Isolation, loneliness, anxiety and alienation are trending worldwide. They feed on themselves to breed the anti-social reactions of mistrust, hostility and depression, and thus create yet more isolation. That feedback loop makes isolation structurally self-reinforcing, which is the key scary feature of a spreading epidemic. Hence, a global isolation epidemic, possibly with fascism and terrorism, might be around the corner.
Now consider gazelles. Herding animals, they spend almost all their time feeding, jostling neighbors, locking horns, sleeping and mating. They evolved for reciprocal, autonomous neuromechanical interaction. Their nervous systems need those vibratory reinforcement signals to regulate biorhythms and stay sane.
No wait! A white tail flashed! Gazelles leap, white tail up, white tail up, white tail up! Everyone sprint! Go! Go! Go! No time to wait! Alarm has sounded! Danger! Run!
That’s the gazelle version of broadcast media: fast, one-way, designed to catch attention, distract, motivate. That is, to motivate alarm, fear, urgency and hatred — quick-response reactions. Broadcast doesn’t motivate bonding, affection and love, but the opposite.
That’s because it can’t. Bonding, affection and love need reciprocal, autonomous interaction, the one thing broadcast by definition cannot do. I’m sure that any isolated gazelle, if subjected to white-tail-flash signals on its eyeballs all day long, would be a nervous wreck.
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That’s how broadcast media work and don’t work. Broadcast of any form, even old-school newspapers and radio, suffer from the gazelle-tail problem of communicating emotions which isolate people far more efficiently than emotions which bring us closer. Furthermore, modern digital transmission focuses and concentrates the subtle social toxicity of broadcast thousandfold, by mixing in personal segmentation, instant delivery and monetization. Digital things do grab our attention very efficiently — on purpose.
To that overdose of white tail flash add the physical isolation so many people suffer nowadays, spending whole days seeing no human face in person and touching no human hand, even as they watch alarming news on screens. Consuming information that can only agitate you is bad enough; doing it alone is even worse. No wonder whole countries are filling up with hate and fear.
Human children weren’t born for this. We were born for kinship, companionship, snuggles, grappling, eye-gazing, grooming — and of course hunting, gathering and resting. That is, we need reciprocal autonomous neuromechanical interaction, just like the gazelles. If we get enough proximity and touch, enough live conversation and back rubs and hugs and arm links and scalp massages, then we’re happy again. That’s just how warm-blooded biology works.
The global epidemic of isolation results directly from the automated technologies of attention-harvesting, “social” media and online advertising. Like most outbreaks, isolation festers most severely at the epicenter — my boyhood home of Silicon Valley — where together and separately everyone typically eats meals in silence, hunched over phone; where no one has time to do anything, especially to talk; where people are always suspicious of “pitches”; where healthy, well-educated teenagers throw themselves in front of trains to die.
The tragedy is that homo sapiens, the most deeply and intricately loving and empathic species ever to walk planet Earth, is now among the most lonely, hateful and anxious, thanks entirely to technology that makes us look at and touch it instead of each other. And thanks to white-tail-flash fear and anger, broadcast tech acts like an enchanted window that, by transmitting mostly awfulness, makes everyone seem awful and worth avoiding.
Fortunately, the cure is close, at hand.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.