Thinking about our digitally mediated lives with E. M. Forster's 1909 short story
"Disconnected from a more direct experience of a wider world, we crave information about it."
This was a great, and unsettling, insight. Great because it rings true, but unsettling because it caused me to realize this aspect of my daily experience. The great irony of technological progress is that it, having taken care of our material needs, renders us bored on our couches. Though we feel like we are living in an era of great social transformation (which we seemingly are), most of our weekends are spent quietly indoors, seated or lying down in front of our screens-- perhaps we go to a restaurant, where we again are seated and served food prepared for us. So much of our lives today happens while sitting down! What else is airplane travel but breaking time and space boundaries while sitting down? There is not much else to do but talk or be entertained-- Kierkegaard said this about his culture more then a century ago-- which is funny, because social media and the IPhone are communication technologies, and ensure that we can talk and say more to more people with higher frequencies. I'm drawing from Ross Douthat's piece in the NYT on our age being decadent. So it does seem to me that Mike is right to say that our appetite for information at least partially stems from our disconnect from the world. We don't have much of a connection to our physical surroundings. Most of us are in some degree the leisure, aristocratic class that is not required to sweat or struggle with bodily labor, but is also haunted by the possibility that the life of leisure lacks the rush and immersion of those classes that must work with their hands and bodies. Disconnected from the sense of fulsome contact with life that bodily activity provides, we chase immersive experiences via our technologies or entertainment (concerts, trampoline parks, VR, video games, Tik Tok, fitness centers and gyms, theme parks, etc.) We also crave documentaries about all sorts of topics, both foreign to our experience (Tiger King, celebrities, mountain climbing, etc) or about things that are fundamental (like food); we Google things or ask Siri or look at Wikipedia reflexively. All of this while seated on our couches.
Though I have not read the Forester story, the characters' obsession with hearing ideas made me think of what the book of Acts said about the Athenian Greeks (when Paul preaches in Athens), that they did nothing but listen to and debate new ideas.
Question: Being alienated from our material environment and sometimes our own bodies, how should we proceed without becoming anti-modern and Luddites?
“does this make me more human or less human?"
I think this is the key test, that we need to apply to every choice we make. And the essential point that Forster is making, is that to become disembodied, detached from our physical existence in this particular point in time and space, in this body, is to become less than fully human. It seems the interesting thing about our current situation is that many of what are in fact distractions, are denied us - work, consumption, mere moving about, society - and we discover (I am discovering) how paltry and shallow digital distractions are - I have started turning Netflix films off before the end, which I have never done before, not because they are bad or boring, but just attenuated, flat, two dimensional. Interacting with my extended family, admittedly through Zoom, is more human. Walking alone through the countryside. Cooking an elaborate meal. Meditating - facing the reality of the present moment. Doing an absorbing, physical, creative activity. Society is distraction - not to be confused with real community, which many are discovering ; the encounter through the letterbox with a hitherto unknown neighbor delivering food, for example. And Forster’s story is extraordinarily prescient - I can’t believe I haven’t read it before, I’m a great fan and thought I’d read all his fiction. Thank you very much for this
Thank you for all your stimulating articles. Don't know about anyone else but this made me think of Plato's cave which, I guess, is our archetypal myth of seeming and being. As human beings we crave fulness of life, a total immersion in Being, whether that be interpreted in an Oriental or Occidental framework of annihilation or union. Is it not the case that human history is a tale told by an idiot, of man seeking his fulfilment in the wrong places. The price we pay is a self-imposed exile from the very things most needed, a 'troglodytic' existence, so to speak. Which begs the question why we do it. And, I guess Huxley correctly identified this - although every major spiritual tradition did so for many millenia before - as our willingness to be ruled by our passions. Of course, Forster's story merely turns the tables as his dystopia presents a gnostic world in which the mental has come to be regarded as superior to the incarnated, bodily existence. My feeling is that the fundamental problem (Original Sin?) facing humanity is our inability to combine both these aspects of our existence harmoniously as opposed to placing them in competition as discrete alternatives. We are distracted - literally, 'torn apart' - by emphasising either reason understood in its most narrow, logic chopping sense against imagination, and sensual passion. Surely, an essential element of any true 'happiness' (dread word) is our integration as individuals in a just society.
