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How Not to Be Alone: Jonathan Safran Foer on the Dangers of Diminished Communication

September 26th, 2019 · 16 comments
Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

In 2013, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer gave the commencement address at Middlebury College. He subsequently adapted parts of it into a short but impactful essay published in the New York Times. It was titled: “How Not to Be Alone.”

In this piece, Foer explores the evolution of communication technology, writing:

“Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone.” 

From the answering machine we got to email, which was even easier, and then texting, which, being less formal and more mobile, was even easier still.

“But then a funny thing happened,” Foer writes, “we began to prefer the diminished substitute.”

This made life convenient, but introduced its own costs:

“The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.”

Foer is underscoring a point I also elaborate in Digital Minimalism. We’re evolved to be highly social primates. Through the vast majority of our deep history, sociality meant analog communication, with vocal inflections, body languages, and a necessary investment of time and energy by both parties.

When you strip away these elements of interaction, you strip away a lot of what makes us human.

“We often use technology to save time,” Foer concludes, “but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich.”

16 thoughts on “How Not to Be Alone: Jonathan Safran Foer on the Dangers of Diminished Communication

  1. Heshani says:

    My comment didn’t get published. I like interacting face to face. Thank you for blogging, Cal

    1. Rajitha Senavirathna says:

      The main problem with all these cluttered technology is that it takes away our freedom of choice. If we become totally possessed by the endless stream of thinking, thanks to the cluttered tech we mindlessly adapted, we become less and less able to take care of ourselves. If we are to survive as human race in the times to come, our tech industry has to produce conscious products. But most importantly, regardless of what they introduce, we should be intentional about what tech (and when and how) we are going to use.
      Thanks Cal for raising your voice on this matter. Greetings from Sri Lanka

  2. Jesse says:

    Thank you for so succinctly summing up why I hate texting.

    I’m an introvert who prefers face-to-face interactions, and I’ve been called out for it many times, so I’ve taken to telling people I’m a version of introvert that loves people. Then I watch their heads explode.

    We need the nuance to truly know what someone means. Intonation, body language, etc are all part of how we evolved to communicate and we’re losing the ability to read it. And display it from some of my recent interactions with people whose heads were buried in their phones moments before we began chatting.

    Sigh.

    Thanks as always for the greats reads, Cal!

    1. Julian says:

      I call myself and extroverted introvert…

  3. Ray says:

    There’s no evidence for Foer’s assertion, “People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.”

    My experience is that many people who say quite a lot feel very little and vice-versa.

    1. Kurt says:

      Thank you. It bothered me that this was just nonchalantly included as if it were fact.

    2. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that lack of social interaction leads to unhealthy emotions, not necessarily less emotions.

  4. I admit I’m guilty of this and the shift away from face-to-face communication has diminished my life.

  5. Since I gave up my smart phone two years ago, I find I extend more effort to connect with others. Even with regards to texting, I am more likely to call someone simply because I don’t feel like going through the hassle of texting on a old-school dumb phone.

  6. Catherine Carr says:

    What underpins all the angst about digitally-created disconnection is attachment theory. We evolved to regulate our internal states in the presence of other humans. Even before smartphones, fully half of us have some degree of attachment anxiety. You might even argue that what’s considered a “normal” separation process between parent and child involves the creation of a narcissistic wound, to some degree. Psychologist Alan Robarge treats this very convincingly in his video “Maybe you’re the narcissist”. I think awareness of attachment injuries is starting to enter North American consciousness, which can only be a good thing.

  7. Yevgeniya Przhebelskaya says:

    I think texting is better than Facebook updates. I’m minimizing Facebook, and do more texting instead, even if I have to repeat myself.

  8. Daniel Brass says:

    Great insight as always. Perhaps this diminished reality is partly to blame for the seemingly non ending rudeness we all experience from strangers in public.

  9. Larry says:

    the battle is real, but people don’t wish to see it. I too have become a slave to smartphones, but I fight back constantly. The issue is that they create technology so you forces to utilize it.

    Prime example employers require it or if you have to watch over someone or something, you need access to your web cams.

    I wish that I could sit down with like minded individuals so that we could come up with alternatives…

  10. Mel says:

    Diminished substitutes have us start thinking in terms of quantity over quality, which makes it even harder to remove them.

    When I first started removing my social media, I panicked at how much effort it would be to recreate that level of “social” in real life – and I felt socially starved by the sudden drop in conversation.

    It took time to adjust, but now I’m in a place where I really appreciate having 1-2 social events per week, and enjoy the downtime for my brain to relax, journal, improve a skill, or even just watch a TV show with all of my attention directed to it. People ask what the best way to contact me is, and I say email – and there’s usually this moment of “But what if it’s urgent?” I just don’t do urgent anymore.

    It’s been freeing. But there was definitely a real effort to detox first.

  11. GranTorino says:

    With the quote of people who say little start to feel little, it kind of reminds me of Sherry Turkle’s excellent maxim, ” If you never learn to be alone, then loneliness is the only emotion you will ever know.”

  12. I think the problem really happens when an electronic socialization method is completely replaced by physical interaction. Our monkey brains see the utility of digital devices and loses track of benefits of physical interaction. The more valuable time becomes, the easier it is to blow off face-to-face interactions as we move from task-to-task. Who has all that time for chit chat? It seems like a pragmatic thought at first, until you go the entire day realizing you haven’t said two sentences to breathing human beings outside of a food order or saying thanks when the cashier handed you change. The personal interaction becomes devalued when it shouldn’t be.

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