Our Own Naked Sun

By Daniel A. Kaufman

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In The Naked Sun (1957), Isaac Asimov imagines Solaria, a low-population world in which residents live on estates so large that one never encounters one’s neighbors in person. As robots are employed in virtually all manner of labor, the only human inhabitants of these estates are their owners. This contrasts with the previous, first installment of Asimov’s “Robot Novels,” The Caves of Steel (1954), which is set on an overpopulated Earth, where people dwell in hive-like underground cities and privacy is almost impossible to come by.

Unsurprisingly, the relative mores and norms of these two societies are very different. On the earth, elaborate rituals are imposed in shared spaces – and especially intimate ones, like washrooms and toilets – to maximize whatever tiny bits of privacy can be eked out of the overcrowded environment. On Solaria, residents consider it a serious breach of manners to appear at someone’s house or otherwise approach a person in the flesh, and find physical contact and especially sexual engagements repellant.

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The other day, my wife observed that the common practice of shaking hands has largely disappeared in the Age of Covid. She still isn’t used to it and finds herself offering hands to people only to get puzzled or even alarmed looks in response. You’re offering to shake my hand? When there’s a plague on?! I have to admit that I’m not getting used to it either, and I’m pretty sure that people happily shook hands with one another long before there were chemical sanitizers, antibiotics, anti-viral medications, vaccinations, or any modern medicine at all for that matter. Our current reaction is a choice – a conscious decision to adopt a new set of mores and norms – and increasingly, I’m wondering why so many of us are making it.

I said, “I’m wondering” and not “I’m surprised,” because I’m not. This was already happening well before Covid-19, when we collectively decided to engage in a civilization-wide social experiment in real time [using the entire population as test-subjects, including children], in which we radically altered the way in which people interact and communicate. Of course, I am talking about social media, “smart” phones, and information and communications technologies, and it’s quaint to remember how people used to worry about putting their kids in the hands of Looney Toons or Hanna Barbera for a few hours, in light of the fact that no one today appears to be concerned about handing them over to Apple or Google, 24/7.

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Humans are primates, and it’s well-understood that primates require social, physical contact in order to develop normally. That being the case, one would expect our living environments and arrangements and the norms governing both to reflect and serve this need. Certainly, we would not expect to see the near-universal adoption of forms of life and technologies and norms whose aim is to minimize and even eliminate any and every opportunity for in-the-flesh interaction. And yet, this is exactly what we’ve done. Imaginary worlds that were once presented to us in a spirit not just of speculation but of caution and warning are now places that we are trying to realize in real life.

Shopping through Amazon and other online retailers has significantly reduced the amount of time we spend in stores and markets, and automation has insured that what little remaining time we do spend in such places, there are fewer and fewer people working in them. Dating and “hookup” apps mean people seeking romantic encounters need never go to bars or nightclubs or any of the other places where one socializes with other people in person, while video conferencing technologies mean fewer and fewer people are going to workplaces, where they might interact with others, once again, in person. Add to this an entirely online social ecosystem – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. – and throw in a few years of pandemic-imposed isolation and masking, and you’ve created a solipsistic, Cartesian reality in which everyone is trapped inside his or her own consciousness and interacts with others and with the world almost exclusively through avatars and icons.

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Unsurprisingly, Naked-Sun-style mores and norms and psychopathologies have followed. The social and legal penalties for unsolicited touching have sprawled like Kudzu, and even unwanted or disliked looks are now policed. Looking people in the eyes has been “problematized” and is no longer treated as an indication of seriousness and good manners. Because avatars are entirely under the control of those to whom they belong in virtual space, one is now expected to accept and even genuflect before peoples’ personal ideations in the real world, no matter how bizarre or at odds with reality they may be. Personal insult and offense is treated as akin to a violent assault on the body. Sex has become such a field of potential social and legal landmines that when you add the body-dissociation that has resulted from spending so much of one’s life online, it’s no wonder young people are having so little of it. And having learned everything they know about sex from always-available, ubiquitous online pornography insures that what little sex they do have is exploitive and fetishistic and awful. The opposite of what youthful, unexperienced romance should be like.

