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September 23, 2013

Louis C.K. is wrong about smartphones

NEW YORK — For the last few days, I've been seeing the six-minute clip of Louis C.K. railing against the use of smartphones all over my smartphone. Every time I check my email, or read Twitter, or otherwise distract myself from life's essential loneliness, his sermon from the couch appears on my tiny screen, underlined with rapturous agreement. C.K. "nails it" on the "bleak, depressing reality of smartphones," the headlines tell me. His notion that "you need to build an ability to just be yourself and not do anything" is "sad, brilliant," "impressively existential," and "frighteningly on the money."

The fact that so many people in my social network have been so inspired by the comedian's attack on social networks suggests that no one finds his thesis too surprising. That's how social networks work: Likes beget shares, and shares beget likes. We're moved by C.K.'s speech because he's telling us what we know already: that phones distract us from the mindful contemplation of our lives; that they corrupt our souls and make us less compassionate. Nothing could be more in line with the backdoor Buddhism that defines the Louis Liberal.

But C.K.'s rant about smartphones invokes a deep conservatism, too. When he speaks out against the evils of technology, he short-circuits an important debate by appealing to an old anxiety. Do new forms of communication erode the public sphere? Do they degrade the human spirit? Perhaps — but we've been working through these questions since the invention of the printed book, and never found a simple answer. So why has C.K.'s crude and fearful take on texting earned such widespread approbation?

Here is the clip that has generated considerable discussion:

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