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The Uncanny Digital Valley

Phil Eiger Newmann, Login, Logout, 2020.

1,389 words

Back in the year 2000 — before the advent of smartphones and the existence of social media in any significant sense beyond a humble smattering of BBS message boards — I and the other convicts at Oregon State Penitentiary caught wind of a new super-max prison they were building in the state’s remote eastern regions.

The primary mode of punishment at this new facility was sensory deprivation. You could receive visitors, but they’d be in another room at the prison, and you’d only interact with them via a video screen. You could receive mail, but you weren’t allowed to touch it — again, they’d show it to you on a screen.

We were horrified in unison. What sort of sadistic psychopath came up with this scheme? We’d all endured prison, for fuck’s sake, and it’s fair to assume most of us had suffered hard knocks since childhood. But this sounded cruel and unusual, even to us.

Twenty years later, it’s how most people interact — onscreen rather than in person. The whole world is trapped in that high-surveillance sensory-deprived super-max panopticon and doesn’t even realize it, much less seem troubled by it.

When I got divorced eight years ago and walked blindly into a social blizzard seeking comfort, I made the acquaintance of a blue-eyed girl from Indianapolis, which is 600 miles from where I live in Georgia. We had an intense and tumultuous relationship lasting twenty months. Sometimes I’d fly to Indianapolis, sometimes she’d fly to Atlanta, and sometimes we’d drive and meet one another halfway. As the romance crumbled, I tried to tally exactly how much time we’d spent in one another’s physical presence. All told, we’d only spent about a month in circumstances where we were close enough to touch one another.

This realization hit me like a brick to the head. “What the fuck WAS that, then?” I’d wonder. I thought I’d been in love, but most of the time I’d been playing a video game.

Social media has achieved what seemed impossible — we are simultaneously more connected than ever yet more isolated from one another in all the most meaningful senses.

The term “uncanny valley” is used in robotics to describe the natural waves of revulsion that roll over humans who observe a cyborg that appears to be almost entirely human but is somehow rightly perceived to be at least partially artificial. But I don’t think evolution has prepared the human brain for a situation where someone can insult you to your face but you can’t smack them in the face because the grinning face that’s insulting you is merely a simulacrum on a glass screen.

For at least a generation I’ve been publicly suspicious of people who rely too much on pop culture. If great art is supposed to accomplish anything, it’s to dole out wisdom for how to navigate and enjoy life. It’s NOT supposed to be a refuge whereby you escape life. But try telling that to some unemployed masturbator who lives in squalor while obsessing over what went wrong with the Star Wars franchise.

When the riots first hit Atlanta in June over some dusky nutmeg with a long rap sheet who resisted arrest outside a Wendy’s, snatched a cop’s Taser, and then got shot after firing the Taser at him, I noticed one Discord server comment to the tune of, “Niggas out actin’ like it’s GTA [Grand Theft Auto — it’s a video game if you’re fortunate enough to be out of that virtual-reality loop].”

And then you have BreadTube streamers like this shithead claiming that some Right-wing narrative about street violence couldn’t possibly be true because he’s seen enough Marvel movies to know that people don’t act that way in real life.

So now we’re dealing with layers of nonreality — you have a new generation of “digital natives” who’ve never lived in a world without the internet and go online to interpret actual flesh-and-blood street violence through the fake lenses of video games and Hollywood movies. They don’t even know what’s real when it literally smacks them in the head. I imagine some of them, bleeding on the ground and slowly losing consciousness, thinking, “This is like that time Iron Man got attacked from behind in the second sequel. Can’t wait to post about it. . . .”

As one who places more faith in neurology to explain human behavior than I do in phantasms such as “sin” and “evil,” I did some digging on what imaging studies have concluded about the effects of being “extremely online” on the human brain. Here’s what the tests have shown thus far:

There’s also a wealth of research suggesting that overreliance on the internet for information impedes one’s “semantic memory,” i.e., the ability to recall facts. And it makes sense — who needs a brain when you can rely on that massive electro-brain?

So spending too much time online literally causes brain damage. No wonder so many of those whippersnappers born as “digital natives” seem to have the attention span of a flea and couldn’t argue their way out of a Ziploc bag.

