The Bur­den of Dig­i­tal Ex­is­tence

How Sartre and Beau­voir in­spired me to turn off my smart­phone

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Jonathan Kay

How Sartre and Beau­voir in­spired me to turn off my phone

Jean-paul sartre and Si­mone de Beau­voir had an un­con­ven­tional ­ro­mance — fraught with love tri­an­gles, love squares, and, in one no­to­ri­ous episode in­volv­ing the sis­ters Kosakiewicz and the philoso­pher Jac­ques-Lau­rent Bost, a love pen­tagon. Yet their bond lasted more than fifty years.

“It was a writ­ers’ re­la­tion­ship,” Sarah Bakewell writes in At the Ex­is­ten­tial­ist Café , her new book about the cou­ple’s hey­day as Parisian in­tel­lec­tu­als. “They told each other ev­ery de­tail of their days.... Sartre was al­ways the first to read Beau­voir’s work, the per­son whose crit­i­cism she trusted.” For hours on end, the two great thinkers would sit side by side at their desks, ­smoking ci­garettes and mak­ing — to quote Bakewell — “no sound but the scratch­ing of a pen.”

Many mod­ern cou­ples do their own Sartre-­andBeau­voir rou­tines. But it’s caf­feine in­stead of nico­tine, key­strokes ­in­stead of pen scratches. More to the point, it’s of­ten not work per se but in­box man­age­ment, so­cial-me­dia chatter, web surf­ing — dig­i­tal dis­trac­tions that fling our minds to on­line realms full of strangers. Two minds in the same room, but ­scarcely in the same place.

Bakewell’s book helped me ap­pre­ci­ate how much tech­nol­ogy has com­pro­mised our so­cial in­stincts. For all the bleak­ness of Nau­sea and No Exit , Sartre took great plea­sure in his friend­ships. He even felt at home as a pris­oner of war, liv­ing in cramped sol­i­dar­ity with other French­men. “His own skin was the bound­ary of the space he had, and even as he slept he could al­ways feel some­one’s arm or leg against his own,” Bakewell writes. Were he still fre­quent­ing Parisian cafés ­to­day, Sartre would be hor­ri­fied to see his fel­low ­pa­trons ­drift­ing through ­cy­berspace, ­in­sen­si­ble to the ­reallife ­hu­mans in their midst.

Smart­phones and tablets have made the bur­den of free­dom ut­terly in­escapable. Ev­ery date, ev­ery class, ev­ery so­cial gath­er­ing can dis­in­te­grate if some­thing — or some­one — more in­ter­est­ing pops up on Tin­der, Yik Yak, or YouTube. That’s why many univer­sity pro­fes­sors no longer per­mit stu­dents to use com­put­ers and other ­gad­gets in the class­room: stud­ies show that we learn more ef­fec­tively if we’re forced to take notes the old-fash­ioned way.

When my twelve-year- old daugh­ter gets to­gether with friends, whole hours are spent in si­lence — eyes cast down­ward at glass slabs, thumbs robot­i­cally churn­ing through brain-dead In­sta­gram feeds. En­tire tween years are now wasted in this nar­co­tized way.

Then again, who am I to lec­ture? Shoot­ing off emails makes me feel pro­duc­tive. Twit­ter makes me feel rel­e­vant. Face­book makes me feel pop­u­lar. The fortysome­things of my gen­er­a­tion will be re­mem­bered as the first adults in his­tory who were not em­bar­rassed to share a ­clin­i­cal ad­dic­tion with their chil­dren. Ev­ery time I check my mes­sages at meal­time, I­de­stroy a tiny bit of what­ever ­moral ­author­ity I need to con­trol my kids’ ­on­line habits.

“There is no traced-out path to lead man to his sal­va­tion,” Sartre wrote. “He must con­stantly in­vent his own.” I took the first (un­in­ten­tional) step on my own path dur­ing a re­cent trip to Copen­hagen, when my Cana­dian smart­phone started drop­ping out of the lo­cal cell net­work. It was mad­den­ing. There I’d be, wait­ing for an el­e­va­tor, or for break­fast to ar­rive, or for a con­ver­sa­tion to get more in­ter­est­ing — and I’d have noth­ing to do.

As the days passed, my phone ­re­mained use­less. Yet my ir­ri­ta­tion be­gan to ebb — a process I now rec­og­nize as de­tox. By day four, I no­ticed how nice it felt to en­joy a book with­out hear­ing a buzz or a beep ev­ery few min­utes. I was spend­ing more time read­ing — and tak­ing more plea­sure in the ex­pe­ri­ence.

It was dur­ing this trip that I de­voured At the Ex­is­ten­tial­ist Café — and then scrib­bled down the bones of this col­umn on a ho­tel notepad. Yes — with a pen. Just like an ex­is­ten­tial­ist. My hand ached (it had been at least twenty years since I’d hand­writ­ten any­thing be­sides a cheque or a form in a doc­tor’s of­fice). But I per­se­vered with the ex­per­i­ment, to the point that I now feel emotionally equipped to spend a whole lunch hour with­out my phone.

Much of this, I re­al­ize, will come off as pre­ten­tious pos­tur­ing from the Star­bucks philosophe who cries out “Ah, le mot juste !” as he sets the nib of his foun­tain pen to the pages of his Leucht­turm 1917 jour­nal. But turn off your smart­phone for a week, and then let’s talk.

Noth­ing can re­lieve you of the bur­den of free­dom. But the gadget fused to your hand is mak­ing your bur­den that much heav­ier.

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