April 19, 2019

The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity

“1.) RECENTLY MY SON visited a Holocaust Museum where a program called New Dimensions in Testimony provided a hologram of an Auschwitz survivor. The unreal man would answer any question the children asked about the horrors of history. The kids loved it because they could ask anything. “Do you hate the Germans?” “Do you still believe in God?” “What was the worst thing that happened?” My son explained that the students never would have been able to ask those questions of a real person because it would have been embarrassing. This is the angel of the future. It has no flesh, so you can be truly intimate with it.

2.) I am a hybrid, of the halfway generation, neither a digital nor an analog native. My intimate life has coincided, almost exactly, with the arrival of digital connectivity. My wife was born the same month that Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf published A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication describing the TCP/IP, which defined the connections that made the internet possible. I can remember the unpacking of the first personal computer in my family home, the eerie lizard-eye green of its primitive screen. I can remember the first email I sent, the first online form I filled out. Technology is the subject of nearly every collective memory I can recall: Where were you when you got your first smartphone? What was the first purchase you made on Amazon? Remember MySpace?

Since my boyhood, the rise of digital connectivity has transformed every human interaction, from buying a sandwich to anal sex. The period has coincided with a crisis of intimacy. A recent survey of 20,000 Americans found that almost half suffered from loneliness, which now qualifies as a chronic public health problem. Narcissism, a related condition, has been rising over 30 years of clinical studies and has become so widespread and so fundamental to all aspects of culture that the question is whether it can properly be identified as a pathology any longer. Social capital, in every form, is in steep decline. Political solidarity is diminishing and fragmentation of all kinds is rising. The borders of ourselves are closing. The borders of our countries are closing.

3.) Everybody knows that technology has changed us, on our most intimate levels. Nobody really wants to face the specifics of how. Technologists have a blind spot when it comes to their effects on intimacy. Since you can’t quantify it, what does it matter? The great analysts of human intimacy are equally blind when it comes to registering the subtle interruptions of the machines. Alice Munro’s short stories, widely considered the most intimate portraits of domestic life in the period between the 1970s and the 2010s (smack dab in the middle of the grand technological disruption), never mention a computer. It seems too silly, too negligible, a distraction from the real business of intimate life, which is family and sex. And there is another problem: if you mentioned a smartphone in a short story about intimate life, the subject of that story would be the smartphone. The technology would swallow all other meaning in fiction just as it does in real life.”

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