Excessive online use also makes people socially retarded. In a 1991 book called The Saturated Self, Kenneth Gergen warned of technology leading to a state of “multiphrenia,” which one critic refers to as “a fragmented version of the self that is pulled in so many directions the individual would be lost.”

Licensed therapist Melody Bacon speaks of how social media leads parents to ignore real-world dangers for their children while they seek the temporary dopamine rush of a Facebook like:

In terms of relationships, it’s just one more thing that keeps people from being able to connect and be together without fighting for attention. I know of young mothers with little kids. I see them at the park, the kids are playing or trying to get attention and Mom’s on Facebook or doing something on her phone. They think they’re engaged with the outside world but they’re not. Children are drowning with their Mom and Dad sitting there on their smartphones. They have no idea how disconnected they are.

Psychologists, whose entire job is to connect their patients to the reality of their situation, point to terms such as “depersonalization” — the sense that the self is no longer quite real — and “derealization,” the sense that the world isn’t real, either. Social media achieves both for the price of one. Psychology Today quotes a student who takes online classes:

I feel like a strange copy of me is participating in a Zoom class, while another me is watching this from the side. It is like in a dream. As if I need to wake up to get myself back.

And now, with the lockdowns — which I doubt will ever end — we are all trapped in the world of nonreality. I believe this is by design, and I believe its purpose is to drive us all stark raving mad. They’re going to take away everything from us except the ability to yell at one another through digital screens from the comfort of our personal padded cells.

Welcome to the Brave New Fake World.

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29 Comments

  1. Stanley
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    How the hell did you find that Marvel movie guy?

    • Cy Spurrier
      Posted November 20, 2020 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      It was all over 4chan for weeks.

  2. Maple Curtain
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    “A meta-analysis of 41 studies concluded that ‘engaging in multi‐tasking was associated with significantly poorer overall cognitive performance, with a moderate‐to‐large effect size.’ ”

    Er, um, Jim.

    Run for the hills. You’ve just a whole lot of fat HR bitches extremely angry with that ‘sexist’ observation.

    Well, you would have if they could read, had any intellectual curiosity, or could put their fuckin’ phones down for a second.

  3. Dr.C. Fhandrich
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Great article Jim. I mean great and not just for its style. It says way way more than the 1389 words it consists of. I kept reading it over and over and it brings up truths we live with today that the majority of people have probably never even considered, let alone become the slightest bit worried about.

  4. InDANapolis
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    Per usual, Mr. Goad is both teacher, and the classroom cut-up. Delivering the message with a entertaining prose that lands a like spitball to the temple and makes one take notice.
    Observations and insights here are spot on, and wholly disheartening. Our collective sustained and evolving lack of self-awareness sits in the passenger seat screaming encouragement to its institutionalized and inflated pseudo self-esteem, blind and dutifully driving a formerly engaged, and genuine humanity over the cliff.

  5. Nate Higgers
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    As the years roll on, my ability to form working relationships and keep up correspondence with peers does, indeed, seem like it is being exercised less and less. The way in which we use it is paramount, but golly, isn’t it easy to stare at a screen for hours at a time? The world is made surreal through this electronic window that we are all too eager to stare at. I suppose I could all tie this into a philocism if I hadn’t had my grey matter decline to the point of only vaguely grasping notions. Time to grind to level 250 in GTA Online, I guess

  6. Scott
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Here is a quote from the book Internet Addiction in Psychotherapy which explains why screens cannot replace real human contact: “A therapist explained why it is crucial to interact socially face-to-face, rather than online, by drawing on limbic resonance, a theory that has first been put forward by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon (2000).

    So limbic resonance is really the activation of the limbic system in two individuals who have a caring and loving relationship with one another. And inside that context of that relationship it stimulates the limbic regions of the brain that really allow for the regulation in both individuals, both physiologically and emotionally, and that’s called limbic resonance. Research is showing that the more time people spend online, the more depressed they become. ( …)

    This is my theory that limbic resonance really requires face to face interaction. We’re animals, and we need to see and hear and touch and smell each other, but that many people in that unconscious drive to connect with others try to do it online, but that the online experience even with Skype just doesn’t do it because it really does require the stimulation of the senses, more than just what you get with the screen. ( …)

    what happens is that people fail to develop the skills that they need to be successful face to face. They’ve been gaming and spending their time online and they have fallen way behind in terms of the development of those skills that would allow them to be successful and so it’s a vicious cycle. They’re driven more and more to stay on the Internet, try to meet their social needs that way. But I see it as basically analogous to, you know, a hungry person just eating sugar and eventually they’ll starve to death.”

