MR Round Table: Technology Woe or Wow?


Andrew O’Hagan wrote a story for the most recent issue of T Magazine and in it, the seasoned writer who has endured the birth of web rose to the defense of technology, a corner of the earth that few young writers — the digital natives — have cared to publicly penetrate before. He recalls the “days of yore,” when one couldn’t hear a song unless he traveled three miles to the shop that sold the musician’s record, with sweet nostalgia but never with a sense of remorseful longing because as he sees it, technology has made our lives more convenient. Furthermore, it seems, to refute this point is futile. As tends to be the case when a Goliath-type machine is defended, a generous chunk of the comment feed under the post went up in arms against the author’s thesis to recall the very same days of yore from a point of view that is not “culturally bankrupt.”

Here, Team Man Repeller, a group of young women, discuss the infiltration of technology in our lives.

Leandra Medine: The reason I wanted to round-table this article is because I feel like the conversation around technology and what it’s doing to us and our social lives is really meaty. I don’t necessarily believe that the reason we have a harder time articulating ourselves in 2014 is because of our mobile devices so much as it is that we have become word-substitutors. We take terms and turn them into the world’s biggest umbrellas and then we forget how to assess human emotion. Bitch no longer means bitch, slut doesn’t mean slut, etc, etc.

Amelia Diamond: I want to know how old his daughter is, because she said “as if” and I need to know if that’s coming back with the younger generation.

Charlotte Fassler: It is.

LM: This was the first article I’ve seen defending the proliferation of technology, which I really appreciated. I think that it was placed in context for me when he provided that short anecdote about women not missing the days when they had to keep their milk on the ledges for it to stay fresh. I just thought, Oh what a good point. I don’t think anyone regrets the invention of refrigerators.

CF: When you sent this email with an article link, I fully thought that you were sending us that article from — was it New York Magazine? — about how we all speak emoji now. I thought that’s what you were going to have us discuss. When I opened this, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t that. It’s a completely different, more streamlined and obvious way to talk about technology and communication now.

LM: Maybe something that’s interesting is that the people who seem to be writing the shame on you, Internet stories are the same people who are deeply immersed in the Internet, right? They’re these young writers who are publishing these stories about the good old days, whereas this one comes from a pretty seasoned vet who probably used a typewriter.

Kayla Tanenbaum: That makes sense in that it’s really easy to idealize something if you weren’t there or if you were four when it happened, but something to point out about his article is that there’s a difference between refrigeration and Twitter. I liked his article and I liked that it wasn’t whiny and “back in my day,” but I don’t think he should have lumped in all the things he did. Some things are immensely useful, like refrigeration.

AD: So is Twitter — if you want to be super metaphorical, you can follow crap on Twitter the same way you can put crap in your fridge.

KT: I just think refrigeration doesn’t have a downside, and maybe this is just me, but Twitter and social media make me anxious sometimes because I feel like I’m doing too much or I’m not doing enough.

LM: If it were not for refrigerators, murderers would have one less place to store dead bodies!

AD: I think there are definitely downsides to technology. I feel it all the time. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten kind of curmudgeonly and I have been longing for the days when you could cancel dinner plans because you “had a cold” and go to another friend’s house instead and not get in trouble for it. We’re expected now to be very transparent, and I miss the time before that. That said, I can’t imagine a world without it. It’s so useful and important. But anything in this world that’s good can be abused.

One thing that was interesting about the writer were his interesting comments on time and culture in his anecdotes. And I think his mention of the refrigerator wasn’t so much a comparison to its necessity, as far as Twitter, but rather a sign of the time. When he said that reference, I thought, People didn’t have refrigerators? That was more the thing for me, and I think there will be a time when people will be like “There was no Twitter?”

Esther Levy: I liked when he was speaking about his Smith’s CD — he had to walk, and take two busses, and whatever he had to do to get this record, that sentimentality maybe has been lost because I never walked two miles out of my way to get a record. Now they’re so easy to get.

Kate Barnett: But that sentimentally factors in somewhere else in life. There will be a different area that will still have that sense of nostalgia, like putting together a playlist for your friend — it’ll just be something that’s no longer available that allows you to be falsely nostalgic for it, but it doesn’t take anything away from the experience of the music you’re listening to or the way you get to interact with people. No one is gonna say, “I’m not gonna take part in this technical advancement that helps humanity,” but you still have the opportunity to choose to what extent you participate in it. I think the author’s basis is that there’s nostalgia, but for anyone saying it was better, it’s not actually better and here are my anecdotes.

LM: That also presents the question of why nostalgia always has to turn into really grand laments. Why can’t you just be nostalgic for the sake of reminiscing, why does it turn into things were better back then, how can we change the now?

KB: Because it’s easier

AD: The author remembers the past in such a fond way. When our Internet dies it’s a panic. I don’t like that it’s a panic. He mentions what happens when you get lost in the street, I don’t know what I would do if I got lost without my phone.

