Jonathan Franzen wrote a very big book called Freedom. Many people read his very big book called Freedom (including our own Chris Holden). Generally, when many people have read the very big book you’ve written, you get invitations to speak at college graduations, the admissions/alumni/whoever-decides committee thinking that your bestselling way with words will inspiring their graduating class and perhaps – who knows? – score some points with the alumni donors.
Franzen recently spoke at my alma mater, Kenyon College. Kenyon is, in fact, the alma mater of the bulk of this website’s writing staff. Kenyon’s a small school in the middle of Ohio (aka Nowhere), so we all feel little bursts of pride when national media pays attention to it. I, for one, love sharing David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water with people. Not only do I think it’s a moving statement about the importance of sympathy in our modern age, I like telling people he spoke those words at my college.
Many of us Kenyon alums are similarly growing over Franzen’s speech, recently adapted by the author into a New York Times op-ed, “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts.” Franzen couldn’t have picked a better college at which to use moderate Ludditism to remark upon our culture’s guarded emotional state: only a few years ago did Kenyon students stop scowling at cell phone users walking their beloved Middle Path.
Some people may not agree with this editorial, but it’s worth reading to arrive at that conclusion. Consumer technology is so pervasive, its cultural impact so broad yet little understood, it bears philosophical exploration. Consider this quote from Franzen:
“To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”
Franzen moves on to decry irony and encourage us toward real love, real appreciation of the world around us. Brush it off as environmentalist mumbo jumbo and you may be missing his point: we are paying a cultural cost by blindly embracing technology.
Read the piece. See if you agree. Need I remind you? He spoke at my college.