Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid by Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt

Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter, By Luke Fernandez & Susan J. Matt, Harvard University Press, 2019

Neuroplasticity is a term that’s gained an ominous ubiquity in recent years, specifically in connection not with how humans are using new technologies but how new technologies are using humans. Is human neuroplasticity in the 21st century changing the very nature of the human mind, and if so, are those changes negative? Are iPhones, iPads, GPS, and the Internet exacerbating negatives and simultaneously eroding the positives?

These questions feature all throughout the new book by Luke Fernandez and Susan Matt, starting with its title: Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraphy to Twitter. This is a thoughtfully nuanced take on the kind of ‘is technology killing us dead’ alarmist tracts that have proliferated as ‘smart’ devices have proliferated, an effect largely achieved by grounding the whole question deeper in history. The social reactions to the telegraph, the home radio, the television, and, crucially, a country-crossing modern highway system, all interestingly foreground many of the modern reactions to further inroads made into our private lives by technology on every side.

The core of the question is the tension between the human need for connection and the human resistance to cooperation. In other words, the key emotion from the book’s title is anger, and it’s anger that keeps bubbling to the surface of the narrative. The need for connection is inherent and although far more pronounced in the modern era, was very much present a century ago. The telegraph, for instance, “simultaneously promised to connect people, but also justified and enabled their separation,” our authors write. “The longing for communion and connection - with kith and kin far away, with God in heaven, with the dead - seemed to grow as Americans scattered and hustled and bustled.”

The longing for new connections was always in a jittery lock-step with the unruly nature of those connections, and that’s where anger comes in. Although Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid is very pleasingly wide-ranging in its considerations, the closer its focus gets to our present day, the more it could simply be retitled Angry:

With their TVs, their talk radio, their cars, Americans sat alone, separated from others. And it was in private that they felt most at ease expressing anger. Having internalized the workplace dictates about anger management, feeling acutely the limits that had been placed on their emotions at work, they felt comfortable being outraged when they could not be observed, when there were seemingly no consequences or constraints.

Fernandez and Matt have created a fascinating picture of the historical development of what they refer to as new emotional patterns that traverse “from our right to unfettered anger and unconstrained self-promotion to our awe at our own transcendence.” Our authors maintain that the “seemingly limitless emotional style” of the 21st century is “in many ways far more egalitarian than those that prevailed in earlier years.” That’s a fairly optimistic spin on a generational transformation that touches the lives of virtually every human being on Earth. Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid tentatively subscribes to that optimism - provided humans can adapt to their own creations.

—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.