LM: Necessity is the mother of invention. You’d figure it out

KT: The thing I don’t like about social media is that you can never be alone. When he said the positive side is that you can’t be lonely, I actually disagree with that, but even if you’re alone on a beach, you could get out your phone and Instagram the beach or text your friends. I’m sure there are people out there who don’t feel the need to do that, but the thought that you’re always in reach of someone makes me a little uneasy. I never had those days where you could disappear for 5 hours in a real way.

CF: But when you are doing something that is all consuming of your time, you don’t even think about your phone. Even just this weekend, I was working all day. I was doing a lot of things that involved me using my hands and not sitting in front of a screen ,and I just put my phone in a corner and 6 hours had gone by and I hadn’t looked at Instagram.

I really happy that occurred, but at the same time, a lot of these articles about the “days of yore” and how technology is invading our lives in a more negative capacity are by younger people with a sense of what was, but they don’t really know what was. The time that has spanned between what is happening and what you are feeling nostalgic for, isn’t that much time. It’s not because everything is advancing so quickly. We’re nostalgic for flip phones, but that was a couple of years ago, that wasn’t the days of yore. And I think that ability creates a stronger sense of nostalgia even if what you’re longing for isn’t something you actually miss.

LM: Here’s the thing about every cultural phenomenon that infiltrates our lives and stays: it can either be treated as a fortress or a prison. Every single one of them. Refrigerators, cars, Instagram, whatever it is. Recently, when I was in Australia, I was thinking about how I haven’t been using Instagram at all lately, and when I do, I feel like it’s to experience something with someone else. I really appreciated seeing, say, a filtered Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk over the summer when I wasn’t there because I couldn’t be there. So I was thinking Instagram doesn’t have to be a prison. I don’t have to feel shitty because someone else is in Montauk and I’m not. I can experience it or feel like I’m experiencing it through the visual as opposed to feeling like I’m missing out because of the visual.

KT: He said you might be alone but you’ll never be lonely on the Internet… I disagree with that. “Physical loneliness can still exist, of course, but you’re never alone online”. I guess for me, I’m speaking from my own experience, growing up with Facebook really exacerbated my loneliness because I would see what other people were doing. I remember being in 8th grade and not being invited to some pre-game and seeing pictures of it on Facebook and thinking that if I didn’t have a Facebook, I wouldn’t know what I was missing and I wouldn’t feel left out. I didn’t have to check, obviously that’s on me, but the positive is that you can experience things without being there and you can share and you can connect with people. And the negative is that everybody is sharing the best parts of their lives.

LM: Don’t you feel like that experience builds your social immunity?

KT: Yeah, I definitely have less FOMO than people I know because I wasn’t popular in 8th grade, and I very much appreciate that. But I do find myself comparing my life to the Instagram versions of people’s lives. My Instagram life is very different from my real life, and I think people overestimate everyone’s happiness and underestimate their own and I think there’s something about this new technology that makes people very competitive.

EL: But you also have to make the distinction between social media and the Internet. I think with the writer, when you feel FOMO, you can find a chat room or a message board with people who share your interests and are in the same place as you are and you can find a friend (and that’s the fortress).

CF: And I think what he’s speaking about is not necessarily the way we communicate and relate to one another vis-à-vis the Internet but rather the way all of these new inventions have made life easier. When I think of my parents in college, typing out their essays on typewriters and having to correct them and retype the entire essays, that’s time. Time is valuable. You would have to do a mundane thing like wait in line to go to the DMV to get a paper to fill something out and then leave, where you could do it online in 5 minutes now.

LM: The reason we might be undergoing a fitness renaissance or a birth — a naissance — is because people have become so used to doing everything from their computers or phones. It’s a really easy way to engage with people or engage with yourself and to do something for yourself that makes you feel good, and if it is FOMO that’s eliciting this birth, then whatever — if Instagram is forcing people to get in shape, that doesn’t seem horrific. And separately, I think another important thing to keep in mind is that Joan Didion was obviously very right when she said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, and so all of the backlash stories to social media might very well be writers scrambling for ideas, addressing social conditions and then putting them on paper for readers to accept as fact.

KT: Or writers who just use their social experiments as material like “I didn’t use Facebook for a week!”

LM: We’ve run a version of that story!

CF: Bringing up that people accept these stories as fact is interesting because now the Internet is inundated with so much content. To some degree, we should be more wary of what we’re reading and not as quick to accept it as fact. Content is coming out so quickly, but for some reason I feel like we consume things in a way where we believe everything we’re reading.

KT: Can you believe there was a time when you could get in a really stupid fight with a friend or family member and just not know?

LM: I kind of like that you can know now, I just wish there was a little more conversation around getting there. That’s what I miss — is the stuff, the effort it took to get to the crux of the “I don’t know.” Now we don’t need to argue. I’ve got my flat screen TV.

AD: It’s true that the Internet eliminates discovery, but it also brings much more of the world to everyone else.

KB: It also means that anyone right now could be a modern day astronaut or explorer because many people have access to the Internet and can teach themselves how to code and build something and create something

AD: Anyone can learn how to play piano now; anyone can learn how to speak a different language. You just have to have YouTube access.

