Why do human societies get formed at the outset? The entire construct of society is based on the natural phenomenon of interdependence. Societies happen because people need one another. The present postindustrial society began to implode in perfect Baudrillardian fashion at such time as human interdependence started to become obsolete, perhaps as a consequence of it.

Baudrillard Was Here
Photo: “Jean Baudrillard Was Here,” left by US soldiers in Iraq, 2003

Dr. Jean Twenge, cyberpsychologist and mother of post-millennials, notes a sudden downward shift in the unmediated human interactions of post-millennials (the generation that followed the Millennials) beginning after 2009, immediately after the mass appearance of smartphones.[1] This post-2009 period also coincided in time with the mass effect of the Great Recession. Together the smartphones and the structural economic correction may have been enough to implode the society, pushing it over the Great Tipping Point.

Postindustrial humans, as they stopped needing one another, also stopped trusting each other. Studies are finding that social trust in general has gradually reached an all time low and headed in a continuing downward direction.[2] Individuals today have need only for what the system provides, yet at the same time, they also distrust it. There is interdependence amongst systems, which need one another to function, but since systems are not sentient, trust, along with most all other human values, becomes irrelevant.

It was easy to believe, upon entering the 21st century, that humanity was entering an age in which the real-world human environment would rise to new and elevated levels, and that it would be complemented, but not replaced, by a simulated Internet environment built to serve it. In such a world, humans would continue to enjoy mutual interdependence, whether it be on a global level (left-wing), a strictly national level (right-wing), or a combination of both (political center). Real-world social context (society) would still exist, allowing people to retain their natural ability to interact freely with one another in real world settings, spontaneously and in real time. What they would not have, as they have had throughout history, is the ability to step on one another’s independent rights and dignity, either individually or in groups. That was supposed to be the improvement on 20th century society. For a long time, it appeared that postindustrial society was headed in this direction. Not any more.

This was to be the primary contrast between cultures free and unfree, primitive and advanced. In some parts of the world, for instance, some individuals still find themselves dependent on their fellow humans in ways that inhibits, even suffocates, their personal freedom. This is as a result of cultural and societal norms that place them into a role, usually based on ascribed characteristics (e.g., race, gender) with which some members of the class might not identify, and whose duties they do not want to have to fulfill. They are compelled to fulfill them, even devote their entire lives to them, either due to unjust laws or cultural expectations; this inevitably results in the buildup of resentment and the experience of injustice. Two excellent examples are slavery in America and gender roles in Saudi Arabia. In neither of these cases do individuals have any choice about the particular envelope, or human environmental structure, in which they live. This way of life can be very dehumanizing for the humans who are unfortunate enough to be stuck in them.

In the advanced postindustrial world, at least in theory, no one is forced by anyone else into any kind of role. Groups of humans are no longer able to enforce their particular cultural or social mores on their fellows. This is, again in theory, mostly true at the mass level, except in cases where a weak individual accepts subjugation to the whims of a stronger one for whatever reason, which is almost never in that person’s best interest. The reality, however, is that as a whole, the system is trying to force all of mass humanity into a single role for which it is fundamentally unfit: that of the “consumer.” This is equally dehumanizing, but being that these are posthuman times, dehumanization is able to pass itself off in subtle ways as being a good thing, broadly acceptable at the very least.

Does it mean that postindustrial humanity is free, just because humans have been freed from one another? The truth is that they are not free from the people who stand at the top of the system, who mediate their rule over the rest of the population through the machines, algorithms, and indifferent bureaucracies that they build to keep them in a state of subtle subjugation. The system’s accelerating automation of human affairs has created a directionality in which a human being could soon be able to live his or her entire life without having to ever deal directly with another member of his or her own species.

Such a hypothetical person might soon be able to spend his or her entire life online interacting with avatars or Facebook profiles, real and unreal, playing video games, while providing for his or her material needs solely through interactions with machine interfaces. These would include sex robots, which will soon become available as a stand-in for the human acts of dating and reproduction, obviating the need even for intimate human contact. This hypothetical person of the future could, in every way that matters, be categorized as a posthuman, living a posthuman existence.

