fear and trembling in the age of
SOCIAL NETWORK ANXIETY
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
deep pleasure is embraced by cell phone talkers. For tens of
millions of Americans, there is almost nothing that can compare
to the ringing ecstasy of a message. It also seems that nothing
can bring down a deeper sense of despair than the palpable suffering
of cellular silence.
half of the American adult population is literally addicted
to cell phones. For them, a cell, now also offering access to
an expanding host of related social networks, offers much more
than suitable business contact, personal safety, or even a merely
prudent ability to “stay in touch.” For these anxious
legions, conversing or messaging on a cell phone grants easily
accessible personal therapy. It permits both the caller and
the called to feel more important, more valuable, less anonymous,
and (above all else) less alone. With “rugged individualism”
now reduced to a convenient national myth, cellular communication
in its many forms promises to provide almost everyone who is
“linked in” a direct line to stature, inclusion
are the hollow men,” announced T.S. Eliot, long before
the advent of cell phones. Today, still, most of our “whispers”
remain “quiet and meaningless.” Aside from rare
emergencies and common daily chores, cell phone conversations
or messages usually transmit only innocuous prattle, mind-numbing
blather, or monosyllabic grunts. This is especially plain on
university campuses, where anxiously-connecting students defensively
compress their entire universe of personal meanings into the
distinctly limited lexicon of ‘cool,’ ‘awesome,’
or the ever-popular ‘incredible.’
known universe is probably many billions of light years ‘across.’
Yet, here, in America, and elsewhere as well, most humans are
still desperately afraid to become individuals. “Why bother?”
they reason. Why take the risk?
at me, please,” is the unspoken but desperate cry of the
public talker, or texter, or Twitterer. I am here. I am important.
I have human connections. I count for something. I am not (heaven
forbid) unpopular. I am not alone.”
cell phone has not caused people to display pathos and freeze
in terror. This tiny machine itself is not ‘the problem.’
It is, after all, just a tangible instrument, a tool that identifies
and magnifies what would otherwise lie dormant in our adrenalized
and breathlessly-frenetic society.
exists a universal human wish to remain unaware of oneself.
But this subversive hope always leads individuals to stray dangerously
from their true personhood, and toward the deceptively available
security of the “herd.” Sometimes, when a terror
gang and a sports team effectively become competitors for group
loyalty, any herd will do. Obscuring what might otherwise express
an incapacity to belong, an inability to become a good ‘member,’
the apprehensive American learns very quickly that authenticity
generally goes unrewarded, and that courage is typically punished.
humans sometimes fear exclusion more than anything, sometimes
even more than death. Oddly, perhaps more than anyone knows,
this is a vitally important personal calculus, one that may
be largely responsible for war, terrorism and genocide. The
human need to belong can become so overwhelming that many will
literally kill others – any others – rather than
face personal isolation or ostracism.
trying to get as far away from myself as I can,” sings
Bob Dylan (“Things Have Changed”). Unexpectedly,
this single insightful verse may unwittingly explain a great
deal about the root causes of violence in world politics.
never widely recognized, the inner fear of loneliness expressed
by cell phone addiction gives rise to another huge problem.
Nothing important, in science or industry or art or music or
literature or medicine or philosophy, can ever take place without
some loneliness. To be able to exist apart from the mass –
to be tolerably separated from what Freud called the “primal
horde,” or what Nietzsche termed the “herd,”
or Kierkegaard the “crowd” – is actually indispensable
to exceptional intellectual development and determinative creative
is more. To achieve any sense of true spirituality in life,
we must first be willing to endure at least some aloneness.
For better or for worse, all of our principal religious founders
consciously sought deeper meanings ‘inside,’ in
seclusion, within themselves.
Therefore I am. Turning Descartes’ fundamental wisdom
on its head, and at a time when we desperately need more of
what Ralph Waldo Emerson had once promisingly called “high
thinking,” this pitiful reasoning is the sad credo expressed
by all cell phone addiction. In essence, it presents a not-so-stirring
manifesto that social acceptance is immanent to personal survival,
and that any necessary individual satisfaction is simply the
ironic privilege of private mediocrity.
can be inconsequential anywhere, but a relentless sadness in
America now appears to grow more intense wherever private fears
seemingly become incommunicable.
phone addiction is certainly less a diagnosable illness than
an imagined therapy. Ultimately, in a society filled with garrulous
devotees of a pretended and rehearsed ecstasy, it offers tantalizing
electronic links to presumably new forms of “redemption.”
in these fearful United States, the noisy and uneasy mass has
fully infested our solitude. Indeed, upon most of us, the telltale
traces of herd life may already have become indelible. Now,
embracing an indecent alloy of banality and apocalypse, we Americans
ritually seek purpose and excitement within widening cellular-connections.
It will, of course, remain an utterly disappointing, vain and
the end, life is always death’s prisoner. Until we can
come to grips with this disturbing but still-overriding truth,
we can never experience our decisively numbered moments with
any intense pleasure. Today, despite our manifold efforts at
cell calls, Tweets and Twitters, our personal doubts still seem
inexhaustible. This is because we continue to look to others
to define who we are, and what we might still become.
its core, even our current economic crisis was spawned by a
Bernie Madoff? The Ponzi scheme mastermind was merely microcosm.
The recession and corollary commercial failures were not caused
by ‘greed.’ Rather, it was all spawned by a widespread
and totally consuming personal fear of insignificance. Now ignored
by both politicians and economists (earlier, Adam Smith, Karl
Marx, and John Maynard Keynes et. al. had actually recognized
the critical importance of psychology), this primal fear is
the starkly immobilizing terror that one is ‘simply not
wanted at all.’ Today, with the new voice-activated cell
phones, users don’t necessarily even have to await a living
human being at the other end. Still ever-fearful of being not
wanted at all, they can now counter personal angst with carefully
cultivated delusions of authentic conversation.
part, the immense attraction of cell phones and related social
networking 'apps’ derive from our society’s dutifully
robotic or machine-like existence. Doubtlessly, we Americans
now celebrate a push-button metaphysics. Here, absolutely every
hint of passion must follow a narrowly uniform pathway. Arrogantly,
to be sure, we still insist upon believing that we are somehow
the controlling creators of our machines and not their obedient
speaking, this is correct. But now there is also an implicit
reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate pantomime
between users and used. Predictably, our techno-constructions
are now making a machine out of both Man and Woman. In fact,
in an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, we now generally
behave as if we have been created in the image of the machine.
phone addiction is merely the most visible symptom of a deeper
pathology. The basic ‘disease’ that we suffer is
a painfully insipid cultural order. Whether we look to politics,
entertainment, or commerce (it is increasingly hard to tell
them apart), our banal national life remains perched precariously
upon a humiliating network of battered jingles, advertised meanings
and ready-to-wear slogans.
wonder, today, that our entertainments are unapologetically
crass, and that overindulging on seriously bad food has become
our most enthusiastic national pastime. The core reason for
our programmed overeating is not that we are any hungrier, but
that we have finally lost our appetite for real life.