Augmentation, not alternative

My mother sent me a link to a piece by Jonathan Franzen in the NYT today, with this quote specifically included (italics hers):

This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

It’s a well-written piece, and the quote my mother cites is lovely, but (unsurprisingly) I completely reject its central thesis which seems to say we can either surf superficially and easily through life with tech or embrace the difficult struggle that is a profound relationship with another person but not do both:

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.

Wow.  It’s like Stephen Fry’s evil twin has come to town.

No. This is not an either-or world. I relate and laugh and disagree on a daily basis with people who are sharing the same air I do. I also am able to connect joyously and articulately with someone who lives in Singapore – a relationship that would not be possible without technology, as Arvind and I “met” one another on Facebook through our discussions on a mutual friend’s Fb wall (and she is someone I initially “met” online in the pre-Fb era and then was able to see in person years later. Rana and I are good enough friends – not “friends” – that she invited John and me to her wedding).

Additionally, I see arguments and hard discussions all over my friends’ walls. I don’t usually engage in them because Fb is something I reserve for fun, but that says more about me than it does about Fb – lots of people go to church to be soothed, only some go to be challenged. But that doesn’t necessarily say much about church in general: it says something about the people who attend it and the reason they attend it.

I see people all over being perfectly likable – striving to be so, in fact – in their everyday lives with colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers. That doesn’t mean they’re false or hollow or emotionally crippled – it means they’re being polite. And the majority of one’s friends on Fb are actually acquaintances. But what was Fb supposed to call them, anyway? They could have gone with the prolix: “People I know,” the sterile: “Contacts,” or the twee: “Buddies.” “Friends” is both largely accurate and brief. And I’ve found personally that people still recognize the differing levels of friendship and layers of knowledge that exist in human relationships both online and off (I know X more than I know Y, but I know Y’s sense of humor and mine intersect precisely in just such a way…) The technology of Fb doesn’t have to characterize those differences – the people involved do that automatically.  The organic human recognition of the subtleties of specific relationships doesn’t have to be perfectly mirrored or duplicated by the technology.

Sites like Fb and “sexy” new Blackberries and titanium laptops are not intended to replace – they are intended to augment.  And I reject the idea that I have somehow sold my connection to humanity by extending my reach to other human beings.


  1. What an utterly bizarre article. It’s well written, sure, but not in any way well argued. I completely fail to grasp how he can go from “love is hard, technology is easy” to “technology is the enemy of love”. Or indeed “sex is like magic, technology is like magic, they are the same to us!” And then he ends up at “we’re all going to die, THAT’S the problem”. (I don’t agree with that either, btw: I can’t see in any way how mortality is what “really” makes me personally angry, or unhappy.)

    I also think he is confusing technology with consumerism. Not the same thing at all. And I’m pretty sure there isn’t such a clear definition between consumer products (designed to be liked) and, say, laboratory equipment. Without any experience of labs whatsoever, I would bet heavily that there are catalogues of such equipment very carefully designed to get scientists jumping up and down going “squee! shiny! sexy! WANT!” Which doesn’t really have anything to do with his main point, but then, I’m seriously confused as to what his main point really is…

  2. @Klangable or, as I wrote a while back…