There is grave danger in this way of living, Sullivan argues—and he’s right. The substitution of reality for virtual reality might put us in touch with more people more often, but the depth of our communication with them is so shallow it hardly matters. Meanwhile, as our ability to converse and empathize with others erodes, we become alienated from our own thoughts and emotions.
Sullivan refers to a famous YouTube clip of the comedian Louis C.K. on the Conan O’Brian Show, explaining why he won’t let his children have smartphones. “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away,” he says.
Of course, there’s a reason to fear being alone and not doing something. In the clip, Louis C.K. recounts a moment in his car when a Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio and he feels a twinge of sadness. He reaches for his phone to text a friend, but puts it down. “I said to myself, ‘Just be sad.’ Stand in the way of it and let it hit you like a truck.” He pulls his car over and weeps. After a few minutes, a feeling of relief sweeps over him. “I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true profound happiness.”
Sullivan tells a similar story, a moment in the woods while at a meditation retreat center. Alone and unplugged long enough to reconnect with his own emotions and memory, he breaks down weeping under a tree, thinking about his mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder and how it affected his childhood. Over the next day, “the feelings began to ebb, my meditation improved, the sadness shifted into a kind of calm and rest.”