Technology does a lot of good. Just ask Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor.
At a concert in Las Vegas earlier this month, Trent Reznor took an iPhone on stage and made a video call to Andrew Youssef. Reznor, front man for popular rock outfit Nine Inch Nails, had learned about Youssef after reading a column in OC Weekly where the long-time rock photographer admitted to having stage 4 colorectal cancer. Reznor wrote to Youssef after reading the column and the two quickly became friends. When Reznor climbed back onto stage he brought his phone with him and panned its camera around the arena floor as the crowd cheered. “I miss you, man,” Reznor said. “I wish you were here.” We have become so familiar with the idea of speaking to others through phones that it’s possible to miss the strangeness of the scene at first, a man looking into a small metallic object with a gentle smile, saying “I love you” to it.
The moment is aspirational—its basic elements require a minimum buy-in of expensive goods that underscores Reznor’s comparative wealth. It also models a fairytale intimacy that, like exercise, sleep, and leafy greens, is probably not as abundant as it should be in our lives. The moment plays on absences for everyone involved and the little machine in Reznor’s hands, becomes an icon of everything that isn’t present in that moment.
It’s easy to be cynical about technology, and especially now, when its commercial offspring have flowered into a million multi-colored gadgets, each promising some improvement or convenience. There is an unmistakable stench of deception and casino-floor hustle in every product announcement, and beneath it a pre-articulate sense that all of these technologies are just blank spots with over-decorated frames. Technology is ultimately nothing more than an absence, a widget that takes something out of one’s life and leaves in its place automata. The more things a piece of technology can take out of one’s life, the more magical it becomes.
The beauty in Reznor’s stopping a concert doesn’t come from the magic of video chat, nor the flexibility of the iPhone. It came form his selective use of technology to interrupt all the other forms of technology surrounding him to perform a ritualistic alms-giving to a relationship that is surely as complicated and painful as it is joyful and celebratory.
This description may seem pessimistic, but there’s no reason it should. “We have problems and people are looking for fairy tale solutions—innovation like manna from the heaven falling on the Israelites and saving them from the desert,” famed pessimist Vaclav Smil told Wired in a recent interview. “It’s like, ‘Let’s not reform the education system, the tax system, Let’s not improve our dysfunctional government. Just wait for this innovation manna from a little group of people in Silicon Valley.” As technology has slowly gained cultural mass, it has revealed an innate passivity in many people, who are happy to defer the sometimes-awkward pangs of socializing and the ritualistic monotony of desk work to digital magicians that automate the discomforts away.
The power of technology comes in the moments when we choose to push back against this passivity, not in an effort to remove machined benefits from our lives but in a conscious desire to preserve the difficulties and discomforts we deem worth enduring. We are reaching a period of technological anti-climax, and it is becoming apparent that not everything can be improved in perpetuity. The new thrill of seeing every little element of human love and labor cut out of our lives and reattached in silicon is gone.
In this emerging landscape, moments of human beauty emerge from the particular cases where people choose to make themselves exceptions to the rule, to willingly accept a harder and more awkward task out of attachment to another. And in these moments, the alien delicacy of technology is easiest to see, not as another trinket trying to strip one last layer of profit from a life, but as an aid that makes it easier to confront the hardships a person wants to claim as their own.
The beauty in Reznor’s stopping a concert doesn’t come from the magic of video chat, nor the flexibility of the iPhone. It came form his selective use of technology to interrupt all the other forms of technology surrounding him to perform a ritualistic alms-giving to a relationship that is surely as complicated and painful as it is joyful and celebratory. That we can survive these confrontations with difficulty, embracing relationships with uncertain outcomes, or certainly tragic ones, is the origin of thankfulness.
Technology isn’t when it makes our lives easier, sedating us into a haze of time-loss before a stream of distractions, but when it makes us most conscious of what we have chosen to sacrifice and for what purpose, not to eradicate our pains through progress, but to make progress a function of our shared pains.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.