In this article, we are going to be addressing the sterilization of human life in many parts of the modern world. While as materialists, we try not to be sentimental on this website, the social sterility seen in both the public and private lives of people is worth talking about. We can build the grandest of socialist states, we can provide everything that people materially need, but if we can’t recognize and satisfy our desires as social animals, then these accomplishments may as well be for nothing. The quote I lazily copy-and-pasted below is a Kurt Vonnegutt quote, that I tracked down to an interview he did in 1996 for the magazine Inc., which should provide more context to what we will get into talking about in this article:
“I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterwards I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “OK, I’ll send you the pages.”
Then I’m going down the steps, and my wife calls up, “Where are you going?” I say, “Well, I’m going to go buy an envelope.” And she says, “You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet.” And I say, “Hush.” So I go down the steps here, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.
Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We’re dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something.”
It is not controversial to say that in the modern era, social relations between humans feel more alien and unfamiliar than ever before in many parts of America. I have worked across the country, within many different states and in a territory or two, and have traveled around the world, so I feel qualified to say many Americans exist in a social vacuum. While much of it has to do with the wealth available to us allowing us to entertain ourselves in our own homes, I haven’t seen the same social evolution in other countries and territories, where despite having incomes high enough to engage in a similar level of isolation, people abroad don’t do that. While I can bore the negative five readers of this site once again with the age-old axiom, “material conditions shape social conditions,” I think it is also worth noting here how the American mindset has fed into this peculiar state of being in the United States.
While urbanization certainly atomizes and anonymizes people, while our city planning has only led to us adopting more secluded means of transportation like cars, the social vacuum present in America wouldn’t exist without our fixation on the self. When it comes to our sense of individualism and self-confidence, America’s population ranks well above everyone else in terms of scores in these categories on a variety of different tests. In a largely urban landscape that isn’t conducive to our social wellbeing at all, the proto-narcissism that most Americans have makes interpersonal relations even more fraught with peril. This is because from a young age, we are taught in America a variety of different mantras, with the quote, “you are born alone and you die alone,” being particularly interesting, because whoever thought of that conveniently ignores the parents, the nurses, and other people that helped bring you into the world and assumes that when we die, we’ll have no one by our bedside or on our jobsite (author’s note: G-d, I’m such a tradie) that would care for us in our final moments. No one is born alone and while some people die alone, it often makes the news when their passing goes unnoticed because it’s so unusual. Just because we may experience birth and death on our own doesn’t mean there aren’t people that help us along the way, just as when we first learn to ride a bike, it’s often our parents walking behind and pushing us along. It doesn’t matter that we experience things on our own in these instances, because as human beings, it is completely natural for our friends and families to push us along and guide us. There is a huge aspect of our element as social animals that we happily dismiss in this country, despite us all benefiting greatly from it throughout our formative years and beyond.
While Americans like to see themselves as rugged individualists and as innately exceptional, that mentality doesn’t work very well for them in a world where people have to rely on each other and the average person thinks they’re better than other people. The American ego is so hypertrophied in terms of how we approach things that the problems that ensue can be completely farcical, with all of us paying the price throughout our lives. A million examples come to my mind but the truth is that every American reader most likely knows what I’m talking about, from the drill sergeants who expect superhuman performances out of teenagers to the journeymen that expect their new apprentices to do everything correctly to the professors who penalize their students for not using stilted language in their essays to the bourgeois who write in advice columns about how young people should skimp on food and recycle tampons in order to save up for a mortgage. Throughout our country, unrealistic and downright stupid things are regularly asked of us by those that would fall short of their own expectations, because the introspection and restraint seen in other cultures does not exist in America to the same degree at all. While you may wonder why I’m bringing this up in an article based on analyzing the social vacuums across America, it’s because a lot of Americans apply those same expectations to their interpersonal relationships and reject the casual nature of existence.
A bear can appreciate a beautiful vista without bothering to survey the horizon for any signs of bee hives to raid, while a man can engage in casual conversation with other strangers on the street without trying to sell them anything. In America, where most people are fixated on what benefits they can extract from one another, relationships and small talk seem increasingly frowned upon. At large companies like Facebook, you can’t even talk to employees in certain normal ways without risking termination, while in a lot of government departments in blue states, frivolous sexual harassment lawsuits come out of people calling each other “honey,” “beautiful,” and other words of endearment. While you can claim that limiting these kinds of chatter to non-professional spaces isn’t harmful, the fact is that most of our social interaction comes from work as adults just as most of our social interaction comes from school as children. Fraternizing with your coworkers after work should feel just as natural as hanging out with your classmates after school, and in occupations like the trades, that is still what happens and it is very fun. A comment I get a lot when I return home, since having moved to a rural island in the Caribbean, is that I’m incredibly chilled out and happy now.
