Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s fiction piece, Voyeur
John: The Luddite in me is tempted to see the terrible fate of these characters as a product of technology—that the devices that have promised to bring us closer together have, instead, created unbridgeable emotional divides. Is this an oversimplification?
Sarah: While the social media used in the story certainly contributes to the characters’ human disconnection, what ultimately causes their suffering is the way technology provides constant access to the miseries of the world. Yes, the characters sink further into their own despair through casual hookups and vapid celebrity gossip, but their real anguish comes from news about environmental apocalypse, which is inescapable and overwhelming. To try and live despite the earth’s death is impossible, so the characters retreat into their devices and constructed realities that help them escape, even momentarily.
Is this sense of alienation a modern thing, or has it always been with us? Do you think the Romans had sordid, depressing booty calls as well?
Alienation from the world is one of the oldest stories, only now climate change and capitalism have sped up the film reel, so the changes come quick, the world shifting before our eyes, present suddenly past, our future uncertain. While these characters explore current cultural values—online dating, hipster diets, watching disaster porn—their motivations to find connection and escape from a cruel world are hardly new. Nor is their bodily desire—I certainly hope booty calls were present throughout history!
Is the environmental degradation referenced in this story a cause or a symptom of our problems? Or, to put it another way, are we destroying the places we live because we are unhappy, or vice versa? Or is it some other problem entirely?
The characters mourn environmental decay even as they contribute to it with their reliance on convenience, entertainment, and quick thrills. They prefer virtual reality because they are grieving for the end of the world they are living through. But virtual reality does not satisfy the way the real world does, so they are constantly dissatisfied. By living fully in neither, they actively destroy both, barely living at all.
Social media executives have suggested that all human connection is an inherently good thing, and that since they facilitate this, they are, in turn, inherently good. Is any aspect of this particular line of rationalization valid?
It’s hard to dismiss social media’s initial premise of connecting people across time and space, especially in a globalized world where people live far from friends and family and homes of origin. Ultimately, the isolated characters in this story come together through technology, which acts as an antidote to their loneliness. They find connection during the end of the world because of social media. The world, however, looks very different because of social media’s impact over the last few decades. It is fragmented, rapidly-disappearing, ruled by clickbait and doomscrolling. It is hard to ignore the way social media has rewritten the narrative of the world in its image—one where we are constantly refreshing for something bolder, better, missing out even as we are supposed to be living.
Blaise Pascal said “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Now that we can sit quietly in a room alone and still get into trouble, are we doomed, or can we just dismiss him as a bewigged idiot and go back to looking at Kardashian noses?
The problem of technology is that even when we are in a room alone, it is far from quiet. We are bombarded by the latest news cycles, political fallouts, environmental disasters, celebrity mishaps, and mundane think pieces whether we want them or not. Our attention is for sale these days, companies auctioning access to our time to the highest bidder, so that our technology now tries to predict and influence what we desire. With our devices we are never truly alone, never free to think and feel apart from influence, our solitude as endangered as our world.