CF: One of the things I don’t like about smartphones — and this goes back to what Amelia was saying in the beginning — I don’t like always being reachable. I like the convenience of always being able to reach other people, but I don’t like that I’m always expected to be reachable because I have a smartphone.

EL: My husband’s phone is on airplane mode 12 hours a day. Literally on airplane mode. He’s not reachable.

LM: I had to do that when I was writing my book.

Cristina Couri: When I was in China, Facebook was blocked. That was hard.

AD: With our jobs, it’s almost like we’re always on call. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing but we can always be on an e-mail, we can always fix a problem.

LM: I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

AD: But it also makes you work 24/7.

LM: I probably burn out more than the average business owner would ten years ago. That’s it. Then I pick myself out of the burnouts, typically by signing off. I’m also really lucky that I’m an observant Jew so my Friday nights pull me off the grid. If I didn’t have that, it’d be really hard.

KB: I don’t know what I’d do if there was no Internet. Would I work at a marketing agency?

LM: I’d probably be an assistant at New York Magazine. I would have just graduated from my fact checking job.

AD: I think I would be exactly who I am just without the tools to make me less lazy. I don’t leave my neighborhood and I wouldn’t leave it without the Internet either, I just wouldn’t be able to get delivery. I would never go anywhere. I’d be like, “I don’t know how to get on that subway. I use the Internet for that.” I don’t know if I would go in search of things if it were harder to.

LM: One of the first rules of social psychology is that you always think things will be harder than they actually are when the issue is presented to you.

AD: Is that what you meant about me getting lost with the maps?

LM: Yeah, you’d be fine. I studied abroad in Paris and when I think about that now, I’m like “I could never do that. I don’t know how I did that.” But I did. And I lost my phone in the middle of the semester and my dad was like, “You’re not getting a new one.”

CF: The way we consume film and television is also so different now.

KT: It’s weird how independent it makes us; we’re not tethered to the TV network schedule. If you want to watch Homeland you can watch it when it airs or you can…

CC: If you avoid Facebook and Twitter.

LM: Here’s my question. How do you feel like technology has changed your personal narrative?

KT: I think it’s hard to know because we’ve never experienced the opposite. It’s hard to say what you would be like without things that have been true forever for most of us, for the majority of our lives.

AD: I think everything would be smaller. My worldview would be smaller. I would have lost a lot of relationships. Or, I don’t know — maybe they would be stronger. I think of all my friends back in San Francisco. I don’t know if I’m less inclined to stay in touch with them now because I’m able to see them technically every day through social media, or if I’d be better about it because I wouldn’t have that. I don’t know. I just — I guess I like the idea of being able to know that if I wanted to, I could know what’s going on anywhere in the world right now. It explorative.

CF: I would say that I more or less agree with everything the author brings about the Internet changing things for the better in terms of convenience. Even in the way I consume news through Twitter, I feel like I’m a much better informed person than I was when Twitter wasn’t prominent. The only thing I don’t like about technology — or the prominence of smart phones — is that it’s hard for me to feel extremely present in a situation when I’m interacting with another person. Your phone is on the table; people are checking their phones. From an etiquette point of view, and I’m completely guilty of this, it’s rude. My friend will get up to go to the bathroom at a restaurant and I will check my phone five times when they’re gone. I think that need to be constantly in communication when you are in a situation where you are already socially interacting is hard for me to wrap my head around.

LM: That’s probably a function of our attention spans having gotten much smaller but also this new brand of social vulnerability we’re able to quell.

CF: This is a whole other conversation, but its affect the way relationships function. You expect someone to text you back and when they haven’t, you think, “Oh they must hate me now.” And then you get a text, “Hey, so sorry lost my phone last night.”

LM: I’m not really good on text.

AC: Yeah, you’re a weird texter. You texted me “Hi” the other day and I go “Hi!” Nothing.

LM: Because I was thinking about you. I just wanted you to know I was thinking about you.

CF: You totally dropped the mic with that look-alike gif you sent us the other day. How did you find a Frozen musical Internet meme…?

LM: This is my point! The Internet is a beautiful place!

CF: A very beautiful place. But you definitely dropped the ball on that one.

LM: Cristina, you were awfully quiet. Is that because you still use the Apple tab to copy and paste?

AD: It’s because she has too many tabs open.

CC: No, I have two tabs open!

LM: Any last words, anyone?

KB: I feel like I come at it from a different place because I feel this sense of wonder and possibility of building something within this space as opposed to just using it. For me, it’s a version of religion, it’s this possibility without which I wouldn’t have an outlet for creativity and thought and strategy.

CC: So for you it’s a framework for living, essentially.

KB: A little bit.

LM: I think it’s kind of a framework for living for all of us, specifically in this room; it’s the framework of our livelihoods at this point in time, which is worthy of note. But I also think this conversation got a little bit far from the original point which, I think, was that the prevalence and growth of technology in our lives is a good thing and can be treated as such. It doesn’t have to be a dirty concept.

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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