Friday, September 19, 2014

The Doritos Theory

Is social anxiety disorder the new normal?

Speaking of boredom, I recently watched an episode of “Love American Style,” a cloyingly listless program from the early 70s that featured tepid vignettes about tepid relationships. It must have succeeded because it gave its audience permission to be lethargic. I know I was. Life, thy name is Doritos.

However, the episode I happened upon featured a young Diane Keaton. She and a man had been corresponding through letters, and finally meet in person. The intimacy of their correspondence vanishes when face to face. So she hits upon the idea to go into a different room, whereby they may slip notes to each other under the door. The End. Keaton lent the story a sweetness that made it more enjoyable than it should have been, and I could see why she became a star. 

But beyond Ms. Keaton’s destiny meeting with my approval, I realized this tale prefigured our current state of high tech communication. What the couple was begging the universe for was email. And, of course, texting, chat rooms, home pages . . . oh, and I guess blogs. 

To show you how old I am, I remember when email first came out. At a university computer lab I would see these two people sending messages back and forth, even though they were sitting next to each other. “How pathetic,” I thought. “I’ll never learn how to do that.” Yeah, right. Just as I’d never get a VCR (remember those?) or an iPod, or various other curiosities. Why even talk to someone on the phone—let alone in person—when you can send them a message? Listening to college students talk to each other, I often hear them say things like, “You won’t believe what happened. I’ll text you about it later.”  Sometimes of course students are in a hurry, but even if they had time to talk, it would appear they’d rather text.  

I don’t like texting—I have big, clumsy hands—but otherwise I have been as seduced as anyone by our high tech world. I even have emailed someone sitting next to me. Likewise, it is easier to buy things online, or Google rather than go to an actual library. I can publish a book without having to “do lunch” with my editor. Anyone remember gas station attendants? Bank tellers? We can check out our own groceries so that we do not have to interact with a checkout clerk, and the fast food industry is becoming evermore fast—more automated. We are all too busy, too preoccupied, to bother with each other.

We hear a lot about how technology is ruining our ability to communicate; people do not know how to talk to each other anymore, and so forth. I would add a friendly amendment here:  in the pre-Internet universe, people did not necessarily communicate well.  And in many ways, the Internet makes more communication possible. Still, millions of people day by day communicate as much as possible through technological means rather than face to face, even when face to face is possible.

This posting is actually quite political, so I suppose I should get to the point. On Facebook (see, Internet?) I have made friends with people from a wide spectrum of political beliefs. So on a daily basis, I read both left- and right-wing calls for dramatic social change. Sometimes the word “revolution” is used. On the one hand, the Internet makes possible more political dialogue and exchange of information. I often sign online petitions. But when it comes to social change, the Internet has its limits.

Even the briefest glance through human history shows us that major social upheaval is not pretty. Revolution, for better or for worse, includes violence. The folks in control don’t just say, “You’re right, please take our power away.”  And though my crystal ball may prove to be fuzzy, I do not think virtual bloodshed will replace the real thing. To control a society, you have to control the forces of coercion, i.e., police and the military. We may send drones into battle, but it’s people that get blown up.

Social change of a revolutionary scale would require us getting off our duffs. We’d have to meet not just to organize, but also to form necessary strong bonds with each other. Otherwise, there is no motivation to make sacrifices for a greater good. That means no TV tonight, no chat rooms or Facebook.  And whether one is left or right of center, or even in the dead center, I simply cannot envision masses of people doing this. We are not willing to sacrifice our Doritos in front of the boob tube, let alone put our lives on the line.

Karl Marx predicted world communism. In a nutshell, he said workers increasingly would be replaced by machines, so more and more people would be out of work. And when no one could buy what the machines produced, capitalism would topple, workers would unite, and so on. So far this has not happened. Maybe that makes you happy, or maybe that makes you sad. But one thing Marx had no way of knowing was how much we would love our machines. They are our best friends.

Machines replacing humans in the work force? We all allow this to be the case about a million times a day. Whenever we use our computers, smart phones, or even now our watches to do something that used to require human interaction, we are making more jobs obsolete. We ask our leaders to “create more jobs,” without stopping to consider exactly what it is that out of work people should be paid to do.

So, is everyone ready to throw their smart phone in the trash? No, I didn’t think so. Religion is not the opiate of the masses, technology is. In fact, one of the things that can seem “weird” about religion is the thought of being part of a community. Spend time with people when I can be by myself? How crazy is that?

Machines do not only take away from the work force, although this of course is nothing to take lightly. They also are eating away at our basic need to bond with others of our species.  And if people cannot even be bothered to say hi to a checkout clerk, how can they be expected to make real sacrifices for the greater public good?

Pass the Doritos, please. And be quiet, my twelfth-favorite show is on.


  1. Terrific little essay ... definitely straight from the "Things That Make You Go Hmmmm" file!