  7. Vagrant Rightist
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    It is damaging.

    Now you have a situation with people stooped over their smartphones to read something dumb on Facebook or whatever. It’s a drug. It’s one of the great new social ills. It’s truly horrible. But as the world is now so monstrously ugly and value-inverted especially in the cities why would they want to look at reality in front of them? Obviously this tech is going hand in hand with the decay of real life.

    And this technology is getting more and more invasive, more intrusive and it has become self-rationalizing; it’s not trying to solve a problem anymore, it just ‘is’, and it furthers its own existence at the expense of human life and dignity.

  8. roo_ster
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Careful, Jim. You are teetering on the precipice of the hyperreality chasm. You see the chasm and you see the multitudes, face-in-screens, walking over the edge to their soul’s demise. One slip and you or I can take the pixelated plunge, too.

    The ghost of Jean Baudrillard is taking notes.

  9. James O'Meara
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    BreadTube guy: some Right-wing narrative about street violence couldn’t possibly be true because he’s seen enough Marvel movies to know that people don’t act that way in real life.

    Me: https://youtu.be/NIgfiSzCy1o

  10. Posted November 19, 2020 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    “I believe this is by design”

    The Virtual Option – our humane alternative to genocide. … If you accept the Virtual Option—always a voluntary decision, even if you have no other viable options – California will house, feed and care for you indefinitely. It will also provide you with a rich, fulfilling life offering every opportunity to obtain dignity, respect and even social status. However, this life will be a virtual life. In your real life, your freedom will be extremely restricted: to the point of imprisonment. You may even be sealed in a pod. …

    This is the Virtual Option: the translation of the underclass to cyberspace. All around the world, anywhere there is a slum with an XBox in it, the Virtual Option is taking shape.

    https://www.unqualified-reservations.org/2009/11/dire-problem-and-virtual-option/

  11. kitten on kitten
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    This is only the beggining. You think screens are bad? Wait until we have direct brain-machine interface and e will be able to interact with imulated life matrix-style.
    Wait until we will have AI advanced enough to hold conversation, give you the illusion of relationship. AI designed to cater to every emotional need, virtual reality to simulate any physical sensation, including sex.
    Social media, porn and current video game will be childs play compared to whats coming in few decades.

    • Phoenix
      Posted November 19, 2020 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Hope I’m dead by then..

    • Andrew Callinan
      Posted November 20, 2020 at 12:56 am | Permalink

      Yes indeed. We’re only at the ‘steam-engine stage’ of all this.

  12. Alexandra O.
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Taking in all the observations you have just detailed in the post, plus the fact that many colleges now do not require prospective ‘scholars’ applying for admission to take the SAT exams, it is no wonder that we cannot even look to ‘educated’ people to get us out of any of our serious dilemmas anymore.

    Another observation of mine, when I visited Oxford, England a year back, I remember standing on the corner of Beaumont and the main-drag, which I have forgotten the name of, with the Ashmolean Museum to one side, and the most glorious 5-star hotel to my other side, while watching students from some Asian country disgorge from a tour bus, phones in hand, consuming their rapt attention. No one was looking at the glorious buildings in front, beside and across the street from them. I guess they were looking up “What To See In Oxford”.

  13. Nova Rhodesia
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Hey. Some of us do have jobs you arrogant ass.

    (sometimes).

    Cheers

  14. Jim Goad
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Hey, tell it to someone who hasn’t had to work every day since he was 19.

    Can the anony-defensive please come up with some new material?

  15. Rhodok
    Posted November 19, 2020 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    Glad you joined CC.

  16. gbrlvv
    Posted November 20, 2020 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    I wonder if it’s just me, or if it’s indeed the case that Goad — according to himself a rock-solid misanthrope, someone born without the social gene, who loathes human company — views widespread social deprivation and the virtualization of relationships as if those were bad things.

    • Jim Goad
      Posted November 20, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      I never said I loathe human company. For the most part, I get along very, very well with people one-one-one, especially when they’re in my physical presence. I’m the guy at the supermarket who always has the cashiers laughing and the guy at the doctor’s office who has the nurses in stitches, pun intended. I was voted both “Class Clown” and “Class Wit” by a graduating high-school class of 955 students, so it’s not like I’m some grump devoid of social skills.

