Comic Aziz Ansari, of Parks and Recreation fame, has a new standup special on Netflix. Aziz Ansari: Live at Madison Square Garden covers a lot of ground: dating, male feminists, first-generation problems; the list goes on.
Ansari’s views on technology, however, and how we use it to organize our social lives, strike a particular chord:
“No one wants to commit to shit,” he laments, “because they’re terrified that something better’s gonna come along! And it’s so rude, why do we do this?”
For Ansari, this epidemic of flakiness came about because we (presumably, Facebook-savvy millennials) are “the least lonely generation, the least isolated generation.” Prior to the advent of mobile phones and a widely accessible, speedy Internet, it was “a big deal” to see your friends in person, he says. “Nowadays, not as much. Because you’re always connected with your friends. Wherever you are—work, school, you’re always texting, emailing, joking around.”
In the time between seeing actual socializing, social media leaves little to the imagination. You don’t want to hear about your old college roommate’s recent trip to Vietnam, because you’ve already seen the photos of him with banh pho noodles dangling from his beard splashed across Facebook. This leaves you with plenty of time before “catching up over drinks!” to grow resentful that you’ve already used up your vacation days this year. To go to the Adirondacks.
I love to ask my mom and dad—who met at college in the early 1980s—“How the heck did you do it?” How did you find each other without Tinder? And how did you form (and maintain) lasting and meaningful friendships in four short years on campus, let alone over the three decades since graduating?
It’s a lot of what Ansari addresses in his routine. Back then, if you called someone up and agreed to meet somewhere at 8 o’clock, “You would be there at 8 o’clock!,” he exclaims. “And Phil would be there at 8 o’clock! And if Phil wasn’t there by 8:15, you’d be like ‘Oh my God, Phil is dead!’” Because the only viable excuse for flaking was death and dismemberment.
The stakes weren’t really all that high at Georgetown University in 1983. “If you couldn’t catch someone by phone, you’d just go to the regular spot and see if they’d show up,” my dad recalls whenever I bombard him with anthropological inquiries into the pre-Siri days.
My response? “THAT’S INSANE.”
My brain isn’t built for such blind faith in fate. You see, I got a Facebook profile and a cellphone simultaneously in 2005, my freshman year of high school. So, according to Ansari, that means I haven’t been lonely in over a decade. Perhaps that’s why I’m such a skeptic when it comes to the reported social habits endemic to my parents’ generation. These people are aliens from Planet Analog, and their customs are both fascinating and highly upsetting.
What would happen, for instance, if Phil never showed up? (Presuming he didn’t actually die.) In the days of rotary landlines, there were no easy ways to modify or cancel plans last-minute; no way to send off a quick missive along the lines of, “the L train is a mess!” or “so sorry, running super late! I’m the worst!”
It was 1983. The L train was an even bigger mess than it is now. Everyone was the worst. And you couldn’t sit quietly at the bar and pretend to be texting someone as you waited to be stood up. You’d just have a drink or seven, accept your fate as an inevitable part of living in an imperfect universe, then head to the next “regular spot.” Or try and find a party to ingratiate yourself upon. Or—God forbid—you might even introduce yourself to the stranger sitting next to you.
My reaction, which I fear (or, rather, know) to be generally the same for many of my peers, points to an interesting incongruity present in the hive-mind of this least-lonely of generations: Precisely because we are perpetually plugged in, hyperaware of what our friends, and third cousins, and exes, and colleagues, and those pretentious jags from Intermediate Creative Writing Workshop are doing with their lives at any given moment, the fear of not knowing, of not being plugged in, of being left alone with our thoughts is all the more acute. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Must be nice. We, the least-lonely generation, wouldn’t know.
The flakes that Ansari jokes about are operating in a perpetual state of FOMO (fear of missing out), no doubt exacerbated by the self-replenishing flow of Instagram’d meals and ski trips streaming before their eyes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all federal holidays. And this is its own kind of loneliness-anxiety—the thought that you might be missing out on some shared experience, some hypothetical memory you’ll want to have tucked away in a corner of the mind as you lay on your deathbed.
Those of us on the opposite end of the spectrum—the obsessive planners, like Ansari and myself, sticklers for commitment—can’t stomach the idea of not having substantial, precisely-scheduled plans on a weekend night. Because we too are looking to engineer experiences, albeit less organically. Our FOMO is more general, based in the apprehension that we won’t have any experiences too look back on, not just the best ones possible.
So, we do everything within our power to avoid a Friday evening spent solitarily at home. Or that awkward inevitability of sitting quietly at a bar, conspicuously on our own, waiting for someone who may or may not show up. That means everything short of subpoenaing our friends to brunch; demanding structured fraternization through a forced, gritted-teeth grin: “You’ll have fun and you’ll like it.”
Ansari isn’t hopping madly about the stage, raving against flakiness because of a particularly thin patience for rudeness. That playacted enmity isn’t about being inconvenienced by noncommittal friends as much as it is about the looming prospect of solitude; a dread sharpened by the illusion—marketed by Facebook, Instagram, and company—that everyone else in the world has calendar fit to bursting with glamorous, momentous plans.
In her collection of essays, the late Marina Keegan wrote, “I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness.” She was referring to her undergraduate years at Yale, but I think the core sentiment of that passage can be applied to a life spent swinging in this comfortable netted-hammock of tweets and Facebook updates. After all, it does, in many ways, resemble life on a college campus, where you’re never more than a stone’s throw from your friends; and because everyone is constantly articulating where they want to go in life, you’re always generally abreast of how they’re getting there. Technology has made this once physical reality a digital one. It has shrunk the quad and packed it neatly behind Gorilla Glass.
Perhaps it’s time we graduated. Because technology hasn’t made us less lonely, Mr. Ansari—it’s worse than that. It’s made us terrified, if not incapable, of being alone.
And for that reason, I am certain, if he were alive today, Thoreau would have a flip phone.