Two recent movies comment on a disturbing direction we seem to be traveling in American culture. Over the past few decades, communication technology- notably the internet and smart phones –has made it more possible than ever for Americans to be in touch with one another, and yet, somehow, many people are more disconnected than ever.
In the movie Her, a man (Joaquin Phoenix) has a romance with a computer operating system. The operating system has no physical presence. It’s not human, just a disembodied voice (Scarlett Johansson), yet he connects with it passionately. The movie makes an interesting point, that the core of interpersonal relationships is communication, that even without touch, or sex (they have a form of sex, sort of like phone sex, a poor substitute for the real thing) or a face and body, romance can still flourish. There are, of course, certain real advantages to such a romance. She’s available all the time, never sick, or tired, or sleeping. She doesn’t age and she never dies. She’s whip smart and socially adept. In the ways that matter most, she’s just about the perfect companion.
That’s a little scary. Humans have been bonding with other humans for eons now. Those relationships have always been the center of our lives. But now, as Her predicts, we may be moving toward relating more to media than we do to each other.
The other movie, Don Jon, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a man who’s had a lot of success getting a lot of women into his bed. But over time, he comes to prefer porn over actual women for sexual release. He makes arguments that porn is preferable. It’s less work, always there, never unwilling. You can find and enjoy every fetish imaginable. You need absolutely no social skills to get sex. You don’t even have to leave the house. All you need is a computer and an internet connection.
Both these movies explore the same theme, that media is now capable of competing successfully for the most important parts of our lives. In the past, the idea that a machine could displace other people for these needs would be the stuff of science fiction. But it’s rapidly moving from science fiction to science fact.
In the span of about six decades, since television became ubiquitous in the 1950s, we’ve been increasingly abandoning each other and turning to media for entertainment, information, companionship and gratification. During that same period we’ve seen a decline in marriage, the traditional family, friendship, group activity, and dating. Maybe that correlation is not a coincidence. Maybe as our media consumption has grown, it has eaten away at our social lives. Maybe before many more decades, media will be our dominant life partner and other people will play only a small role in our lives. If that happens, it will be a major shift in human lifestyle.
Some time ago, I posted a blog about what life was like in a small Arkansas community in the late 1800s. I had read the diary of a woman who lived near a small farming town and what struck me was how connected the community of neighbors was. Not a day went by that they didn’t go visit each other, or have visitors in their home, or both. Contact with other humans was not only the heartblood of their lives, it was also a support system. They shared their food, their labor, helped each other out in every way you can think of, cared for each other from the cradle to the grave, and entertained each other. Life was almost entirely about your connection with the people around you, family, friends, and neighbors.
We’ve pretty much lost that now. I know lots of people who don’t have any friends. They’re distant from their relatives. These days, it’s not unusual for parents to lead separate, insulated lives from their own children. Lots of people who have lived in the same place for years don’t know their neighbors.
Sure, today people have Facebook friends, and a bunch of numbers in their smart phone, and lots of followers on Twitter, but, really, how close are they to those people? They may share cat videos, and selfies, and inspirational quotes, but when their cars break down, they call AAA.
It’s a new era. People are out, media is in. How will it all work out in the long run? Who knows? We’re headed into uncharted territory, all racing headlong somewhere we’ve never been before.