Technology and Its Discontents: Alienation

As the industrial age took hold in the late 17th and early 18th centuries and began its saturation of the globe, a curious phenomenon began to take place. People who had once labored for themselves – doing what they needed to do to support themselves, their families, and their communities – began laboring for others. They quit their simpler lives and moved to bigger towns, then cities, seeking and finding employment in factories, assembly lines, and sweatshops, laboring to produce things over which they had no ownership. The logical outcome of a capitalist world system began to spread and solidify, requiring that people work for others to support themselves, but have no ownership of the fruits of their labor. Yes, these laborers were paid for their work, but unlike when people engaged in farming, hunting, small trades such as blacksmithing, horseshoeing, wheel-wrighting, candle and soap making, carpentry, and all the simple but vital labors for which people could once get paid, the only thing this new class of laborer owned was themselves. All they could sell was their labor.

This is the microcosm of what is called industrial alienation. It’s what happens when all people can sell is themselves, and they have no ownership of the means of production. They become a commodity, no different than the raw materials used in manufacturing the things they are paid to make. In the modern world system of capitalism, most people can only sell themselves for the money they need to support themselves and survive. To an enormous extent in the Western industrialized world, this has meant that nearly everybody has forgotten how to survive in the way our ancestors did – by knowing actually how to find and produce food and shelter. Labor has become so extraordinarily specialized in this brave new world that most people no longer have any connection with the basics of survival. Even worse, we have become alienated not just from what we do, but from our very purpose for living. Why are we here? What is the point? Do I even matter? These are not questions asked in cultures where people are still able to support themselves with the knowledge of actual, physical, animal survival. That, itself, is the point: survival. In the face of securing it for yourself and your group, there is no need, no room, for existential questions. Those questions are created by alienation.

This is a winding road to some thoughts about technology. Humans have always sought to answer the basic question of why we are here, probably since the dawn of the species, and have found a variety of answers (often in the supernatural and religion). Now, though, I think technology is filling the hole of our alienation. Specifically, we are filling our existential emptiness with social media. Posting, Tweeting, sharing, Instagramming – they all provide a sense that we matter. They give us a way to be acknowledged (or so we think) by others. They remind us: I exist. The urge, the compulsion, is so strong that we will risk our relationships, our jobs, our educations, our safety or even our lives to fulfill it by doing all those things while driving, or walking, or cycling, or eating, or watching TV, or at the movies, at work, at school, at a football game, at a wedding, a funeral, anytime, everywhere. Yesterday I could have mowed down a woman glued to her phone, scrolling endlessly, as she walked obliviously down the center aisle of a parking lot. I have sat with friends while they pretend to be engaging with me, but they are staring, staring, staring at the phone. I have been accosted with pictures, videos, websites, texts that the other person insisted I see. And, I have done most of those things myself. I understand.

Humans are extraordinarily social primates. It is no surprise to me at all that social media has exploded into a frenzy of self-referential attention seeking. Humans are also status-seeking animals, and the feedback we crave from our social sharing is highly addictive. It is a constant lure for us to try to elevate or affirm our status amongst our peers. But as with anything, there can be too much. Just as the buzz of alcohol can make us feel attractive, funny, and smart, so can the buzz of our relentless technological distractions make us feel noticed, important, and liked (if not loved). But the alcohol buzz wears off, and so does the brief high we receive from seeing who has responded to our online presence. Alcohol can become an addiction, and so can technology. It is not a good way to fill the hole left by our alienation.

I am not immune to the lure of technology, but I am thinking deeply about it and making some decisions about how much I am willing to let it intrude upon my life. I understand that there are also positive aspects to our use of phones and computers, et al (for example, the fact that I can write and share these thoughts). But at the moment I am deeply uneasy, and I am making a conscious effort to concentrate on the world outside the screens.

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