The novelist, Jonathan Franzen, gave a commencement address at Kenyon College this year and it was such powerful stuff that it was picked up by the New York Times and subsequently created waves through the internet as he basically called everyone’s number.
He begins by observing how the word ‘sexy’ is ubiquitiously linked to the marketing of any new hi-tech device; the sleek touchscreens, the sensual interface. But the result is that technology itself begins to corespond to ‘our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.’
Life has always been a slow and reflective process with plenty of time to consider who we are and what we want. But the portability of our gadgets means that we fill up all that dead time on the bus, waiting for someone, lying in bed at night by scanning through the our contacts list on our cell phones to count our friends, to check reviews on the cafe we’re currently in, to get attention from strangers on dating sites or update our profile photo to see if anyone will actually notice.
‘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.’
The real message of Franzen’s speech, however, is about the difference between being liked and being loved.
‘A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice.
‘But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center.’
I felt this when I was in California for a month. Half the people I was introduced to had some cool name they’d invented for themselves like Sexy Beast or Buddha Monkey. They could reel off their resume in a moment, subscribed to all the latest cool beliefs and, obviously, knew exactly what to wear to achieve that alternative-but-heavily-contrived look. I felt like I could take a pin and pop their entire downloaded personality.
Franzen summed it up: ‘If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are.’
After a few beers last weekend, a programmer and I conspired to invent a browser extension that would automatically post I don’t care to everyone’s Facebook updates. But then we saw that someone had done it already. Because really, a few years ago if you had told everyone excitedly about what you had for breakfast you’d quickly realise that some things are too banal for words. Not so with updates, however:
‘Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly.’
We’ve become our own paparazzi, our own marketers, consumers of ourselves.
Franzen concludes with the message that loving has nothing to do with liking.
‘There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie.’
‘The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.’
You can hear Franzen’s speech here or read the whole transcript over at the NY Times here.