I have been reading a lot of Isaac Asimov lately. I am not sure if all lovers of science fiction would love Isaac Asimov, but if you are interested in the human condition I think Asimov would be your thing. His understanding of human nature is phenomenal and his writing of the future seems to me more of a commentary on who we are as a people and what we are capable of then attempt to be some sort of prognosticator of the future. To me that
is the best part of good science fiction and I am sure it is to many as well.
One of his books that really got me thinking was The Naked Sun which is part of his Robot Series. In it he paints a picture of a planet called Solaria that has been colonized by Earth and is similar in size to Earth but has only 20,000 people. The people are very spread out having vast estates that are similar in size to something like Delaware. In this future people have robots and especially on Solaria where the ratio is around 10,000 to 1 for every human. Robots do everything. Build all the houses, maintain the grounds, cook the food, and basically tend to every human need. It is a world without human contact, where even sex becomes mechanical and only for the purposes of breeding. And that breeding is only selective because they always maintain the population at exactly 20,000.
Earth on the other hand is crowded with everybody living in cities and all cities at populations of 10 million or more. While human touch is still a part of everyday life, there are many social conventions that act to keep people’s privacy intact. Not overly different from today’s city life really.
Both societies seemed very plausible in the way they developed and I started to think of how we might be trending in a direction of isolation whether it is an isolation in which we are surrounded by others or a physical isolation in which human contact in unnecessary or unwanted. We know from studies of anthropology that we started off in hunter-gatherer groups; a society in which we were dependent on each other for survival. Survival was a result of the coordination of each member’s skill set applied with extreme vigilance. As we have developed civilization, larger populations, and new technologies, life has essentially become easier for some of us, and quite a bit harder for a lot of other people. The disparity in standard of living makes the culture of the “haves” admirable to the “have nots”. It seems, at least in this country, that many spend a lot of time reducing the value of the poor, on whose backs our comfort is maintained. It seems to me though that the culture of the “haves” is not necessarily one to admire, and is perhaps not beneficial for our health.
In the house I grew up in, my parents knew most of the people on our street. Perhaps not well, but knew their names, and a few of our neighbors they did know well. I know there are some neighborhoods where people remain very close, but think there is a lot more distrust towards neighbors today than there was in the past. I know the names of two people on my block and that’s it. As I write this article to post it on my blog I am reminded that while it may touch the lives of others, perhaps many of them I will not meet. I will not shake their hands, not see their smile, not hear their laughter, not embrace in warmth and friendship. Like the people of Solaria a large percentage of my interactions are not face to face. Is it simply because these types of interactions are not part of the mental grammar in which I was raised or are we moving towards a world in which physical interaction is less and less necessary?
And the truth is that if I wanted I really don’t need to rely on anyone if I so chose to except for in very impersonal and indirect ways. I can still conduct
my business, get groceries, get a car fixed etc, but don’t really need to get to “know” any of them and certainly no need to touch them or for them to touch me. You can do most of your shopping on-line and have things brought to your door. Banking and paying bills can be done on-line. As a professor I could even be a solely on-line teacher. And while I would still be reliant on society, my need to actively engage in it is not necessary. Of course, that is not to say I couldn’t be a good person and give money to charities, I’d still be paying taxes, I may even be a fantastic teacher who can write well enough and give interesting exercises that will expand the minds of others. The question is, is that the kind of future we want to be. Clearly what I’ve outlined is a lot of personal choice, but it seems that this is a trend amongst those who are as privileged as me and worse yet it seems that this type of lifestyle is almost admired.
For those who do know me, you know I’m not a technophobe and I don’t think technology is evil, but I do think it is worth stopping and thinking about the lives we lead and whether we are going in a direction we want to be going, not only as an individual but as a species. Is it simply not part of our
mental grammar to be surrounded by millions, making cities a place of almost fighting against the idea of community due to sensory overload in comparison to smaller and more rural communities? Do we have specific social traits that come from millions of years of evolution such that we do ourselves harm as we become less and less reliant on the close proximity of our fellow man? Or do we simply adjust easily to the times and simply find happiness where we find it? What seems clear is that many of our prejudices and distrust comes from a lack of familiarity and empathy with struggles and hardships of others. In some ways the power of the internet and new technologies bring us so much closer in an informational way, but less so in a physical way. Does learning about someone’s struggle from a distance build the level of compassion necessary to help them in any meaningful way? Or is it something that I can just say I care about, disseminate the information to others and then move on to the next interesting tidbit of information.
If I had something important to say, I should be glad that it could so easily reach a million people or even more. But is it better to reach a million people without my smile, a friendly tone of voice and warm embrace? Or do I change the world more through the interaction with a few hundred people that I meet while volunteering at a soup kitchen? I guess Isaac Asimov’s writing made me worry that despite global warming the world might be getting colder. It made me pause and wonder whether we may be trending towards more separation and isolation and thus towards less empathy and more apathy.
For me I will keep working on it, try to find the right balance. I have now spent too much time in the digital world and I will now go spend time with the family. 🙂