It’s our most ubiquitous sign of the times — that guy you see on the street every day, staring intently down into his phone. Or the two ’tween girls walking together at the mall, each studying their own phones separately. Every time I see them, I think, “What are you hoping to find in that little screen of yours?”
One of my favorite books is The Seekers by Daniel Boorstin, a review of world philosophy. “We are all Seekers,” Boorstin wrote. “We all want to know why.” His panorama runs from Aristotle’s wandering, powerful mind to Jefferson’s balancing of the individual and society to Henri Bergson’s stream-of-consciousness take on human evolution.
I’d love to know what the Frenchman Bergson would make of the smartphone. We literally have the world at our fingertips. For those with an Aristotelian mind, you can voraciously surf an endless sea of knowledge. Jefferson — a tech junkie in his time — would love how connected the Internet can make us. As we connect, as the barriers of language and distance fall away, we become like a great web of shared consciousness. And our chance at enlightenment — the central goal of Jefferson’s time — improves.
But to Bergson, human progress — evolution, even — is the byproduct of free will, mobility of the mind and that creative human spark nobody can quite explain. I am sure that a screen connected to everything would have thrilled him. Maybe it can help fill that percentage of our brains we don’t use. Maybe it can create better people. Maybe it can help us realize peace on Earth.
So what are all those people seeking in their screens? It’s basic human instinct — yes, we are all Seekers. They want to know more, which is why Wikipedia just might be the greatest wonder of the modern world. They want to connect and fit into society, just as Jefferson hoped. An Instagram to a friend is, in fact, a social building block. And Bergson believed we are all hard-wired to grow and make progress, individually and communally.
But before you start telling everyone that staring into your phone is actually quite good for you, consider that to Bergson the crucial piece in the puzzle of humanity is personal experience — to feel the world, to live the emotions, to take in the reality of it all not through a tiny screen, but through your own eyes. And for that, you need to put your phone down and take a look around you — especially when you’re cutting into my lane while chuckling over your latest tweet.