Social Displacement, Baboons, and Cultural Consumption
The recent discovery of complex convultions in the brains of the new "Hobbit" human species in Indonesia naturally gets me thinking about the remorseless, robotic commodification of human experience.
Normally, there is a direct relationship between the size of a monkey's brain and the size of their social group - bigger brain, bigger group, a relationship so strong that, as David Attenborough pointed out, you don't even need to know the species to know how big the monkey's social group is. So if baboons hang out with about 25 baboons, it's not too big a stretch to connect this to humans, who social groups seem to be idealized at about 150 individuals. Big brain monkey, big social groups - and most people's meaningful social worlds are roughly that size. Or, more to the point, were.
I've thought for some time that the rise of of the turbo-celebrity culture is related to the techonological displacement of human relationships. In other words, the spaces of our minds which would normally be dedicated toward dealing with our fellow 150 primates starts to get taken up by recognizable people we know only from electronic images and sounds. Naturally, this happens under commodification pressure; you can't own your friends, but it's a good business to replace friends with purchaseable personality. (March's Scientific American has a fascinating model of social networks being modelled in a Sim City- like environment to explore different smallpox scenarios. It's particularly interesting how certain individuals function as super social hubs. )
I saw a recent study that suggested that substantial television viewing A) displaced social relationships, and much more disturbing, B) did NOT make people less happy. In other words, the commodified electric personality displacement is entirely successful, with as relatively simple a technology as television. Our celebrities become our social network. A commodity - a televised personality - becomes a primary social relation.
(The gods of appropriate music at this cafe have begun playing the Gang of Four -This Heaven Gives Me Migraines. I'm glad the young people still know great music. LATE ALERT ALERT !!!!- THE GANG OF FOUR HAVE REFORMED AND ARE PLAYING IN SEATTLE IN APRIL AT THE SHOWBOX! )
As fun and awful and informative and lying as it can be, television has already changed what we are as creatures, looking toward screen faces rather than faces. I don't see any reason at all to hope that technologies with far greater capacities for social displacement will do anything but further isolate us .
They will be pushed heavily, but not from any real social benefit. There is money to be made in commodifying all of human experience, in building a culture that consumes our natural impulse to love, that reifies our emotions, that reduces individuals to a small nexus of consumer desire. The very ability of human beings to produce economic value may fade - it's becoming a little hard to imagine a future job for anyone but whores, capitalists and priests.
Art, which paved the way for remaking the human countenance into tradable commodities, now slightly resists this trend. But built solidly into myself is this very displacement, the electronic image for the real, that has long since become normal, 150 bluish images on which to gaze forever, when even negation is exhausted.
If electronic media really has displaced our in-built need for social networks, turning it all off will feel as painful as shunning, as exile, and loneliness and emptyness will descend. The skills to resocialize will be difficult to learn, if we ever knew them. The marketer's dream world rises: if you want to feel like a human being, you're going to have to pay.