In my book, Human Sunset, I use a lot of screenshots that pertain to loneliness and the deterioration of relationships. I think it’s really important to unpack this – and truly, there is a lot going on as far as this particular aspect of tech goes. In fact, there is so much going on that I won’t even attempt to go into the kind of finer detail which obviously could be done, but I will sketch out the main issues and let the reader do the rest. I believe also that it is important to point out some countermeasures that we should effect right now even before the Counter-Industrial Revolution. (Besides relationships, I am aiming to expand on a number of other dense topics in the coming weeks.)
Loneliness is a very, very significant factor in mental health. Long-term loneliness correlates strongly with numerous mental and even physical maladies, up to and including premature death. This should not be surprising; humans were not designed to be loners. Instead, we evolved in close-knit groups: families, clans, tribes, and nations. Industrial-age technology has proven to be tremendously toxic to the relationship between an individual and all these groupings. It is true that a given individual may have a greater or lesser need for companionship than the next individual, but be that as it may, I contend that the “bounties” of the Industrial Age have taken the ideal comfortable space between humans and expanded it to such a degree, and at such an unnatural pace, that we are reeling from a great blow which we hardly comprehend. In spite of the rapidity of this development, it was not easy for most people to see it for all its danger.
Technology, particularly Industrial-Age Technology, has had a trend of personalizing, or individualizing, its use. Much of this can be accounted for by perfectly understandable human instincts and short-sighted desire for “efficiency”. A few illustrations of which countless more could be made:
Bathing was once a social activity. In past ages, let’s say Europe for example, you had Roman bath-houses, you had sauna culture radiating out from the Baltic. Sure, a person could jump in a river or lake any time they were so inclined but at a bath-house, you would socialize with people from your community. In Russia, an example of a place where sauna culture survives albeit in a greatly reduced state, people get together for appetizers, alcohol is consumed, philosophy is engaged in, etc. But this once popular social practice is essentially now a luxurious relic. Now, a house in the western world that boasts only one bathroom for all is a deficient house. A house that can compete in the real estate market is one where the number of bath tubs approximates or meets the number of bedrooms. I built a sauna for myself and invite friends over and I can tell you that very few people today have ever had a genuine sauna experience. (No, the 5-10 minutes you spend in the “sauna” at the athletic club, silent among strangers, does not equal a genuine sauna experience.)
Baking was also once a social activity. As recently as the eve of the Industrial Revolution (and in some cases as late as WWII), villages in Europe, particularly in more rural regions, communal ovens were used. The continued use of such ovens, long after the end of the feudal era, testifies that their use was not merely a feudal imposition. Interestingly, even Jews and Gentiles used the same ovens(!), whereas today, it is very common for more affluent Jewish households to have two ovens – one dedicated to dairy-related uses and the other for meat-related. It should be noted that such an arrangement is not at all required by Jewish religious law. It is a testament to how innovation and affluence, possible only in a highly developed economic milieu, can lead to preferences that were not desired nor even imagined just a few generations ago.
People used to bathe together, bake together, grind flour together, make textiles together. One day Jim lent his saw to his neighbor Tom; the following week Tom lent Jim his donkey. This was normal life. It was unthinkable that each man in the village would have every tool imaginable. Human interaction was everywhere and happening constantly. Also, note that these interactions had a distinct weight of necessity to them – Jim and Tom were bound together in bonds of existential struggle. Moreover, far more likely than not, they also shared religion. They were not just two “friends” who happen to like the same movies, video games, or craft beers. The success or failure that they encountered together – in farming, hunting, or warfare – was a matter of critical importance.
Interestingly, even computers have followed this trend of increasing individualization. At the dawn of computers, computing was communal. Not anymore. Most of your computing difficulties are handled, not by living and breathing acquaintances, but by text- and video-tutorials recommended to you by a search engine.
Again, I’m not even trying to catalog all the ways in which humankind has lost social proximity and cohesiveness because of tech. You can take these three quick examples that I pulled off the top of my head and expand from there. I will go so far as to say that despite the “advancements” in communications and networking that have occurred since the beginning of the industrial age, I am firmly convinced that the net change in the random individual’s quality of social life has been negative. For support of this claim, I just point to societies which have had little or no “development” in this area and look at the scientific work that has been done among them to show that they suffer far, far less from loneliness, depression, anxiety, etc.
Kaczynski points out that the word “friend” is a designation with decreasing meaning – “friends” are not comrades who brave existential threats together, but mutual entertainers, seekers of compatible “fun”. It is interesting to me that many languages provide distinctions between friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. In Russian and Polish, languages I am conversant in, these distinctions are very much alive and well and even insisted upon, but here in the West few people bother with any such distinctions, although the English lexicon certainly makes them just as available as the Slavic ones. Here in the West, practically any non-adversary you’ve known for a while is called “friend”. (Further testimony to this confusion can be adduced from the recent emergence of the term “frenemy”.) Everybody is your “friend” yet everybody is so lonely… Here is a theory of mine: in any given language culture, the said distinctions between friend, colleague, and acquaintance, lose their currency once that culture has become economically decadent.
I remember listening to an author being interviewed several years ago, he or she – I don’t remember that detail – was describing their work in psychiatry, treating veterans who had come back to the US after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. This psychiatrist maintained that while the hardships of war certainly had a share in the blame for these veterans’ trauma, the worst trauma came from these men having tasted of real camaraderie for once in their lives – working in tight, highly skilled cooperation in order to cheat death and slaughter enemies – only to eventually disband and come back to a world of stultifying safety, comfort, and alienation.
Finding real friendship in our industrialized and affluent society is quite an undertaking. I suggest that one very good avenue is to find people who understand exactly these problems of modernity which we face and collaborate. Laboring together for something very important, for something of existential importance – and clearly, extricating humankind from modernity and industrialism qualifies – is what makes for real friendship. It isn’t based upon the vapid, shallow things – the shared entertainment preferences as observed above. Even politics is relatively low in importance here – at least in the following sense: The vast majority of “consumer-level” politics is just a sloppy attempt at trying to react to problems that flow entirely from modernity. Of course, I realize that a sliver of the population – myself included – is actually interested in the philosophical and cultural foundations that give rise to theoretical politics, but most people are not, notwithstanding their sometimes enthusiastic involvement in political activities. Most people “involved” in politics and activism are clearly bewildered by an enfranchisement that has recently, and most unfortunately, been granted to them – granted not so much by the ruling class as by evolving technology(!) – and they struggle to come to terms with it. They don’t know what they are lashing out against. Many of these leftist wackos would be reformed into tolerable-enough people if they had to labor for basic subsistence. Years ago, I used to occasionally go dumpster diving for groceries with somebody whose political views were diametrically opposed to mine. We just happened to both appreciate free organic food and be on very tight budgets. Moreover, we both had young children and our wives frequently helped one another in very practical matters. Navigating practical difficulties and adventuring for sustenance connect people. This is exactly what I have been getting at in the preceding half-dozen paragraphs!
When the Non-Electric Life (the “NEL” hereafter) comes back, politics, as we now know it, will be utterly shattered. Your facebook “friends” who live hundreds or thousands of miles away, will be far beyond the horizon of your real life. You will have a lot of pressing things you will need to accomplish. Yes, it sounds daunting, but challenging existential work is the wellspring of meaningful relationships, healthy self-esteem, and overall mental and physical health. This is not at all some sort of conjecture – it is simply the facts regarding our nature as formed by an evolutionary past incomparably lengthier than this tiny industrial aberration we currently find ourselves in.