      I’d go insane without human contact. If I go for more than 12 hours without a woman, I’m howling at the moon. I also have a tiny circle of incredibly reliable, wise, and brilliant friends. I’d prefer if they all lived on my block instead of being scattered as far as the four winds, but that’s my bad luck.

      Regarding my “woman” problem, in 2019 I found a girl who looks like Sophia Loren and is noble beyond my comprehension. We got married on Valentine’s Day this year, right before the world ended.

      What I loathe are groups and group psychology. When people are in groups, a different brain takes over. Social media allows group psychology to metastasize, which only makes group behavior more toxic. I understand that most people enjoy moving in packs. But the pack-movers seem incapable of accepting that it’s simply not how I ever was, am, or ever will be.

      • gbrlvv
        Posted November 21, 2020 at 2:17 am | Permalink

        Didn’t suggest you had a “woman problem” at all. What I thought, from reading you for a few years, is much more that you had a human problem, but it seems that’s not quite the case either. Thank you for the reply and clarification.

        • Jim Goad
          Posted November 21, 2020 at 7:31 am | Permalink

          I was being unclear. Most people would probably think it’s a problem if you can’t go 12 hours without a woman in your life, especially the all-male packs of trad virgin incels who declare solemnly that women shouldn’t vote while giving one another back rubs, admiring one another’s biceps, and saying that anyone who isn’t in their 24/7 all-male video-game circle jerk is a fag.

          I’ve done fine without a sip of alcohol since April of 1982. Hasn’t been difficult at all. Never even been tempted, actually. And I see alcoholics as weak, destructive, and truly “degenerate.”

          If needing a woman in your life is a weakness, I plead guilty. But I feel tremendously fortunate that I found my version of an eternal fountain of whiskey.

      • Andrew Callinan
        Posted November 21, 2020 at 4:32 am | Permalink

        Bloody hell, Jim.
        When it comes to day-to-day social interactions with ‘real people’ out there in my community, compared to you, I’m a mixture of Dr Zachary Smith and his robot pal. I just can’t do it any more.
        Although, sometimes I do say something off-kilter to the check-out guys and gals and get a mixture of nothing, or an odd look.
        Have you seen Boyd Rice lately?
        Best regards from hot Brisbane, Queensland, Australia!
        A.C

  17. Mac
    Posted November 21, 2020 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    “claiming that some Right-wing narrative about street violence couldn’t possibly be true because he’s seen enough Marvel movies to know that people don’t act that way in real life.”

    I instinctively thought “wow, that’s so retarded that must be Vaush” and sure enough it’s him. He’s been getting so over the top lately I’m beginning to wonder if he’s actually just larping as a leftist lunatic.

  18. S L
    Posted November 21, 2020 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    From my research it looks like double the number of millennials are single as compared with the silent generation or boomers at the same age. Men always want sex/women, and women are the gatekeepers, so it seems millennial women are to blame for more people being single. I think it has something to do with the Internet causing reductions in cerebral gray matter in their brains. Gray matter is higher in women than in men, and it is lower in old people than in young people, so these girls are mentally more like old people and men than previous generations. Lesbians, unsurprisingly, have slightly less gray matter on average, and it seems liking men requires more gray matter and that perhaps these girls not having the right stuff in their heads is causing the singles epidemic. An interesting study would be to see if there is a correlation with women being single and spending time on the Internet and having less cerebral gray matter.

    As a millennial man, I must say that boomer women are easier to talk to. Some millennial girls are good talkers, but many are poor conversationalists, can’t deal with chance encounters, have poor attention spans, and can’t think outside the box or read between the lines. Finding pretty women is easy. Finding a smart pretty woman who likes you is nearly impossible.

  19. Jim Putey
    Posted November 22, 2020 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Good to see Jim Goad on here, I was getting a little bored on Takimag without my weekly fix of Goad. Takimag used to be my go to website for Goad and the letters to the editor which were the best part of the website. Now that they’ve gotten rid of both the things I liked. It’s like a desert menu without pies or ice cream. Now everything’s gluten free. I can’t survive without gluten. Goad’s like an extra dose of gluten. Bad for those who can’t digest it but great for those of us who can.

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