David Brooks thinks cellphones are bad, bad, bad! not just for our brains, but for romantic love:
Once upon a time — in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era — courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts — dating, going steady, delaying sex — was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.
Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era. So the search was on for more enlightened courtship rules. You would expect a dynamic society to come up with appropriate scripts. But technology has made this extremely difficult. Etiquette is all about obstacles and restraint. But technology, especially cellphone and texting technology, dissolves obstacles. Suitors now contact each other in an instantaneous, frictionless sphere separated from larger social institutions and commitments.
People are thus thrown back on themselves. They are free agents in a competitive arena marked by ambiguous relationships. Social life comes to resemble economics, with people enmeshed in blizzards of supply and demand signals amidst a universe of potential partners.
You know, I actually really like David Brooks. I think Bobos In Paradise was a terrific book; I stick up for his place on the NYT Op-Ed masthead; his stuff on neuroscience has been really good; and I’m delighted whenever I see him on TV, on Jim Lehrer or Chris Matthews, because he seems to think and talk like a regular guy. Okay, a regular guy who went to the University of Chicago and never really left. But I never really left either, so I get that too.
But there’s a reason why he called it the “Happy Days” era: the past he’s describing isn’t really the past, but a 70s-era TV version of the past. Not even the past’s representation of itself! For that, you’d have to see On the Waterfront or read On the Road or Giovanni’s Room. It’s memory as ideology, created (whether consciously or unconsciously) to surreptitiously win arguments about the present, especially about social morés and generational change.
And the Happy Days era — the real one, which was reflected in the TV show like a funhouse mirror — was driven by technological and social change, too! Kids had access to cars, telephones, TV, records and the radio, and disposable cash. Cruising, malt shops, high school dances, drive-in movies, everything you see in American Graffiti — it might feel like part of the timeless social ritual now, but then, it was a revolution, a set of truly radical acts. Add the pill, civil rights, and a swelling in the ranks of college students, and you’ve got feminism, counter-culture, the sexual revolution. But in some ways, this was a postscript. The most important changes, the subterranean ones, had all happened already.
That’s me taking up Brooks for his treatment of the past. Ezra Klein — who has a much firmer grounding in the realities of the present than Brooks– also takes aim:
Columns like Brooks’s irk me because they demean not only my lived experiences, but those of everyone I know. To offer a slightly more modern rebuttal, Sunday was my one-year anniversary with my girlfriend. A bit more than a year ago, we first met, the sort of short encounter that could easily have slipped by without follow-up. A year and a week ago, she sent me a friend request on Facebook, which makes it easy to reach out after chance meetings. A year and five days ago, we were sending tentative jokes back-and-forth. A year and four days ago, I was steeling myself to step things up to instant messages. A year and three days ago, we were both watching the “Iron Chef” offal episode, and IMing offal puns back-and-forth, which led to our first date. A year ago today, I was anxiously waiting to leave the office for our second date.
It is not for David Brooks to tell me those IMs lack poetry, or romance. I treasure them. Electronic mediums may look limited to him, but that is only because he has never seen his life change within them. Texting, he says, is naturally corrosive to imagination. But the failure of imagination here is on Brooks’s part.