This personal transformation isn’t because I’ve done enough meditation to unlock my inner chakras or conquered my inner demons but because I’ve joined a close community, where I say “hello” to people on my way to any place on the island, where I do regularly hang out with the people who work at my favorite bar, and where half the grocery store makes conversation with me when I walk through the door. What is funny about my experience is that having those friendly relationships with everyone else in a community has been the norm throughout human history, and while it may seem fantastical already to anyone reading this who lives in a large city, my experience would certainly be on the low-side of how socially connected most people were with each other in the past because I didn’t grow up where I live now, I don’t have any family here, and I can count my actual friends on a hand here. The communities that we live in determine a great deal of how we relate to one another and appreciate the lives we’re given, in ways that money can’t quite compensate for, and most Americans remain completely ignorant of this fact. I’ve made far more money elsewhere, to the point that if I were to get a job back home I’d make 8-10x my current annual income, but I know that when I go back home, I’ll have to deal with demanding jackasses at work, have to talk to random women trying to suss out if I’m a serial killer at bars, and watch people shift along the streets as if they’re still getting the hang of walking. While I’ll eventually have to leave my current spot in order to afford a house and raise a family, I’m not looking forward to when that day of necessary departure comes because of the actual community I live in.
When we think of the “dancing animals” that Kurt Vonnegut talks about in that quote, it’s important to note that the dance he refers to isn’t a conscious or voluntary motion but just the natural and casual interactions that we have with one another. While Kurt Vonnegut talked about the death of the dancing in that 1996 interview for Inc., it’s worth putting into context just where Kurt lived at the time: Manhattan, New York. For those who live under several lightyears of rocks, Manhattan is an epicenter of wealth and technology on par with Silicon Valley, that has been completely urbanized and occupied by skyscrapers for a long time. It goes without saying that the material conditions there didn’t lend themselves even in 1996 to creating a tight community, and based on Kurt’s own descriptions of his interactions with people in that time there, it wasn’t a friendly and connected place but still one that you could appreciate. Using Kurt’s own words against him here, Manhattan in 1996 already had a low level of “farting around” to begin with.
It goes without saying that in modern times, the distances between people have only grown as cities have expanded and technology has created increasingly large buffers between people. When we look at younger adults in cities spending huge sums of their money on Postmates in order to not leave the house for even necessities, spending unhealthy amounts of their free time playing video games because the real world doesn’t offer the same instant gratifications, and using “dating” apps because approaching people in person is too difficult, it makes me wonder what’s going to happen to these communities. In the future, will cities appear to be ghost towns occupied by agoraphobic hermits? While such a scenario may seem hyperbolic and isn’t feasible right now with our current levels of automation, you can’t rule out such a possibility in the future because our profit-maximizing system that disregards human connections makes no attempts to avoid that outcome. Such a scenario would be very unfortunate because in the death of the dancing, humans will cease to be animals eventually. The empty comforts and artificial happiness supplied by the modern world mean nothing in the face of the interpersonal connections that humans used to enjoy, and as time goes on and younger generations glumly proclaim life to be “pointless,” they unwittingly betray their capitalist brainwashing because:
it’s okay for things to be pointless.
While I can mercifully end this article at that last sentence, I’m going to instead paraphrase what Marx said here by saying that the point of philosophy is not to just understand the world but to change it. Redesigning cities to draw people out into public spheres again and switching from digital back to analog for various services is what’s going to keep human civilization functioning as a community. It might be enormously expensive to make car-dependent cities like Houston walkable, it might be inconvenient for commuters when they have to deal with lane closures as rail lines for trams and trains are built, it might even be invasive in rationing out usage of things like the internet and television, but in gradually restoring a sense of community to people’s lives, the benefits will outweigh the costs many times over in terms of mental health, physical health, and social health. Human beings are dancing animals, not monomaniacal money-making machines with simple input/outputs, and if we don’t build society around recognizing and encouraging our natural socializing, then we will inevitably forget what it means to be human. Without the dancing, we may as well be dead.