My plane touched down in Chicago some time after 5 p.m. local time last Friday. I had almost two hours to spare before making my connection. But the plane was late and others on board were anxious.
The couple behind me had less than an hour to catch a flight to Paris.
I have a ritual when I turn my phone on after a flight. I check my text messages first — then, in this order, voice messages, email, Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook, I read a post by an old friend from school days: There had been a massacre near his home in Paris in a restaurant frequented by him and his family. He wanted his friends to know that he and his family were okay. I asked myself, as I put my phone away, whether he was referring to some kind of terrorist attack.
At that moment, as if there were a single data drop right on top of my plane, cell phones starting beeping, push messages started popping up and a murmur rose up around me. Without hearing what they said, I knew that my fear had been confirmed.
Everybody has stories about where they were when they learned about the attacks of 9/11, or the murder of John Lennon, or President Kennedy's assassination.
I'm sure there is nothing unusual about the way I learned about what happened in Paris last Friday. But that very fact — that it is not unusual, today — is worth considering for a moment.
On the one hand, social media is new and, however ubiquitous and commonplace it has now become, it's amazing that I had direct contact with a friend in Paris just minutes after setting down on the tarmac ending my flight between LA and Chicago. What access!
On the other hand, what really confirmed that something had happened, for me, was a genuine, flesh-and-blood social phenomenon. It was as if my fellow passengers made a collective response to the shared news. And it was that collective response — not social media, but a genuinely social response to media — that told me that something terrible had happened. There is a lovely irony in this.
But there is another side as well. Despite the fact that I am the one checking in, it is hard not to feel blindsided when you get this kind of repugnant news when you least expect it. Not that there's ever a good moment to get bad news. But the thing about the relatively new social-media connectedness that so many of us take for granted is that it sometimes feels like compulsion.
We refresh by habit and swish through until we encounter some affect-alerting ping. A friend's success or hardship. An amusing "meme." Pictures, pictures and pictures of people we know, or knew, or pretend to know. We don't realize it, but trolling social media on autopilot is a bit like taking a walk around town barefoot. Who knows what you might step on? Who knows how badly you could get hurt?
A few years back, I was in a somewhat comparable situation. I sat on the runway after landing and checked my phone. The first message I read was from my sister. What had happened to my son, she demanded to know. How is he? Why is he hospitalized?
My son in the hospital? Oh my God. I just landed. I had no idea! I later learned that he had been burned playing with fire crackers. From the bed in the burn ward at the hospital, covered with blotches and doped up on pain killers, he had posted selfies. My inbox was full of messages from his circle of social media friends before I had any clue at all what had happened.
Now, who can deny that it is better to know than not to know? And easy access to information about what is happening around the world, or to one's family, is something to be prized.
But is knowledge what you get when you step barefoot on a land mine of frightening information?
The news that Paris was under siege, or that my son was in trouble, wasn't news I could use there as my plane lumbered along the taxi way. I'd received the charge and the start, but what did I really know?
So, maybe a certain degree of self-censoring would be a good thing. You can't put your head in a hole in the ground. But maybe we can learn to resist the blank compulsion to check, refresh, download, swipe and click — at least long enough to disembark and get our feet safely on the ground.
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe