All Story

From 2012: Switch off your iPhone! The novelist argues that technology has no meaning, and that narrative is all we have

I want to start with a story about my father, who was a big do-it-yourselfer. One day, when he was about seventy, he was up on the roof of our house, doing something like cleaning the gutters or rebuilding the chimney, and he fell off. Landed flat on his back, fifteen feet below. Somehow he didn’t break anything, but he did whack his head so hard that he later had no memory of falling. He just suddenly found himself sitting in the emergency room, missing a small piece of his life. His comment afterward was: “A person could die and not even know it.”

I thought I understood what my dad was saying: one minute you’re working on the roof, the next minute – well, totally weird, there is no next minute. To be alive is to move forward in time; our sense of identity consists of the stories we can remember about ourselves, and to be dead is to be unable to remember any stories. But I didn’t really get what he was talking about until a couple of years ago, when I had a routine medical procedure and was anesthetized with propofol – the drug that Michael Jackson was into. On the correct amount of propofol, you stay awake but you can’t remember having been awake one second ago. You might experience pain, but since you can’t remember the pain from moment to moment, it’s as if you never experienced it. The anesthesiologist had me count backward from five, and when I got to three I was seized by a sudden terror of being unconscious. The next thing I knew, I was being offered a doughnut in the recovery room. My first thought was: “Wow, what a fantastic drug!” I’d experienced the timelessness of death, and then I was able to enjoy it in retrospect, because I was still alive.
Propofol – when it’s not administered in your living room by a shady physician – seems to me an example of excellent new technology. I’m actually looking forward to my next colonoscopy. But I’d like to propose to you all today that many other of our new technologies are similarly anesthetic and not so benign as propofol. The question I’d like you all to consider, as you officially embark on your adult lives today, is what the meaning of those lives might be.

The iconic heroes of the moment are the techno-entrepreneurs: Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos. It’s kind of depressing, isn’t it? A handful of demonstrably not-very-nice white guys get to be fantastically wealthy and famous, while the other 99.99 percent of us keep playing by the rules and trying to treat each other decently, and meanwhile can’t stop making those ruthless white guys even richer, by using their products. The ambition of Steve Jobs was to create technology so attractive that no waking person on earth would ever want to be without it. You work on your iMac, you read blogs and watch TV on your iPad, you take pictures and send them to your friends on your iPhone, you go running with your iPod and then you dock it to the clock that helps you fall asleep. And things worked out great for Steve Jobs. His life turned out to be a real story – you can read it in that book with his face on the cover.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to have your own story while using Apple technology. You may be doing good work on sustainable agriculture on your iMac; you may be exchanging texts on your iPhone with the person you’ll end up marrying. But our new gadgets have an insidious way of foregrounding themselves, of becoming an end in themselves, to the point where the story of our entire culture now seems to be consumer technology. Never mind corrupt autocracies, never mind shifting geopolitical alignments: the Arab Spring was barely even underway when Twitter turned it into one big advertisement for Twitter. Technology now dominates business news, increasingly dominates political and arts news, and unquestionably dominates our daily lives.

And yet having your own technology is not the same as having your own story. It’s the opposite, in fact: it’s having the same story as everyone else, which is to say, no story at all – at least not any personal story with meaning that applies just to you. When someone begins a sentence, “I have a new…” and ends it with “boyfriend,” I can’t wait to hear more. “I have a new baby”, “I have a new job”, “I have a new theory about American politics”: I’m interested. But when someone says “I have a new smart phone” I shut my ears, because that story is always the same, and it already belongs to the techno-entrepreneurs.

My own personal heroes are a pair of fiction writers, Don DeLillo and Alice Munro. Both of them have dedicated their lives to creating narratives, to attempting to make sense of the world and of their lives. They, to me, are the real individuals, and thus the most real of human beings, because, although it’s true that homosapiens are uniquely good at making tools, the thing that most profoundly sets us apart from other animals is our ability to assemble, integrate, and communicate our memories. We are, in every sense, the story-telling animal.

The central insight pervading Don DeLillo’s work is that the world has become so crowded that individual identity is becoming lost in mass identity. For DeLillo, writing novels is a way to liberate himself from that mass identity. To read him is to step outside your own membership in a crowd and recall that you, too, are an individual.

Alice Munro is the greatest short-story writer alive today, and the thing about a short story is that it only works if it’s about a definitive moment in a character’s life. A decision is made, an opportunity is seized or lost, a betrayal occurs, a commitment is made; and this moment then becomes who the character is: not any number of potential people, but this particular person. Reading a Munro story always makes me think about my own life – about the things I’ve done and haven’t done, my goodness, my badness, the prospect of death. She makes me think, in other words, about meaning. And so I remember her stories as if I’d lived them myself. Which is, not incidentally, the difference between art and technology. Technology is, at best, a useful tool; at worst, a way of life that forces you to conform with it. Whereas art opens you inward.

I don’t mean to say you have to read Munro and DeLillo if you don’t feel like it; there are other ways to experience personal meaning. But some day your lives will be over, and my wish for each of you is that you’ll become a particular somebody while you’re still able to remember it. I understand – believe me – how scary and out-of-control the world can seem nowadays, and how tempting it is to check out of it, to be forgetful of climate change, unemployment rates, healthcare costs, inequitable income distribution, thermonuclear arsenals, super-PAC election spending, surveillance drones, and the California state budget. I understand the comfort of belonging to a crowd, of doing what everyone else is doing, of submitting to the logic of technology or to the logic of the marketplace, of being carried along. It is, like propofol, a way of being awake without remembering that you’re awake. You will not remember the hours you spent comparing iPhone apps or reading Twitter feeds or personalising your Facebook page; those hours will be missing from your life the way my father’s trip to the emergency room was missing from his. The hours you’ll remember are the hours of pain, of joy, of hard choices, of engagement or estrangement, of not being like everybody else; and your task as a human being will be to integrate those memories into a unique narrative that can help you decide how to lead your life going forward. A propofol eternity awaits you in any case. Your chance to remember, and be a human being, is right now.

This speech was given on June 16, 2012, at Cowell College, University of California at Santa Cruz. Jonathan is an American novelist and essayist