This reminded me of Pleasure Spots of George Orwell. There he imagines a spa-like world where everything is provided to us if only we obey. Here is something that always stays with me (esp the last part) =>
"Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness. If one started by asking, what is man? what are his needs? how can he best express himself? one would discover that merely having the power to avoid work and live one's life from birth to death in electric light and to the tune of tinned music is not a reason for doing so. Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human?"
Very interesting; at first glance your article reminded me of a story I read in college: The Adding Machine is a 1923 play by Elmer Rice; look forward to reading the rest of it! Thank you!
Here is a late addition to the commentaries. One question has been brewing in my mind:
￼￼What exactly leads us and what led the people from The Machine to retreat into isolation? Apparently they experienced an ecological cataclysm that made the surface of the earth uninhabitable.￼ Maybe they had no time to think about the possible negative side effects that this machine￼￼￼￼ might bring to their lives. They were just focused on building something that would guarantee their survival.￼
I wonder whether we are in the same situation. Whether we see all the measures as emergency reactions, and therefore do not reflect how they might affect our lives.￼ Whether we don’t see or don’t want to realize that more crises like these will show up and that by and by the emergency measures will become norm.
This reminds me of Yuval Noah Hararis account of how humanity might have experienced the agricultural revolution.￼￼ Humans were living as hunter gatherers in small relatively equal societies, with a diverse diet and plenty of time for recreation and art. When the ecosystem would not support any more of them, they slowly￼ co-evolved with crops￼ which could nourish more humans. Over thousands of years many tiny changes to their mode of living￼ summed up to a drastic transformation: the Agricultural Revolution ￼￼
Harari describes that the result of this transition was terrible: Now humans were living in ￼￼fixed settlements, cramped together to protect their crops, had to adapt more authoritarian religions and governments to manage everything, would suffer from malnourishment, new illnesses like Cholera, plus had to work more. But there was no way back, except by killing a part of the population.￼￼
Quotes from „Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“
“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder then the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.￼￼￼￼￼” (90)
“Around 13,000 BC, when people fed themselves by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals, the area around the oasis of Jericho, in Palestine, could support at most one roaming band of about a hundred relatively healthy and well nourished people. Around 8500 BC, when wild plants gave way to wheat fields, the oasis supported a large but cramped village of 1000 people, who suffered far more from disease and malnourishment. (…) This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive￼￼ under worse conditions.” (94)
“Nobody agreed to this deal: the Agricultural Revolution was a trap. (…) The change preceded by stages, each of which involved just a small alteration in daily life.” (94)
“The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC. But nobody realized what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small ‘improvements’ here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically a series of improvements, each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the neck of these farmers. (…) Why did people make such a fatefull miscalculation? (…) People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions.￼￼ (…) If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan. (…) But people did not forsee that the number of children would increase, (…) that feeding [them] less breastmilk would weaken their immune system and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. (…)￼ Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations (…) and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever live differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased the village’s population from 100 to 110, which 10 people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.” (97f)
If you think along these evolutionary lines, we might currently be taking one minimal step in our evolution to a new society. In that society we will commonly isolate and restrict our movements in order to stop the spread of diseases that have evolved to utilize our global population density and mobility.￼ If one does not want us to evolve into that way, then the terribly hard evolutionary question would be: Which are the 1% who should die in order for the others to continue their mode of living? And this is no theoretical question. It is asked in the overcrowded hospitals of Bergamo and in the debates whether we should risk infecting the young in order to create herd immunity. ￼￼￼
A slightly less fatalistic and more progressive question: would be: If our current mode of living is coming to its limits,￼what else do we want our society to evolve into that allows us to survive on this planet as a species?￼
Trying to give you a gift but your email address isn’t populated - what should I use? (puzzled of Poitiers)