Over 30 years ago I submitted, what I thought was an amusing piece, for the British Psychology Society’s in-house magazine, which invited witty articles for its back pages. The essence of my essay was that psychologists were drifting far away from direct contact with actual people. This was being caused through issues such as explorations of computer models of the brain, ethical committee challenges of what was allowed for research with humans and the emerging awareness of possible abuses of the client therapist relationship. I suggested that the consequence of all this was that there was a new generation of psychologists who would consider unmediated contact with another person as something dangerous and even alien. The editor dismissed my contribution saying he did not think it was funny.
The predigital age in which that piece was written means I can’t find a copy of what I wrote to prove to the world how prescient it was! I had not thought that pandemics and climate change would be the agents that eventually did drive us apart. But their combined consequences are producing exactly the alienating isolation that I had foretold. Other people are now a danger to be avoided. Travelling to meet other people is a perilous challenge to the environment.
All of these alienating processes are, of course, being magnified by the curiously co-incidental rapid development of so many different forms of online interaction. This is having deleterious consequences on natural social interactions. Genuine face-to-face transactions, with all the possibilities they allow for subtle cues and productive feedback loops, are giving way to the bare bones of computer-screen mediated interactions. Partners are divorced because they are no longer ‘liked’ on Facebook. Parents only know about the activities of their children by ‘following’ them on Instagram. Children’s habits of shouting insults at their ‘Virtual Personal Assistant’ (which is inevitably female!) risk being carried over to any flesh and blood helper. It can be no accident that the endemic of abuse that some boys perpetrate on girls is fed by a diet of distant, online interactions with female actors who are shaped to the boys’ uninhibited fantasies.
Sartre’s famous comment in his play Huis Clos (No Exit) that ‘Hell is Other People’ takes on further meanings in this alienated world. It is not just our awareness that our identity is defined by our interaction with others to the extent that we cannot change it, but that the possibility of negotiating any such changes is severely limited by the risks of direct contact with others. Our identity is further taken out of our control by the miasma of internet communications. Working From Home is just one powerful example of how the mixture of forces driving people to work at their kitchen tables is turning them into work objects not so different from those ridiculed in early 20th century films such as Chaplin’s Modern Times or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. But now instead of being harnessed to a machine, or drudging along with a demoralized workforce, employees are images on a manager’s computer monitor. As the remarkable novelist Dave Eggers explores in his latest book, The Every, the next step, already happening in some organizations, is for total surveillance of those who work for them. The workforce become little more than productive images.
The dystopian paradox comes into view of a world destroyed by overuse of natural resources and consequent climate change, in which those who survive are driven into isolated confinement. The Other becomes a virtual object. Climate protesters are to be lauded not just because of the importance of their mission be because they protest together — in person.