For the last few days, I’ve been seeing the six-minute clip of Louis C.K. railing against the use of smartphones all over my smartphone. Every time I check my email, or read Twitter, or otherwise distract myself from life’s essential loneliness, his sermon from the couch appears on my tiny screen, underlined with rapturous agreement. C.K. “nails it” on the “bleak, depressing reality of smartphones,” the headlines tell me. His notion that “you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not do anything” is “sad, brilliant,” “impressively existential,” and “frighteningly on the money.”
The fact that so many people in my social network have been so inspired by the comedian’s attack on social networks suggests that no one finds his thesis too surprising. That’s how social networks work: Likes beget shares, and shares beget likes. We’re moved by C.K.’s speech because he’s telling us what we know already: that phones distract us from the mindful contemplation of our lives; that they corrupt our souls and make us less compassionate. Nothing could be more in line with the backdoor Buddhism that defines the Louis Liberal.
But C.K.’s rant about smartphones invokes a deep conservatism, too. When he speaks out against the evils of technology, he short-circuits an important debate by appealing to an old anxiety. Do new forms of communication erode the public sphere? Do they degrade the human spirit? Perhaps—but we’ve been working through these questions since the invention of the printed book, and never found a simple answer. So why has C.K.’s crude and fearful take on texting earned such widespread approbation?
Could C.K. be right that smartphones are the devil’s playthings? His rant begins by parroting a concern that has become a staple of daytime talk shows—that social media contaminate our children and erode their social skills. “I think these things are toxic, especially for kids,” C.K. said last week, in explaining why he’ll never let his daughters have iPhones. Slate’s Emily Bazelon makes a similar argument in her book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying by Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, quoting the Stanford researcher Clifford Nass. “Face-to-face contact is the best way to learn to read other people’s emotions,” Nass told her. “It’s how kids learn empathy. So it’s as if the in-person socializing is the health food, and Facebook is the empty calories. It’s like junk food, and the more of it kids have, the less time they may have for the healthy stuff.” Elsewhere, Nass has described these teen and tweens as suffering from “emotion atrophy,” a condition born of not getting “sufficient practice in observing and experiencing true emotions.”
Or as C.K. put it:
“They don’t look at people when they talk to them. They don’t build the empathy. Kids are mean and it’s because they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘You’re fat.’ And then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and say ‘Ooh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But they gotta start with doing the mean thing. But when they write ‘You’re fat,’ then they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun, I like that.’ ”
C.K. and Nass seem to believe that we’re in the middle of terrible experiment, one that might eventually produce a generation of near-sociopaths. The problem is, Nass’ own research doesn’t quite support the claim. In an online survey he conducted in the summer of 2010 with Roy Pea, on the media habits of 8-to-12-year-old girls, Nass found no correlation between online and face-to-face communication. In other words, girls who spent lots of hours buried in their smartphones weren’t any less likely than their peers to hang out with friends in person—and girls who liked to go out in groups were no less inclined to text or send instant messages. According to the data, a kid can gorge on Facebook “junk food” and still get all the social nutrients she needs.
That’s not to say that online interactions don’t invite momentary cruelties and bouts of cyberbullying. The survey did find that having face-to-face communication goes along with kids’ feeling more “normal” and socially successful. But according to Nass’ data, sending texts or using Facebook and Twitter don’t make a girl much worse off, nor does the fact of her owning a cell phone. In fact, the two activities that, judging from Nass’ data, seem to retard her development of social skills the most are reading (which includes doing homework) and watching videos (which includes time spent in front of the television). Nass and Pea found that girls who keep their noses in a book or veg out on the couch may not be as well-attuned to social cues as those who do not. Obviously that doesn’t mean we should stop our daughters from going to the library or watching Downton Abbey.
Nass has also argued that technology prevents girls from learning how to regulate their emotions. “If we do not teach tweens how to be sad … we are dooming them to sadness, as they will not develop tools to move beyond that feeling,” he wrote in Pacific Standard in April 2012. Again, C.K. gives this social-science dictum a comedic gloss, with an anecdote about listening to “Jungleland” on the radio:
I was in my car one time and a Bruce Springsteen song comes on. … I heard it and it gave me a fall, back-to-school depression feeling. It made me really sad, and I go, OK, I’m getting sad. I’ve got to get the phone and write ‘Hi’ to 50 people. … I started to get that sad feeling and I was going to reach for the phone, and I said, ‘You know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness stand in the way of it. And let it hit you like a truck.’
I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much and it was beautiful. It was like this beautiful… it was just this… sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings because when you let yourself feel sad your body has antibodies. It has happiness rushing in to meet the sadness. I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip, you know?
The thing is because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away…
There’s plenty of research to back up the claim that when people can accept their emotions, they’re better able to manage them. According to Amelia Aldao, who studies the regulation of emotions at Ohio State University, cell phones provide an easy way to disengage from our inner states, and may exacerbate an unhealthy tendency to avoid negative feelings. Of course, not enough distraction can be a bad thing, too: People who ruminate on their sadness often end up more depressed. (“In my research I find that sometimes people spend too much time thinking about themselves,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the UC-Riverside and author of The Myths of Happiness. “Americans are more introspective than other cultures. We think about ourselves a lot—it’s a luxury we have.”)
But there are plenty of pre-smartphone ways to tamp down discomfort and/or the essential sadness of existence. When I was an 8-to-12-year-old boy, I filled up every empty moment of my days reading science-fiction paperbacks. I read these books at home, I read them at school, I held them cradled in my arms as I walked down the street. I didn’t have a smartphone, but neither did I follow C.K.’s advice to “just be myself and not do anything.” Neither did my parents. Every morning at breakfast, and every evening before dinner, they staved off the void with public radio. They didn’t have the benefit of mobile apps, but they shrugged off moments of depression or dismay by doing crossword puzzles and listening to All Things Considered.
Are these old-fashioned modes of entertainment and distraction any less pernicious than the ones we have today? C.K.’s own example mixes the old technology with new. He had the urge to text his friends, he says, while listening to music in his car; his smartphone distracted him from the radio. But what if C.K. had been sitting there in blessed silence, staring out across the open road and contemplating his own mortality? Why did he have to clog the gaping quiet with classic rock? What made his phone distracting, and his radio a source of sadness and joy?
We like to think that antique distractions—Isaac Asimov, Carl Kasell, Bruce Springsteen—are superior to the modern sort. Books and songs enrich us; smartphones make us dumber. “Jungleland” is art; Facebook is a waste of time. But is that really true? I’ll grant the excellence of “Jungleland”—I’m not a monster—but most pop tunes won’t make you cry “like a bitch.” Most are ways to pass the time and nothing more. You want filler? Listen to the track that comes right before “Jungleland” on Born to Run.*
And so it is with smartphones. Some texts from friends are snoozers, pointless blips that distract us from our daily lives; others wrench the soul. Some Facebook posts work to dull our senses; others blind us with their brilliance. Isn’t the Louis C.K. clip itself a melancholy, distant cry, piercing through the newsfeed fog? Can’t we use our smartphones to hear “Jungleland,” at any time of day? Or is that distraction, too?
* Correction, Sept. 24, 2013: Due to a production error, this post originally linked to "Backstreet" when discussing the song that comes directly before "Jungleland" on the Bruce Springsteen album Born to Run. The song that comes before it is "Meeting Across the River."