The Last Barrier

Technology marches on, until...

The human species is in an awkward place right now. We have technology, and it is steadily making us more powerful. However, technology is not neutral. It creates change, and the change it creates isn’t always change that we like. This puts us in an awkward position, because there is no single instance where it is practical to say “no” to more power, but if you always say “yes,” then you wind up undermining your reasons for acquiring that power in the first place. For example, if social media is meant to connect us all and make it easy to keep in touch with friends, but has the effect of corroding friendship, then we got a raw deal from our technology. But, again, notice the trap: there is no place, no single situational instance, where it is practical to say “no” to more power. How could you say “no” when asked if you’d like to have instant access to all of your friends, and be able to keep in touch with them at will? And yet, it is plausible that social media has exactly the opposite of its intended effect.

One place where this is painfully evident is in atomization. Each successive generation seems to be less collectivistic, more atomized, more alienated, and more isolated than the previous one. The Telegraph has it:

Young people are in danger of becoming alienated from their communities, with the pandemic contributing to an “epidemic of loneliness” among people under the age of 35, a think tank has said.

A report by Onward, a centre-right think tank, highlights a worrying decline in neighbourliness and a “collapse in community” among younger generations, adding that the problem was exacerbated over the last year due to the pandemic.

Through survey analysis and its own polling, Onward’s report, titled Age of Alienation, found that the interpersonal social networks of young adults between 18 and 34 years old appear to be narrowing.

Around one in five of 18 to 34-year-olds say they have one or no close friends, triple the number of people who said the same in 2011 and 2012. The think tank also found that historical trends were inverting, with older generations now typically having more close friends compared to younger groups.

That’s just one example. This isn’t a groundbreaking study, or a particularly surprising one. The smallest amount of internet research will uncover mountains of statistics showing the same thing: life is becoming less and less communitarian, and it’s making us miserable. I just typed “millennials fewer close friends” into Google and got results from Vox, YouGov, the New York Post, the Cut, the Guardian, and Vice, all saying the same thing: Millennials are the most isolated generation so far. It is shockingly easy to find pages upon pages of evidence that the younger generations are increasingly isolated. You practically can’t read anything about Millennials (or Gen Z) without bumping into statistics that confirm this.

Most of the analyses of this phenomenon focus on proximal causes. A lot of us blame it on social media. The Guardian article linked to above disagrees, claiming that it’s a cultural problem where we over-value career and work and under-value things like family and friendship. The Vox article I linked suggests that it may be the result of people spending too much time on the internet. Any of these guesses about proximal causes may be right or wrong. I’m not going to argue it one way or another.

The reason I’m not arguing one way or another is that I’m not interested in proximal causes. I’m interested in distal (root) causes. This isn’t a trend that began with Millennials, after all. In the 1950s, if you got a new car, everybody on the block would show up to take a look. By the time Generation X rolled around, that kind of community was long gone. The slow march of atomization was going on long before the advent of social media. If you poke into the historical record, you’ll probably see a few big trends underlying this: labor mobilization following the industrial revolution, an increase in people attending universities far from their place of birth, the advent of mass transit making it easy to move across the country (or world) for work, and so on. There have been seismic shifts in social organization that make the communities of yesteryear untenable, and a lonely millennial spending too much time on Twitter is a symptom of that. Why bother with the community you grew up in if you get a lucrative job offer to work on the other side of the planet? Who cares about your home town when you’re excited about college in another state or country? How is it even a sacrifice to move away from your family, when instant global communication keeps you in touch with them anyway?

(That last one is a trap, of course: physical proximity is not replaceable by means of cellphones and Facebook, although we like to pretend that it is.)

Underlying all of those trends, in turn, is this: instrumental rationality is essentially de-contextualizing. That sounds like some highfalutin jargon, but what I’m saying isn’t really that complicated. The point is that science and technology, in order to keep advancing, have to break things down into identical units that can be counted. This is called quantification. Chemistry quantifies things into moles and isotopes and so on; physics quantifies things into grams, into newtons and units of force and work; computer science turns everything into data stored in relational databases and analyses those. All of the tools we’ve invented to make life easier work this way. The catch, however, is that we get so wrapped up in our tools that we end up quantifying ourselves. For the last few centuries, society has been in the process of slowly becoming one big machine. Organic structures that do not respond well to quantification, such as communities and extended families, have simply ceased to exist. This quantification of every facet of human life manifests in capitalist societies as commodification, but would still occur in some other manner if we weren’t capitalist. Heidegger famously observed that the USA and USSR were “metaphysically the same” in their “dreary technological frenzy” and he wasn’t wrong. If neoliberalism alienates you with its commodification of everything, then socialism would alienate you just as much with its collectivization and five year plans.

Most of us know this on a gut level, and some of us resist consciously. If you look at what Millennials post on social media, or just talk to some of them in real life, you will notice that many of them have a common fantasy: that of acquiring a small amount of land with perhaps a dozen of their friends and setting up a community. The idea of homesteading, or just living together with one’s friends in pereptuity, is curiously common among Millennials. They typically don’t act on it because they don’t have the resources to do so, but it’s something that they all seem to want. Most of them don’t have a sophisticated analysis of how instrumental rationality has affected society over the past few centuries. What they do have is a vague sense that something is very wrong, and that the problem is rooted in use or misuse of technology.

I don’t claim to have the answer to all of this. I know that the answer is not primitivism, but I don’t know what we have to do in order to blunt the bad aspects of technology. What I can do is prognosticate: every organic structure that resists quantification has, so far, been eliminated when it became inconvenient for technological society to deal with. The final organic structure that resists quantification, the last barrier, is the human organism itself. There are only two possible outcomes: we get our technology under control, or we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of a misguided transhumanism. I’m optimistic enough to think that the former is more likely.