If this gradual deprecation of human interdependence spells a new and more enlightened kind of freedom, then why do so many people feel that something is wrong? Why have so many of them landed in the Uncanny Valley, and why are so many from both ends of the political spectrum railing, inside their simulated enclosures, against the system? What about all the mass shootings and suicides happening in the real world, particularly among the post-millennials? These are but a few of the symptoms of the systemic changes that have already occurred. Just because the mass public can’t identify its causes – note, for example, the plethora of conspiracy theories – doesn’t mean that all of them aren’t intensively feeling, and sometimes acting out on, its effects.

The best explanation for the loss of interdependence we have seen, and the implosion of society that follows logically from it, is that people have been increasingly made to live in subjugation to a system that has aggressively interposed itself between every human being and every other. It is almost analogous to the presence of dark matter in the cosmos that is driving galaxies farther apart in an accelerating fashion.

Another great metaphor, written about for decades by a great number of philosophers, is the Panopticon, a circular prison setup originally designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Applying it to the present discussion, it applies as follows: every individual exists in practice by himself in his or her own silo, or highly customized virtual encasement, such that every person is visible in his or her smallest details to every other. The people are even more transparent to the system, which is opaque: it looks down on, and through, all of them as if through a one-way mirror, from its watchtower at the center of the circle.

 

panopticon

 

Imagine for a moment a colony of bees being kept in this manner by a human being (who would by any definition have to be rather sadistic). Each individual bee would be given whatever it needed to survive for its natural lifetime by the human master at the center. It would be given access to simulated flowers, simulated wind-breezes, and simulated versions of its fellow bees. The bees might even “think” they were receiving all that they required to live out their life as bees, because their bee-brains would make them feel as if the simulations were real, buffeted by their chemical reward systems. While the bees would still exist individually, they would no longer be able to survive as a colony under these conditions. They would exist, but they would fail to thrive.

A bee needs to be in a real-world bee colony to exist as a bee, and a human needs to be in a real-world human society to exist as a human. The problem of postindustrial human society is that, like the imaginary bee colony, it is failing to thrive. This is because its human elements are being deprecated by those who are building and controlling the virtual environments they are being brought into.

Many people understand this intuitively, all the while latching onto the simulated environments as the only available grounding to capture that essence of what it means to belong to a “society.” Yet at the same time, they perceive correctly that, in the real world, they are no longer “citizens” (active participants in an interhuman social contract), but rather “denizens” (residents of a geographical jurisdiction).

Human beings are being steered in a large-scale direction that is out of step with human values of any kind, whether they be left, right, center, or apathetic in political terms. They are being increasingly expected to live in a posthuman environment, a mental envelope or way of being in which Sherry Turkle would say they are existing Alone Together.[3] While most humans might not want to live in subjugation to other humans, this doesn’t mean they would be able to thrive any better at the mercy of a system that appears to be so keenly intent on pushing them apart from one another.

Posthumanism sterilizes and sanitizes all that it touches. A true posthumanist might respond by saying that its systems protect irrational humans from one another. After all, postindustrial humans don’t trust each other, but that is only because the societal framework humans once had to build and sustain their mutual trust has itself been deprecated. The deed has indeed been done. The full-spectrum enclosure or immersion of the greater mass of humanity inside these corporate-owned simulated worlds, or custom-made glass cages, today serves mainly to prevent systemic chaos from breaking out in the aftermath of societal implosion. If we are really being honest with ourselves.

WORKS CITED

[1] Dr. Jean Twenge, IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Atria Books, 2017).

[2] Regarding trust in one another, see the The Associated Press-GfK Poll of October 3-7, 2013. Regarding trust in system institutions, see the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report. Note especially the steep decline of trust in the United States relative to the rest of the world in just one year on the part of both the informed and uninformed publics, on page 7 of the report.

[3] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

Societal implosion and the deprecation of human interdependence