In virtual reality, everything is endlessly malleable and reformable and changeable and customizable and self-selecting, and spending too much time there can cause a person to forget that this is not true in the world of matter and of flesh and blood. Worse, it may lead a person to attempt to carve the flesh-and-blood world into the image of the virtual one – to “customize and personalize” his or her material reality – which bears much of the responsibility for the mutually hostile, malicious, antipathetic civic and work environments we find ourselves in today. One can easily “cleanse” ones virtual spaces of unexpected or undesired or incongruous elements, so why not do the same in one’s material spaces?

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Capital will always seek to create a 0-labor environment. People, however, need to work – to be engaged in substantial, productive activity – for both material and psycho-“spiritual” reasons, which is one reason [among many] why it is madness to allow unbridled, unregulated markets to do whatever they like. Medicine will always try to produce 0-levels of illness and disease, yet people need to interact socially, in-person, so it’s crazy to allow the medical sector to entirely control our day-to-day activities. And companies selling online products and services will always want us to spend all of our time online – which as we’ve seen is terrible for us – so it’s insane to allow them to take over all of our modes of interaction, whether it be in communications, socializing or commerce.

As I walk through supermarkets and stores and see entirely automated checkouts; when I watch news features on drones taking over package- and mail-delivery; when I see young people so anxious and awkward and body-dissociated that they cannot look you in the face or tolerate a pat on the shoulder and who melt down if confronted with the slightest difficulty or opposition; when I talk to my daughter, who is almost twenty-one years old, and has yet to have a single, satisfying romantic experience, despite being a healthy, lovely, personable young woman; when I see little kids who have spent their entire childhoods thus far masked; all I can see is Asimov’s Naked Sun ahead of us. And all I can do is wonder why anyone in their right mind would want it.

8 comments

  1. A fantastic reflection Daniel – and a timely one.

    I have found myself thinking about my own circumstance recently and how I have not caught up with some friends – in person – for close to two years. Part of this has been Covid but I sense something else at play. Whereas before, we’d plan dinner dates every couple of months and talk regaulrly, now I barely see them even online. And I feel uncomfortable knowing that I’m as much to blame for not keeping those traditional lines of communication open.

    I have work commitments – of which I am working overtime routinely (I’m an ICU Nurse). Covid restrictions have come off and my kids sporting commitments have come back – every weekend presently – I’m finding that I am generally time poor outside of those commitments.

    I have stepped back from social media because I think it has become an excuse for people *not to* interact in person with one another. An occasional FB check-in is a shitty substitute for real friendship. I am as guilty of that as anyone.

    I guess what I am saying is that your reflection serves as a good wake up call.

  2. Even talking on the phone is awkward for my teenage daughters. When my wife tells them how she would talk on the phone for hours every night and that they needed two lines my girls can hardly believe it.

    Talking about old books. I have been listening to a a book I read in High School – Brave New World. It is a thought provoking read/listen.

    1. The Ginevra Davis’ article was a great recommendation! This was my first time reading her, and I ended up enjoying her other article – When the Stagnation Goes Virtual – even more so than the one you mentioned. I like how she’s consciously trying to position herself as Gen Z’s Joan Didion and, despite her youth, mostly succeeding. On a related note: I always thought of Dan Kaufman, when in his cultural critic mode, as the Gen X reincarnation of Hitchens.

  3. As all roads lead to Rome and parallel lines on a sphere eventually meet at the poles not all the current social dysfunctionalities you mention may have their root causes in social media but are abetted and catalyzed by this ersatz public square.

    Besides being an avid SciFi and Asimov fan, your pithy article, from my layman’s perspective that appreciates well written concise and insightful prose, was superb. Really enjoyed the read; the structure and how you brought it all together.

  4. An acute description of the tide against which we are swimming.
    #Joe: Yes, the aversion even to telephone contact is astonishing and widespread among the Z’s. Spontaneous oral communication overwhelms them. Text only, and then only the most limited and etiolated responses. All contra Donne.

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