The world in which we currently live, or rather survive, is no longer sustainable. Although the talk about environmental sustainability is ubiquitous, that’s not what I’m referencing here—and I’m certainly not talking about the meritless mutterings of the leading environmental ideologues. There is, instead, a different kind of sustainability having nothing to do with proper stewardship of the planet but has to do with sustaining our own human existence and living in balance with our nature—particularly with our minds.
The machinations of atomization, which only grew stronger in the last two years, are moving us along toward darkness. Some say that every epoch marked by technological changes requires a period of adjustment and ironing out before things can run smoothly again. Therefore, they say, there is nothing to worry about in our time. This is fine. It has happened before, and people then, as now, always react foolishly in the face of inevitable progress.
Perhaps. But perhaps there is something very different about our current experience of technology.
People like to use the printing press and automobile as examples of technology that made people’s lives better. I don’t doubt they have but there is a great difference between the age of planes, trains, and automobiles and our current unhealthy dependance on the digitization of our existence. Technology of the past served the people, whereas the technology of the present is our master. We are the ones who serve the machine—oftentimes completely unawares.
This confrontation with un-reality assaults our senses daily. Two extremes are operating here, and are visible in superficial but important examples. Videos of physical assaults, sometimes even murder are boreing into our minds. We rarely even check to see the date on a video or seek to find out what happened after, because place and time are of no importance in our digital age. The BUMMER machine, as Jaron Lanier calls it (which stands for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent) keeps the rage and negativity alive, and it is shaping the meaning of being human in the 21st century.
Not all is lost, however. Recognizing technological alienation for what it is is only the beginning of our exit out of it. A short musical film, “Anima” (2019)—a collaboration between Thom Yorke and Paul Thomas Anderson—is based on Yorke’s eponymous 2019 album that explores the anxiety and dread of modern life. Through the sounds of intense electronic music, we join a nameless protagonist (played by Yorke) on a journey toward romance and love in a bleak world.
Echoing Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece “Metropolis,” we see rows of workers, walking in line, tired and zombie-like. Yorke is part of the nameless crowd and the alienating grind. Nobody is relating to anybody. In fact, they are all just bodies stuck in a place and time over which they have no control. They don’t attempt to fight the alienating regime that drains the soul, and instead, they participate in the predetermined flow of continuous space. Are they slaves? Are they imprisoned? Do they have a choice? They seem to embody Václav Havel’s statement that “the tragedy of the modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” In the world of “Anima,” both free will and destiny are suspended, or so it seems.
Yorke’s nameless man stands out from the crowd. He seems to be aware of his interior life enough to notice a beautiful woman on the other side of the subway car. She too glances at him but they both quickly avert their gazes. Fear has seeped into the core of their being, and there is no room for the matters of the soul. Yet they are awakened by the encounter.
The beautiful woman leaves a lunch pail on the train, and our nameless man is determined to get it back to her. But every time he tries to get close to her, he is prevented from realizing his desire. Other people form continuous lines and live walls that are terrible obstacles to his quest. Yet he is determined because he is driven by something far greater than the spiritless regime of the bleak mass of zombies—love.
As the film unfolds, Yorke’s nameless man and the beautiful woman find each other. Night is slipping away and dawn is arriving. They walk the streets of Prague, smiling, bathed in the light of the street lamps, awakened in more ways than one, to each other’s presence. Their encounter is a sign of bliss and passion; an illumination of life itself in the midst of alienating, technological darkness that totalizes human existence, and especially human drive toward both the erotic and our need for the permanent.
Yorke and Anderson made the film before the totalizing effect of the COVID phenomenon crashed into the world, and it’s even more powerful in the context of today’s struggles. Human beings were primed to accept the alienating and inhuman regime that resulted from COVID. Whether it’s through consumerism and considering an iPhone more of a companion than another person, or through the annihilation of authentic identity for identitarian politics, people have turned inward. They relate only to themselves and their basest needs and even that appears to be a difficult task. Acedia reigns supreme and eros is drained until a dry husk of what looks like a human being is left.
It is a depressing state of affairs in our strange world. In The Agony of Eros (2017), philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes, “Love, the claim goes, is foundering because of endless freedom of choice, the overabundance of options, and the compulsion for perfection. In a world of unlimited possibilities, love itself represents an impossibility.” One of the reasons why this state of being currently exists is because we don’t think of each other as different. Globalist sameness seems to have overtaken the world, and this is especially true in how men and women relate to each other.
Eros is fundamentally contrary to despair precisely because it is metaphysically asymmetric. In other words, the erotic relation requires differences because we are different from one another. This is what happened in the encounter between Yorke’s nameless man and the beautiful woman. They stepped out of the alienating glass cube and in one small moment comprehended the meaning and the necessity of proper objectification. They were not looking into the blankness of the dark abyss or into the mirror, seeing only a worn out body of the self, but into each other’s souls. They made each other objects of desire.
The very idea of eros is constantly suppressed today, usually indirectly. It is people’s inaction and wallowing in acedia that are sending a message of despair. Thanks to society’s oligarchical capitalism, human beings have become willing subjects where the erotic desires are substitued with technological purchases. It’s not only that things themselves are commodities, as one would expect from a product, but also people. Sex is commodified and works only as the basis of some type of exchange. Love and eros are nowhere to be seen and usually replaced with self-commodification. People have become brands in vats.
Whom should we blame? No matter what the condition, we still have free will. Han notes that “. . . the slave, who holds fast to life and labors, proved incapable of erotic experience—of erotic desire. Today’s achievement-subject is equal to the Hegelian slave in all respects for the fact that he does not work for the master, but rather exploits himself of his own volition. As an entrepreneur of the self, he is master and slave at once.”
The COVID event has also proven that some people would rather be slaves than be free. They have denied the existence of their own souls and are incapable of living as free men and women. They have given up on love because they are ruled by fear and cowardice. The release, which is hardly erotic, is only present when they are part of the masses, disappearing into nothingness. They revel in the nihilistic regime that has wrapped their bodies and minds, and are in effect, existentially mummified. For them libido, too, is irrelevant.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the two protagonists, Bernard and Lenina, are discussing freedom. Bernard seeks something more than what the society deems to be acceptable. Lenina, on the other hand, is happy to take another soma. Bernard wants to be free of soma and looks at the sea in peace, of his own volition, “as though I were more me . . . More on my own, not so completely a part of something else. Not just a cell in the social body.”
Lenina is horrified at the thought: “It’s horrible, it’s horrible . . . And how can you talk like that about not wanting to be a part of the social body. After all, every one works for everyone else. We can’t do without any one.”
Of course, Lenina is not talking about a community but a collective. Here, an individual ceases to exist, and with that death comes the death of eros as well. The alienation we have entered into at this point in time is creating even more distance between love and desire. We have to recognize that the world of digitization (especially that of social media) is not real. It thrives on anger, rage, shock, and falsehoods. It denies our embodiment and place in time and space.
Authenticity is difficult to find in that environment because pretense, for some, is easier. A variety of personae dominate the digital world, thereby masking the real person, which destroys the possibility of authentic encounter and relationship. There is no “I-Thou” relationship because the identities chosen for the sake of social media deny individuality and continued unfolding of individuation that brings forth flourishing of society. We do, however, have a choice. We can break the technological loop by acknowledging that social media is not real and possibly making an exit. Algorithms don’t create communities, people do.