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THE BIG DISCONNECT
the story of technology and loneliness
By Giles Slade
Copyright © 2012 Giles Slade
All right reserved.
Introduction IMMORTALITY AND FREE WILL
The laboring man has not the leisure for a true integrity day by day ... his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine.... The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves or one another this tenderly....
We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 2004
The first decade of the twenty-first century has ended. Machines still proliferate. Human relationships are still in decline. We no longer have the time to take time even with those closest to us. We look to machines to perform human functions: they provide communications, calculations, care, and company. Once, if a man was courageous and strong enough, he could hope to wrestle an angel to a draw. Although we recognized our own mortality, we believed the angels envied us our free will and stood slightly below us in the hierarchy of heaven. We were God's finest handiwork.
In those days, excellence and genius were very human qualities. Today, tragically, our planet is no longer the center of the universe, and we are no longer naïve. What it is to be human has diminished under pressures from technology and from the application of economic reasoning to every aspect of human life. Man has shrunk to an atomic unit orbiting, serving, and servicing the machinery of his city and his economy. Human longing persists, but it is no longer projected backward toward our divine, parental origins. Instead we project our longing into the technological future where we imagine—again—that we will soon be fulfilled and finally free.
The size of the average American workspace declined from the ninety square feet allotted to workers in 1994 to only seventy-five square feet in 2010. Although they are much more difficult to quantify, human relationships have also shrunk. Fewer and fewer people have a friend or single trusted confidante. More and more people live alone. Many have "friends" on Facebook® but go home to lonely dwellings where they divert themselves during the empty hours with technological distractions: the Internet, HD or 3D television, videos, electronic games, entertainment systems, exercise machines, sports programs, Jacuzzi® tubs, personal automatic baristas, and automatic sex toys that would have embarrassed sex-trade workers of an earlier generation. This is not good for people; but for manufacturers and marketers, human beings are best when they are alone since individuals are forced to buy one consumer item each, whereas family or community members share their cars, their washing machines, their televisions, their PCs. Technology's movement toward miniaturization serves this end by making personal electronics suitable for individual users. You carry your phone, your music device, your tablet with you. For today's carefully trained consumers, sharing is an intrusion on personal space.
Increasingly, the lack of human interaction breeds the lack of human interaction so interpersonal difficulties become easier and easier to avoid. Instead of visiting, we phone; instead of phoning, we text; instead of texting, we post "updates" for our "friends" on Facebook's wall, and when they don't like these updates, we "unfriend" them. In public, we catch up on our smartphones with people we no longer have time to visit, or we steal a few moments during our commute to listen to a playlist while reading an eBook on a Kindle®. The liminal spaces of our cities are full of people experiencing and practicing uncomfortable "elevator silences." Fifty years ago, Paul Simon described "people writing songs that voices never share." Community fails in exactly this way. "No one dares / Disturb the sound of silence."
As Thoreau observes, long ago we accepted an economic rather than a human role. When life was a bitter struggle, we agreed to technology's promise of abundance and safety and worked hard to achieve it. During the twentieth century as we became increasingly invested in technology, we became increasingly short of time, and for this reason, too, our humanity is distorted and deformed. We no longer have sufficient time, attention, or energy to devote to the one thing that makes life truly worth living: our relationships with others. Thoreau made his observations in 1854, so it should be clear that we are trapped in a technological dilemma with a considerable history. Modern technology, of course, has a solution for this historical dilemma: technology always has a solution. In fact, if the first thing we mean by technology is "abundance" or "cornucopia," the second thing we mean when we use the word is "solution."
Technology's ultimate solution for economic man's problematic and chronic shortage of time is immortality. It is not yet available, of course, but it is on the cards now. A group of technological visionaries headed by inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil believes that by 2020—within this decade—the power of computers as measured by the millions of instructions per second available (the MIPS rate) for US $1,000 will have increased to such an extent that we will be able to reverse-engineer the human brain and begin to replicate its entire processes in a machine.
Raymond Kurzweil is a recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest honor to recognize achievements related to technological progress. Previously, he has often predicted remarkable technologies—talking computers, for example—which have then come to pass.
If Kurzweil is right, we will be utterly transformed. In fact, we will become much like Shia LeBeouf's friend Bumblebee in the film Transformers (2007). Like Autobots or Decepticons, the simulacra that replace human beings will stamp through the organic world and be completely indifferent to it. If we understand technology not as a system of tools and skills but as an ideology that encourages the endless refinement of tools and skills in order to dominate and subjugate nature, Kurzweil's machine men will achieve technology's ultimate goal by becoming completely indifferent to nature. If and when Kurzweil's predictions fulfill themselves, people will become truly obsolescent, as Günther Anders predicted we would in 1956. We will have, at last, conquered and overcome nature. We will then exist outside it, having no need for organic materials, for company, for sex, or even for time. History, in fact, will end.
Kurzweil's vision extends our unexamined assumptions about technology to their utmost costly end. Describing such "scientism" in its embryonic manifestation as a preparation for the industrial revolutions, Lewis Mumford wrote, "By renouncing a large part of his humanity, a man could achieve godhood: he dawned on this second chaos and created the machine in his own image: the image of power, but power ripped loose from his flesh and isolated from his humanity."
This view—humans' indifference to nature; our attempt to challenge, overcome, and use nature—is fundamental to the technology enterprise and is also, therefore, fundamental to our technological society. This is why the purveyors and inventors of technology are indifferent to issues of pollution, waste, human intercourse, and satisfaction. It is why science can objectively inform us about climate change and global warming, and yet we deny climate change and global warming. Inherently, our faith in technology relies on a disdain for the natural world that is almost complete in our own time, a historical moment characterized by what Richard Louv describes as "nature deficit disorder" in his seminal book Last Child in the Woods (2005).
What you will read in the coming pages is a description of how we progressively sacrificed the quality of human life for our economic well-being. If, currently, your best friend is your iPhone® or iPad®, after reading this book you will understand why that is so, and also you will finally understand the real cost of numbing the pangs of human loneliness with human-mechanical neo-friendships. A neuroscientist we will meet again in later pages puts it best: "The pain of loneliness is a deeply disruptive hurt. The disruption, both psychological and behavioral, can turn an unmet need for connection into a chronic condition, and when it does ... trying to make ourselves feel better with fatty foods and reruns of Friends will only make matters worse."
Machines can dull the pangs of loneliness. One of the principal jobs of personal electronics is to distract us or to provide prosthetic substitutes for human company. In the near future, they will become much more adept at filling even the most intimate human needs. Still, even now, there are a few moments left to decide if this is what we really want or need. Will we become isolates consoling ourselves with any variety of electronic toys, fathers and mothers to the first generation of human-simulation machines, or will we limit the application of technology as we now limit the uses of weapons and dangerous drugs? These are the choices confronting us in the twenty-first century in the few moments we have left before the arrival of truly intelligent, autonomous machines, machines that will be able to fool us completely into believing that they are adequate, nourishing substitutes for human company.
Excerpted from THE BIG DISCONNECT by Giles Slade Copyright © 2012 by Giles Slade. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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