Tweets and Twitters, our personal doubts still seem inexhaustible. This is because we continue to look to others to define who we are, and what we might still become.
At its core, even our current economic crisis was spawned by a lethal other-directedness.
Remember Bernie Madoff? The Ponzi scheme mastermind was merely microcosm. The recession and corollary commercial failures were not caused by “greed.” Rather, it was all spawned by a widespread and totally consuming personal fear of insignificance. Now ignored by both politicians and economists (earlier, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes et. al. had actually recognized the critical importance of psychology), this primal fear is the starkly immobilizing terror that one is “simply not wanted at all.” Today, with the new voice-activated cell phones, users don’t necessarily even have to await a living human being at the other end. Still ever-fearful of being “not wanted at all,” they can now counter personal angst with carefully cultivated delusions of authentic conversation.
In part, the immense attraction of cell phones and related social networking “apps” derive from our society’s dutifully robotic or machine-like existence. Doubtlessly, we Americans now celebrate a push-button metaphysics. Here, absolutely every hint of passion must follow a narrowly uniform pathway. Arrogantly, to be sure, we still insist upon believing that we are somehow the controlling creators of our machines, and not their obedient servants.
Strictly speaking, this is correct. But now there is also an implicit reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate pantomime between users and used. Predictably, our techno-constructions are now making a machine out of both Man and Woman. In fact, in an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, we now generally behave as if we have been created in the image of the machine.
Cell phone addiction is merely the most visible symptom of a deeper pathology. The basic “disease” that we suffer is a painfully insipid cultural order. Whether we look to politics, entertainment, or commerce (it is increasingly hard to tell them apart), our banal national life remains perched precariously upon a humiliating network of battered jingles, advertised meanings, and ready-to-wear slogans.
Small wonder, today, that our entertainments are unapologetically crass, and that overindulging on seriously bad food has become our most enthusiastic national pastime. The core reason for our programmed overeating is not that we are any hungrier, but that we have finally lost our appetite for real life.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. Read his previous OUPblog posts here.
For further reading on how mobile technology is changing our lives, we recommend Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. View more about this book on the