Like most New Yorkers and literates, I love Jonathan Franzen—partially because of his oversized glasses but mostly because of his talent at siring complicated characters and their concomitant relationships.
Thus, my heart skipped a beat when I stumbled upon his New York Times article, “Technology Provides an Alternative to Love;” Franzen is unapologetic in his analysis of humanity, and always looks through many lenses—from political to sexual—to report on this world. If anyone could capture the current cultural zeitgeist and its influence on relationships—it’s got to be the FranzMan.
Yet, after the articles astute observation about the eroticism of gadgets and hand held cell phones (vibrating ring tones, anyone?), I found Franzen’s analysis limited. He villainizes modern technology as escapist and narcissistic and fails to consider its positive qualities. His conceptualization of the internet is much like Plato’s Allegory of the Caves, where facebook, twitter, and other social networking sites offer only shadows of the real world, and more importantly—real love. In fact, he positions technology as the antithesis of love. He believes that digital culture, with its emphasis on “liking” and “reblogging” and “following,” primes society to seek constant approval and it is this self-consciousness that threatens love:
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
While he makes an evocative—and obviously eloquent—argument against digital culture, he disregards the positive
advancements of this era. Franzen anticipates a destructive schizophrenic break between the groomed digital personality and the true self yet I don’t see the same dichotomy. In fact, I believe the Internet facilitates self-discovery and expression. Social Media offers a safe zone to the insecure and uncertain, where they can talk things through on chat rooms or message boards. How would Franzen explain the suicidal teen who finds solace in an online support group? Or the closeted lesbian who can only excite herself by watching porn on her laptop late at night? The internet is a place of acceptance and anonymity, where you can dare to discover yourself.
Perhaps it is a bit utopian, and sets up unrealistic and unattainable standards for reality—but it also helps remind the lonely that they are not alone. It’s a convincing argument to not give up on humanity. Not until the iPhone5, anyway.