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Uh…We Don’t Know That

August 10, 2011

We live in this time where technology has allowed us to be more connected than ever, and [yet], we somehow feel more alone than ever.

– Brit Marling, co-writer and star of Another Earth

I don’t mean to pick on Marling. She seems like a smart, lovely person, and Another Earth looks interesting, but her quote — spoken during a recent interview on the excellent Filmspotting podcast — is crap.

Or, at the very least, it has a distinct crap-like odor.

By now, I’ve heard/read variations of this idea so many times (again, nothing personal against Marling — hers was simply the most recent quote I heard) that this idea, this “paradox of our technological age” seems to be a given. Of course technology has caused us to feel more alienated than ever.

Except for one thing.

Huh?

What are Marling and other basing this assumption on? How does one go about proving that we, as the human race, feel more lonely now than decades or centuries ago? Has there been some recent study? And if so, was this same study given three hundred years ago?

In part, I get the sense that Marling and others assume we didn’t feel as lonely because they are blinded by nostalgia. They envision kids playing in the street decades ago, or going back further, a Pa Ingalls-figure playing his fiddle while his family dances the night away with their frontier neighbors, and they contrast those scenes with the modern image of the head buried in the smartphone, like a digital-age ostrich.

But these are merely impressions. The past will always feel more comforting than the future because the future is unknown. Do they forget that a defining characteristic of frontier life was near-constant isolation? Do they really believe that, say, a suburban gay teenager feels more isolated now than he would’ve in 1950?

But more importantly, I believe Marling and others are falling prey to something more insidious than nostalgia — the allure of the Clever Phrase. I am always suspicious of writing that is a little too on the nose. What was initially driving such a sentence, I wonder — was it the idea or the Clever Phrase itself? I’m constantly watching for the latter because I know I’ve been guilty of it myself. I have a great closing line for a paper, and the idea doesn’t quite add up, but boy does it sound smart.

There’s always Kamchatka.

On the Twin Cities radio show Garage Logic, Joe Soucheray plays a certain sound bite whenever someone says something that hasn’t been factually supported. And so, Ms. Marling: “Uh…we don’t know that!”

My 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Bergan, had another way of identifying dubious claims. He called them “God-statements.” In other words, God can say something is so, and it is so. We mortals don’t have that luxury.

Ah, Mr. Bergan, you who hung a crimson sign over the door to your classroom. In black, Gothic type it declared, “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” As if that were not warning enough, we students entering the room were immediately greeted by a poster-sized illustration of a man with a spear stuck through the back of his neck, the spearhead — protruding out of his wide, screaming mouth — accompanied by shattered teeth and streaking globs of blood. We would go on to learn that this was a depiction of a scene from The Iliad (“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians”), but it served just as effectively as a reminder of how mercilessly your red pen would lay bloody waste to our essays.

In the classroom, you carried yourself like a drill sergeant, marching up and down the rows of desks in cowboy boots. You were tall and muscular, and though you were on the verge of retirement, there was not a hint of frailty in your body. Your skin was not wrinkled but coarse like tanned leather. And most distinctive of all was your voice — an authoritative rasp that you masterfully controlled, often building it up in an instant from a high-pitched, almost inaudible question to a booming declaration (“the WRATH of Achilles”) that echoed all through the second floor halls and could be clearly heard in the classrooms directly above and below, scaring the crap out of freshmen who knew that one day they too would have to pass through Bergan’s Inferno.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah. Stop saying stupid things, everybody.

— Reinman

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5 comments

  1. Trite expressions and cliches were always my downfall, too. Mr. Bergan taught well, and you were and continue to be teachable. May you follow closely in your mentor’s footseps.


  2. Please imagine for a moment having Mr. Bergan in eigth grade. He was a substitute, but that didn’t stop him from going over curriculum we would again revisit in our senior year of high school. Those were a fun few months.


  3. And he didn’t just intimidate students. I remember freshman year sitting in the auditorium at a school assembly, while a representative from the state explained why all Minnesota high schools were being forced to integrate “Grad Standards.”

    At the end of her presentation, she called for questions, and Mr. Bergan took the microphone. I hadn’t had him as a teacher yet, but his reputation preceded him — I knew we were in for something good.

    He didn’t say much, this proud man who demanded exponentially more from his students than any state-developed program ever could. He said only this: “Everyone who is opposed to the Grad Standards stand up.”

    Every single person in the auditorium — students as well as faculty — immediately rose.

    Without another word, Mr. Began set down the mic and returned to his seat.

    Later, there were reports that the representative had left the auditorium in tears.

    I remember, standing in that moment, feeling proud of our school.

    I remember feeling proud that Mr. Bergan was our teacher and, at that time, our voice.

    And then I remember feeling terrified that I would be taking his class in three years.


    • I can’t decide if I wish I had him for a teacher or not.


  4. I’ve also heard that phrase (“. . . more connected . . . more alone . . .”) several times before, and on the surface, I agree that the statement is more of an emotionally-backed “Clever Phrase” than a statistically-backed adage. However, in playing devil’s advocate, I wonder if there really is some truth to it.

    Is our society more “hellish” today than in the past? Are we more selfish now than in previous generations? What does technological connectivity have to do with it?

    One view of hell posed by several philosophers, is a complete turning inward to self. On the contrary, finding God (heaven) requires us to lose ourselves and turn outward to God and fellow man (e.g., Luke 9:23-24, John 12:24).

    One reason that we may be “more alone than ever” is that we are more self-centered than ever. Even in our relationships with others, we focus on gratifying ourselves more than building meaningful connections with others. (e.g., look at the rise of pre-marital sex, abortion, etc.)

    “The characteristic of lost souls is ‘their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.'” — Lewis, “The Problem of Pain”

    One thing our technologically advanced society has done is to tell us that we can and should have everything we want right at the moment we want it. At the risk of making an unsubstantiated “God-statement”, I would say that we are more selfish now than in the past. (I can cite specific examples if necessary, but first simply think of how we glorify individualism and the idea that whatever I want is right for me.) The more we turn inward and become self-centered, the less we turn outward to God and others, and the more “alone” we feel. While Marling and others may not make the case evidentially, we might at least note that a case can be made for the statement in question.

    Also, we may not have conclusive evidence about what people were like 300 years ago, but how about 10 or 20 years ago. We’re certainly much more connected now than we were then. Can’t comparisons be made with the familiar, well-documented past?

    So are we more alone and self-centered than ever before? If the statement sounds like “crap” due to lack of evidence, then come to your own conclusions. On a related note, I recommend praying the “Litany of Humility” often.

    http://www.ewtn.com/devotionals/prayers/humility.htm



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