Gadgets of Alienation

Imagine organizing a really fun party for your friends. It would have a theme (The Big Lebowski, ugly sweaters, Nobody Wears Pants, etc.). Your sous chef roommate offers to make delictable snacks, and you rent a tiny robot to cart around trays full of liquor. Now imagine that, when inviting your friends, you specified “No texting or photos will be allowed at this party.”

Would people come?

Some, I think. That boozy robot would be a tough thing to turn down.

Now what if you just had a normal get together, with no gimmicks, but stipulated that nobody could flaunt it on the internet through Twitter, Facebook or text messages? I think about a quarter of the people you know would turn down the invitation, or would show up for ten minutes and then leave.


Partly because estrangement from the Internet makes people flip out. We all act as if we need our phone at arm’s length constantly, in case the president calls or we have to perform surgery. In reality, outwith a narrow bandwidth of jobs, you could check your phone once or twice a day and you wouldn’t miss out on much. Yet people live in mild, persistent terror of falling out of the loop.

Ask yourself this: how many parties or orgies do your friends really throw on the spur of the moment? Probably not as often as you check texts, e-mail and Facebook. Plus, if you constantly check social media, unless you have a message every time, you’re going to feel bad.

A lot of people only bother attending parties, visiting friends or possibly even marrying each other in order to brag about it online. These are the people who always post followups to social events on Facebook walls, as if they’re blithely unaware it’s public.

Texting and facebooking are a tool, like anything else. They’re very helpful in maintaining contact with people. Most of my friends that haven’t yet blown themselves up or gone to prison do not live in the same city as me, and social media is great at keeping us in contact.

But Facebook and the like has a lot in common with junk food and beer. If you’re thirsty, beer will actually dehydrate you. Likewise, constantly streaming social media into your ephemeral artery is a good way to feel alienated. Ultimately we are socially sated by face-to-face interaction.

The more time you spend on Facebook and texting, the more aware you are of everything you aren’t attending. I doubt that’s very healthy. Our brains aren’t wired rationally. If you are hanging out with friends, but are aware that there are two or three parties elsewhere, you are going to feel left out. Your brain doesn’t go, “Well, these are all mutually exclusive events and you chose a good option.” It registers your absence at everything else, and the more things you’re aware of, the stronger that sensation becomes. If you’re home alone, you feel more alone, because you know everyone else isn’t.

I feel sorry for high school students today. I managed to miss ubiquitous texting, and Facebook didn’t birth until my sophomore year of college. Think back to high school. Remember that horrendous pressure to fit in, to be included, to avoid exclusion? I didn’t really know what everybody else was up to besides my immediate friends during my formative years. If there had been a massive birthday party nobody invited me to, I would know, or if I hadn’t attended prom. Otherwise my social world was reasonably myopic, and happier for it. If three people I kind of knew decided to watch a movie on Friday night without me, how on earth would I know about it?

I try to avoid texting or taking phone calls when I’m spending time with people. If I’m hanging out with someone, they get my full attention. If I respond to every text, I’m implying that someone elsewhere is a higher priority.

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Andrew Heaton is a writer and standup comedian in New York City. If this post made you laugh or think, kindly "like" it on Facebook.


  • Teresa
    May 25, 2012 - 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Man, if I had a smart phone in high school I would’ve thrown myself off the bluff… for sure!

    • Heaton
      May 25, 2012 - 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I think it would have definitely made for a different social atmosphere.

      But then again, so would have a booze-carting robot…

  • May 26, 2012 - 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I think your whole argument hinges on the answer to one question: the above drawing is a replica of the REAL R2-D2 from the REAL Star Wars, and not a replica of that fakey CG droid from the subsequent abysmal attempt at Star Wars, right?

    • Heaton
      May 26, 2012 - 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Of course! I work very hard on these cartoons. I tracked down the original R2D2 unit, now in a museum, and did several charcoal sketches and made my own sculptures. Then, when I thought I really had it down, drew the work of art you see above today.

  • May 26, 2012 - 7:02 pm | Permalink

    This is so true! I do feel lonely after I look at Facebook. I think you may be onto something…

  • May 27, 2012 - 9:53 pm | Permalink

    OMG I found your blog from your comment on mine, -funny!!!- i love it!

    • Heaton
      May 27, 2012 - 11:43 pm | Permalink

      Thanks! Glad you like it!

  • May 31, 2012 - 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I similarly loved this. Not exactly. . . but similarly.

    • Heaton
      May 31, 2012 - 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Much obliged, Jim! Also– I feel like you could excel as a mug salesman based on your profile pic. Think about it.

  • Rural AR Mom
    August 8, 2012 - 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I am totally with you about focusing on the people you are spending time with, instead of whomever is attempting to reach you by device. I still use a 5-year old flip phone that barely has a camera, much less any better features. I deleted (gasp!) my facebook account – huge, unfulfilling time suck that it became. I’m still on G+, and a Supreme Court Justice for the Aerican Empire micronation because I don’t feel any pressure to constantly check in with those places, and I like that.

    Tangentially related –
    My teen’s school does an ugly sweater day for the annual “spirit week” festivities. The best ones usually start out hideous, and are then “enhanced” with bedazzlers, sparkle paint, ribbons, and a variety of small toys hot glued in place.

    I think I’ll suggest that next year she have an ugly sweater party for her birthday. It’ll be something different since this year was a bacon party complete with pig cake (red velvet with pink icing), and the 2 previous years were Halloween themed (she likes old B- horror films with campy special effects).

    • Heaton
      August 15, 2012 - 1:10 pm | Permalink

      I’m hoping that we’ll eventually codify a set of etiquette for social media and the like, as well as some twenty-first century updates on gender relations. We’re in a state of flux right now, and there’s no real societal consensus of what qualifies as rude and polite.