About a week later I went to a class at an adult learning centre. It was an evening class, attended by about thirty perfect strangers. Before the class began, we had some time to grab a glass of water, use the bathroom, find a spare seat and get ready to take notes. Previously, such experience would feel a bit awkward but one would say hello to each other and break the ice. Nowadays, there is no need to speak to strangers (what if they bite?) or to feel bored. We all took out our smartphones and avoided social unease by pretending to be busy with much more pressing matters: client emails, funny cat videos or motivational quotes a lá carpe diem. Who needs new friends when you can check out Tinder?
These days I find it more and more difficult to motivate myself to leave my house altogether. Who needs parties when you have Netflix? If I want some gossip, I just go on Twitter. I keep in touch with my friends on Facebook. Zhenya cycles to keep fit, Tamsin adopted two huskies and Emily is trying out gluten-free baking. My mum isn’t on Facebook, but I can Whatsapp her. Is there a new exhibition in town by the famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei? No worries, I’ll look up #aiweiwei on Instagram. Physical exercise, you say? There is plenty of yoga and HIIT on YouTube and I won’t get wet if it rains. Food? Ocado. Anything else? Amazon. I am all set.
I recently read an article in FT Weekend (digital subscription…) by actor and writer Jesse Eisenberg, who confessed to hopping into bed each night after performing on stage in New York and watching NBA playoffs on his telephone’s screen. "It’s easier than going to a friend’s house, quieter than going to a sports bar, much cheaper than going to the real game, and more convenient to watch on my phone, where I could control how and when I watch. And most importantly, it was easier to be alone than to be with, as Sartre would say, “the hell” that is “other people”." I can relate to that. After a long day in the office, after the exhausting commute home, why should we spend time with others, listening to their woes, as if we don’t have enough on our own plates?
Human beings are social animals. We need company and interaction, be it jovial or critical, to feel supported or challenged, to receive approval or be inspired and strive to achieve new goals. We thrive in group settings whether we acknowledge it at once or later on. Eisenberg examines his own behaviour and concludes that "it is becoming increasingly tempting to avoid these experiences with a lack of any immediately evident repercussions, and there is likely a danger in moving inch by inch towards solitary confinement, especially as the tools of our era make it so easy.” Indeed, social media make it simple to avoid breaking the ice in a group of strangers but what if one day we no longer remember how to start a face-to-face conversation? What if we forget how to laugh unless entertained by a cat on the screen? What if we all end up living longer just to find ourselves in tiny cells of a nursing home, swiping screens of our tablets and howling silently in despair?
If you can, exercise in a group. Go and see Ai Weiwei’s exihibition at the Royal Academy and share your thoughts with a stranger. Give your phone a break.