Sarah Jamieson is a metro office worker who aspires to be a writer. She’s 24, slightly overweight, but knows she’s attractive because John at the front desk keeps ogling her chest. Sarah isn’t dating, though, because work is stressful and the hours are long and it’s just too damned hard to find time to go out. The last guy Brian was a jerk focused on unbuttoning her blouse, and Match.com is for losers — so a break is in order. Each evening after taking the G train home she cooks a microwave dinner in her apartment over a Brooklyn grocery, pours a glass of white wine, and retires to a wooden desk, a gift from her grandmother, to write a post for her blog AGirlWithoutAHammock.com. While Sarah types, her Mac’s TweetDeck program flashes updates from online friends every 15 seconds or so — tidbits such as “RT @johnhenry57 Do you remember the first time you fell in love?” — and she feels the warmth of human connection, of belonging to a tribe, of knowing others who know her needs. John Henry lives in Britain, she thinks, unsure and too tired to click to his bio. She pecks out a final sentence, hits Publish Post, tells herself she’ll call her mother tomorrow, and goes to bed.
That story is fiction.
The reality is closer: Many people live two lives, one with a lover or cat at home and another far away in a fictitious corporate environment, a battle of spreadsheets for entities that exist only in legal documents with surnames such as Inc. or LLC, in small rooms under fluorescent tubes far from the sun. Hours there are traded for numbers, no more than ones and zeros, that flow like blood into electronic scoring tables called bank accounts, and then can be transferred for goods, food and shelter. Perhaps stunned by the fake ambience of math, these people take recess in online games that pretend to connect to other people, with scoring mechanisms telling them they are growing more popular.
This story is real.
How did our world splinter in two — a home life with flesh and blood, and a corporate matrix populated by artificial-numbered social reality? If veal is disdained by some who would never eat a calf kept in a small bin, not allowed to roam free, trapped indoors for life; then who would eat you? In the United States, 9 in 10 people commute to work by car, spending a collective 3.7 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, only to arrive at job sites that require 9 hours or more of input into devices that lead to numbers in banks. If humans are social creatures, driven by sexual urges to procreate and parental desires to protect our young, how did we mortgage our lust-and-love connections to spend so much time in artificial environs?
Why is that which is closest to our bodies now furthest from our souls?
Social scientist Geoffrey Miller posed in Spent that the world did not have to end up like this; rather, it was series of unforeseen inventions, some helpful — such as trading markets or artificial currency — that allowed us to build and buy self-pleasuring items such as tickets to Tori Amos concerts or Hummers with poor turning radiuses. Unfortunately, Miller suggested, these inventions pushed us away from the bucolic values that once kept tribes cohesive and love close at hand.
Yes, you own a shiny iPod that can pump emotional music into your brain to bathe you in warmth, but you can’t hug your wife or kids at 3 p.m. while flying to Dallas or typing downtown. Technology has expanded our need set; we can fill our lives with near-perfect entertainment tools, the equivalent of 300 plays running concurrently in any hour on our TVs, pre-cooked meals of any flavor, voice transmissions around the globe … and yet most of this time is disconnected from the children who make us laugh or lover who brings us pleasure.
Is this too negative? Look around on the highway in the morning, at the cars crowding you, each with only one person inside its steel box. We have mortgaged our lives, and the answer lies in our drive for loyalty, for the stability of people or places or things that we can count on that will do us no harm. We crave predictability, because it helped our ancestors survive. The best way to predict the future is to find environments that have repeatable events driven by loyal people we trust. As environments have become more artificial, they’ve also improved in stability — and we find that loyalty pleasing.
Consider what loyalty is. Psychology has defined three aspects of faithfulness: emotional attachment (affective), perceived switching costs (continuance), and feelings of obligation (normative). Fear of switching and feelings of obligation are two potential motives for our inertia in staying in jobs, in living the same commute, in not fleeing the business world to go build sea-shell necklaces on a beach in Mexico. The false thrill of numbers in a bank have given us 2 of the 3 loyalty mechanisms we need to stay put in evolving society — we fear switching, and we’re obligated to go on.
But what of the other: emotional attachment? The affective aspect of loyalty is harder to fulfill, because it resorts to such funny stuff as novelty, humor, friendship, compassion and love. You felt this as a child with your mother, and perhaps when dating as a teen or falling for your spouse, the incredible drive to stay forever with another being who is filling your emotional needs. Emotion is the strongest impulse for loyalty, for going on one path and neglecting all others.
About 15 years ago, technology began filling our loyalty gap.
Technology today has accelerated our fake relationships, the reinforcement of stability, of loyal beings who will give us what we need. Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, email (yes), texting, video-sharing, or Flickr all allow us to connect with others who seem to love us. Of course, they don’t, because love requires commitment and true understanding, but technology appeases those flaws by allowing each user to set up self-filters to screen the content most likely to simulate affection. Twitter brilliantly imposed a gaming-psychology device, a number of “followers” at the upper right that each user can track to see how many connections he or she has, a proxy for requited emotion. Facebook has taken another approach, installing an EdgeRank algorithm that pushes only updates from friends it deems interesting into your stream (based on how often you communicate with them, how many others have commented on the post, and how recent it was). The result is a warm flow of material that seems addressed to you by others who care, each item surrounded by popular comments showing a community of interest.
You are embraced by others who love the concept of you.
Yes, this sounds dark. Grave. Abysmal. But consider the deeper question: if we have lived for 500 or so years trading fictitious currency as a sign for the value of goods, instead of swapping real grain and furs, has the new set of follower numbers and social content that emulate real relationships provided an even more compelling fiction, which will further remove us from the real world in our lives? Perhaps that view is wrong. Perhaps you, reading this, think you have your reality under control, that the emerging smart phones and tablets and social network apps are simple extensions of your communication, just as eyeglasses help you see and sneakers ease the pain of your run.
Maybe there is no seismic shift away from physical, flesh-touching, semen-and-tear-and-Band-Aid- stained reality at all. The glowing screens around us are only tools, not encroaching windows ensnaring us in false worlds. We’ll think of that as we turn off this computer and go kiss our kids in bed.