Several weeks before he would starve to death after having spent an approximate four months in the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher McCandless recorded in his journal the following observation:
“HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED”
In 1990, after graduating from Emory University, McCandless forwent law school for a soul-searching, cross-country adventure. Although described by those he knew him as the friendliest of individuals, he expressed in his diary a bitter cynicism, a growing disillusion with society and a preference for solitude over human interaction. It was too late before he realized the error in his quest for happiness, that one is the loneliest number. The central focus of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, McCandless died the summer of 1992, less than a year before I was born.
This past summer, I read Into the Wild over the course of several train rides to and from New York City. On one afternoon, heading home, I finished the book well before my stop, allowing myself the remainder of the train ride to think it over and digest. I look forward to these moments of zero responsibility, when you’re on a train or at the airport and you have nothing to do but think. What with the distractions of smartphone technology—I’ve observed an inverse relationship between time for introspection and battery life—such moments are few and far between.
I don’t own a smartphone. I could if I wanted to, but I don’t. It’s not that I think I’m better than those who do—I’m just as dependent on my cell phone and laptop—but that I value my alone time, or at least what’s left it. The thing is, I need to sort out all my shit before an iPhone sorts it for me, you know? And sitting there on the train without Internet access, I couldn’t help but wonder: What if Chris McCandless had a smartphone? Bunked up in an abandoned bus with nothing but the iPhone to keep him company, would he come to the same conclusion, that happiness is only real when shared?
From Snapchat and Instagram to Facebook and Twitter, we’ve elevated ourselves to a new, digital plane of social interaction, a landscape uninhibited by time and space. So long as you have a smartphone, you maintain at your fingertips an unlimited source of interconnectivity. We no longer measure moments by when, where, and with whom they happen but rather by how we choose to capture the moment and with whom we choose to share it. Happiness, too, now functions as a form of currency whose worth isn’t realized unless traded over the Internet for social media recognition.
All things considered, I doubt Chris McCandless would own a smartphone, and if he did, I think it’s safe to say that he probably wouldn’t have died. In a strange sense, however, although smartphones provide us with an entirely different mode of social interaction, McCandless’s comment holds considerable bearing. As someone without an iPhone, how do I relate my happiness to that of my iPhone-centric friends? How do I share and translate experience between myself and the digital world. Is there an exchange rate? If so, whose happiness is worth more?
Chris McCandless died in the summer of 1992, fifteen years before Apple would release the iPhone. In terms of “pics or it didn’t happen,” however, McCandless came prepared: