In the abstract, John and Thomas are similar: They both succumbed to short-term temptations, and both didn’t keep their long-term goals. But while Thomas attributed that outcome to problems with willpower, John came to reframe his behavior from a perspective that sidestepped the concept of willpower altogether. Both John and Thomas would resolve their issues, but in very different ways.
Most people feel more comfortable with Thomas’ narrative. They would agree with his self-diagnosis (that he lacked willpower), and might even call it clear-eyed and courageous. Many people might also suspect that John’s reframing of his problem was an act of self-deception, serving to hide a real problem. But Thomas’ approach deserves just as much skepticism as John’s. It’s entirely possible that Thomas was seduced by the near-mystical status that modern culture has assigned to the idea of willpower itself—an idea that, ultimately, was working against him.
Today, we have a lot more than words to take us places; there’s Instagram, YouTube, Google Earth, for starters. But while virtual travel may diminish the field of travel writers it won’t—or shouldn’t—cut into the number of travelers. There is still no substitute for being there.
No technology can replace the visceral experience of arriving in a new place, the moment when you step out of an airport, or off a ship, and subject yourself—body, mind and heart—to a strange land. You’re attuned to everything: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures, very soon the tastes. I always tell travel writing students to use these early hours to explore, because one’s surroundings—the colorful drinks, the melodic sirens, the sweet-and-foul smells—will not be as clear or as sharp in a few days. At the start, everything stands out as if in high definition, especially, strangely, if you’re groggy from jet lag.
Yet into this bleak picture drops a book and an author bristling with hope, optimism and answers. Rutger Bregman is a 28-year-old Dutchman whose book, Utopia for Realists, has taken Holland by storm and could yet revitalise progressive thought around the globe. His solutions are quite simple and staunchly set against current trends: we should institute a universal basic income for everyone that covers minimum living expenses – say around £12,000 a year; the working week should be shortened to 15 hours; borders should be opened and migrants allowed to move wherever they choose.
Harrowing memoirs are a bit like harrowing films. As long as they’re done beautifully, they feel life-changing. Still, it can be hard to recommend such things. I admire Manchester By the Sea more than any film I’ve seen in years but I’d still hesitate to “recommend” it to someone I didn’t know well. Both The Wild Other by Clover Stroud and Traveling With Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler fall into this category: gloriously rendered, beautifully written, but utterly devastating. Both are admirable. But neither are for the faint-hearted.
Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in. “As a kid I was terrified of drugs,” he writes. “I had a recurring nightmare that someone would force me to take heroin and that I’d become addicted.” It’s unsurprising he’s become a psychologist of addiction, and his intoxicant of choice is the internet. In a chapter subtitled “Never Get High on Your Own Supply” he makes the observation that neither Steve Jobs of Apple nor Evan Williams of Twitter have allowed their children to play with touch screens.