On a recent episode of Conan O’Brien, comedian Louis C.K. discussed why he doesn’t want to give his daughters smartphones (I love discussions like this, especially when no one thinks to include asking whether the smartphone denier has his own smartphone). In a nutshell, Louis criticizes smartphones—really, phones in general—for allowing us to dodge moments of solitude or sadness, moments he feels we should embrace and celebrate. He believes our solitary moments are the most important to us, and should not be missed.
Frankly, I’d expect that from a comedian whose most popular axiom is that everyone’s unhappy. Of course he wants people to stay unhappy… those are the kind of people he jokes about, and the kind of people who most appreciate his humor, so they are the people that keep him employed. But I’d say he’s dead wrong. Humans should not be alone or unhappy; neither should they celebrate unhappiness or solitude. That’s not being human.
Humans are social animals. We are at our best as a social entity… always have been. Being social protected us against predators, hunted for food while some of us took care of babies, passed on knowledge and shared with peers, and raised our species from just another aimless primate to Alpha Dog of all creatures on the planet. When we’ve had problems, we’ve discussed the problems with others to get help. When we’ve found solutions, we shared them so others could benefit from our insight.
Those are not the actions of solitary species. They’re not even the actions of Louis C.K. Does he tell his jokes to empty bathrooms? No: He gathers a few thousand people into a room, tells the jokes to them, and when they laugh, he gets money from them. Then he goes on television, where a few million people can watch him, and through a very social system in which advertisers pay for others to buy products based on watching Louis, he gets paid by another agency: The TV station. He is the living, literal embodiment of a social human. How could he possibly tell another human not to be social?
Solitude does have its uses. It’s good for reflection, for one thing, and it provides for a moment of rest. But Louis suggests we should cultivate those moments, like a solitary moment when a Springsteen song drove him to tears. I’d point out that, although those moments can be cleansing, they are also the moments that drive more people to suicide. Solitude clearly has limits to its value, and can make bad matters worse. (Go and find out exactly how social America’s last half-dozen mass shooters were. I’ll wait.)
The smartphone, central object of Louis’ comments (sort of), is a tool, a hallmark example of modern technology; so I see Louis’ comments as anti-technology, not just anti-smartphone. He sites people texting while driving—yes, an insane thing to do—as his primary reason why phones are bad for his daughters. But in doing so, he blithely ignores the good phones can do: Storing valuable information for instant access; helping to get directions or instructions when needed; summoning help in emergencies; providing knowledge or entertainment when a moment arises; and providing a way for others to find you when needed.
Personally, I’d say the many valuable things a phone can do clearly outweigh the few stupid things they can also do… and especially when possessed by people with more than 2 or 3 brain cells to rub together, who can be told not to do the stupid things. (I’d hope Louis’ kids are smart enough to be instructable. If not… well, Louis has problems other than technology to contend with.) I have a smartphone; yet I am smart enough not to text while driving. I also recognize the difference between a text or Facebook message and actual human contact, the former merely being a new degree of connectivity that Louis, at their age, didn’t have. He had phones in his house. But I bet his parents didn’t forbid him to use them.
This can be said about any tool and technological product: It can do good things, and it certainly can do bad things. A hammer can pound a nail, or crack a skull. But the potential to do bad things is not a good reason to abandon the technologies; it’s a good reason to learn to use them properly, to make an effort to make sure others use them properly, and—in cases when too many people use them improperly—to improve the technology to make it harder to use improperly.
To my mind, Louis’ comments (and many others I hear against one technology or another) really boil down to “I don’t like it, because it doesn’t make life perfect.” I’m pretty sure we, as a species, will never be perfect; but our greatest asset is that we continue to improve our world, and our technology, in a never-ending struggle to get that much closer to it.