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Sorry, you're breaking up... my existential angst over virtual ‘connection’

Writing by Mia Cappabianca. Illustration by Bethany Morton.

The Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's writing evokes a certain kind of teenage existential unease. His cynicism, expressed through hyperbole and paradox, at once confounds and entices. Infected with his deeply pessimistic outlook, I've come to find mediating relationships through technology a herculean task. The faceless voices and black video screens of Zoom university induce a draining sense of alienation and anxiety. Meanwhile, the endless cycles of information and uninterrupted 'me time' provoke recurring stress (or nausea, as Sartre might say).[1]

Being transported into the dramatic philosophical world of Sartrean existentialism touches a nerve regarding what it's like to interact with others. Interestingly, Sartre thinks that we can know another as immediately as we know ourselves. Sartre's conception of 'The Look'[2] is a dynamic interaction whereby I am forced to acknowledge that I am not the center of the universe. I am also just an object in another's world. In this kind of interaction, I become immediately aware of the other person as a subject who sees the world differently to me. Sartre vividly illuminates interactions with others through depictions of shame at being exposed by the other in doing something voyeuristic or vulgar. He evokes feelings we can all appreciate when interacting with other people, though undoubtedly interactions with others are not always experienced in his negative terms. Sometimes, interactions with others are positive experiences: they can be enjoyable or teach us something new. Nonetheless, I think he's onto something.

This 'something' he's onto cannot be recreated online. Interacting with others online dilutes our relationships with others in a way that both Sartre and I stand resolutely against.[3] Take instant messaging, for example. There are numerous ways in which it's not the same as coming into contact with another human in the flesh. The other person only sees me in my messages, my words that convey what I'm feeling, or have been attentively crafted to fashion the chosen version of myself. And 'instant' messaging is seldom instant, so I can never truly see the other person or immediately have access to them. Sometimes, we misunderstand one another when we interact with them online. I may be deeply engaged in a conversation, sharing my thoughts as fast as my thumbs will take me, while the other person- distracted -replies with a gif. That's if they reply at that moment. People don't have to respond right away; minutes can become hours or even days, and interactions carry on far longer than they would have in real life. One or both parties end up asking ‘what were we even talking about?’ All of this points to a profound difference between virtual 'connection' and in-person connection.

With our relationships mediated by technology this past year, our relationships with others have altered, which has problematised our relationships with ourselves. In many ways, social media is self-indulgent, as I become the subject who objectifies everyone else. There’s no dynamism of ‘The Look’ anymore. However, we also acquire a bizarre kind of FOMO: a fear of missing real interactions with others. With no one really 'doing' anything anymore, we crave the spontaneity of real human connection.

Sartre prods us into accepting our 'ontological freedom,' by which he means that we are radically free simply through existing as humans and have the power to create any life we want. Insightfully, he thinks that we are not unconstrained by the facts of our lives but that how we think of the facts is always up to us. Enacting our radical freedom might be easier said than done, however. And since we can't even go to the pub, it seems we're in for an uphill battle.

I'll admit that without technology, lockdown would have isolated us even more. I know I went loopy with just my family to interact with. However, that doesn't stop me from feeling fatigued, angsty, and that existentialism gets it, man. This past year has been doom and gloom, and I've found Sartre a great companion for wallowing in the rain. He can even provide a convoluted philosophical rationale for why this response is justified. With our relationships mediated almost exclusively online, I worry that we miss truly acknowledging other people and, in return, discovering important things about ourselves.

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Robert Baldick (UK: Penguin Classics, 2000).

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Sarah Richmond (UK: Routledge, 2020), pp.347-408.

[3] Michael Stephen Lopato, “Social Media, Love, and Sartre’s Look of the Other: Why Online Communication Is Not Fulfilling,” Philos. Technol. (2015): pp.195-210.

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