A Non-Cynic’s Guide to Life

Some thoughts for the class of 2012.

So, the big question is: Why should I be nice to everybody all the time?

The answer is: just because.

We are all animals and this is all nature, and this is all we have. That should be the whole speech.

“But, Joe, we are complicated creatures. … ”

Well, I forgot to add that we all know we are going to die. We’ve always known it. So that’s that. Why waste time being mean and making people feel small if that person and you both breathe the same air and will both die?

“Joe, when you put it in the context of nature and death, it’s all very simple, but … we are complicated animals.”

You’re right. Your bright young minds want to chew on some real heavy stuff, none of these hippie-dippie daydreams where everyone is nice just because. You’re hard realists.

The question is: What’s a real reason we should be nice to each other, not just because?

The answer is: because there is no substitute for the love of another human being.

Over winter break, I needed to get a copy of Love’s Labour’s Lost for school. So I got in the car and drove to the Barnes & Noble near my house. But when I got there, it wasn’t a Barnes & Noble at all. Past the giant display for the e-reader “The Nook,” there was a toy store, a Starbucks, a DVD warehouse, magazine racks and a test-prep center, and they were all in one building called “Barnes & Noble.”

But they did have a collection of books scattered throughout the store, and I was sure they had plays, so I started looking. But there was no theater section. So I went to the poetry section, and it wasn’t there, either. So I went to the fiction section, thinking they’d consolidated everything, and it wasn’t there, either! Love’s Labour’s Lost is written by Shakespeare. Shakespeare was nowhere in the bookstore.

So I kindly asked the woman at the front desk where the Shakespeare section was, and she told me there was no Shakespeare section, but maybe I could find some of his work on the “Barnes & Noble Classics” shelf. And there, on a dusty metal rack hidden past the crossword puzzles and cookbooks and Bop Its and calendars and leather journals and office supplies and Nooks and Nook cases and Nooks for your Nook, there was one copy of Othello and one copy of Hamlet.

The woman suggested I look for the play on barnesandnoble.com.

Now, this makes sense, because the Internet always gives you what you want. It’s the perfect lover. I never have to ask twice, it always does what I want it to do, and I never have to go to dinner with its parents.

And the Internet always looks good when it dresses up. It can be sleek and shiny and sexy and bold, and when we press its buttons the right way it follows our every command. We hold it to our face and rub our fingers across it and carry it in our pants and play with it in the dark. We are very close to our lover, the Internet, and it is a very personal relationship.

But I promise, this love is all a dirty trick. These companies know that human beings are soft-wired for sociability, attachment,­ affection and companionship, and our first drive is the drive to belong. I’m sorry, guys, but consumer technology products play on all of this.

Facebook and Twitter make us more “social” than ever. Our phones are constantly with us, and the Internet makes us feel like we’re part of something. Like we belong. Like we’re loved.

Now let’s look at what some smart people wrote:

Alice Gregory in n+1:

Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the Internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings?­ It’s this: We live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the Internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.

Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: We lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.

The Internet is not a replacement for a real human being. It will never love you. I urge you to put the phone away as much as possible. That snake even killed books. No wonder it’s so hard to empathize with each other! Maybe we won’t need community-awareness meetings when you can find Shakespeare in a bookstore.