Weapons of Mass Separation


The idea at the bedrock of everything that will follow is that, as humanity has ushered in a new age of prosperity, we have also lost something essential. Unlike everything that we have gained, it’s neither material nor tangible, it can’t be weighed or seen with the eye, yet its importance should not be understated.




Can we equate change to progress? To say human civilization has changed a lot in the last 10,000 years is to state the obvious, yet the question of whether or not we have truly progressed is a much harder one to answer. Certainly, by some measures, we have. We have especially excelled at doing difficult things with greater ease and efficiency, sometimes without even leaving our beds. Yet, to truly answer the leading question, we must look beyond the superficial. The idea at the bedrock of everything that will follow is that, as humanity has ushered in a new age of prosperity, we have also lost something essential. Unlike everything that we have gained, it’s neither material nor tangible, it can’t be weighed or seen with the eye, yet its importance should not be understated. When looked at from this angle, we see that when aggregated, our economic and technological progress has excelled at a singular task — isolating us.

Prosperity is a good point on which to start because, by modern standards, people in the past were pathetically poor. For most of human history, our ancestors lived in tiny, co-dependent hunter-gatherer or farming communities in which there was very little wealth except amongst the tiniest portion of society. UN Global Compact defines living in poverty, today, as living on less than $1.90 a day. Even adjusting for inflation, this figure is probably much higher than what the cut-off point would have been, say, a couple of centuries ago. Over 700 million people, roughly 10% of the global population, still fit within this definition, even though this number has been falling as the wealth gains of the last century slowly trickle down to the 3rd world.

The American Dream and Progress

The USA was one of the first countries to effectively and successfully carry out the Herculean task of dragging a significant portion of its population out of the sorry state that precedes any wealth explosion. Through the 1950s and 60s, they ushered in a period of post-war growth that brought material prosperity to millions of Americans. The so-called ‘American dream’ became a reality for millions of working-class Americans. Suddenly, the growing middle-class could afford the mythical ‘house with a white picket fence’ on land they owned as well as a car. They could offer their children a life that far exceeded their upbringings. This period also coincided with the emergence of television as a mainstream cultural force, making it a basic necessity for any middle-class household. Without taking anything away from this achievement, we can also note that this newfound prosperity meant that millions of Americans could now afford to buy a little box to live in, another little box to ferry themselves to and from work, and another one to stare into when they were off from work. They had privacy, convenience, and entertainment, but their newly acquired little boxes also served to insulate them from the world in which they lived.

We can imagine that, in the past, or among the few remaining pre-modern societies today, people built a rapport with their neighbors that gave them a sense of community and belonging. Such is the contrast between today’s independent societies and the co-dependent societies that preceded them. As with everything, we must be wary of idealizing as these societies are about as far from perfect as ours are, though differently, perhaps. As Helena Norberg-Hodge said of a “traditional, nature-based society” in her 1994 book, Ancient Futures, “with all its flaws and limitations, [it] was more sustainable, both socially and environmentally,” and that, after spending years with the people of Ladakh in the Tibetan Plateau, she found herself “convinced that people were significantly happier before development than they are today.” In these pre-modern societies, people had no way of building these walls around themselves and had to be part of the societies in which they lived. That’s not the case, today. Modern capitalist society leverages our insecurities by offering up consumerism as a solution to the lack of self-esteem we feel due to our waning connection to our families and communities. We, then, spend money on these weapons of mass separation in search of recognition, hoping that people will see us as somebody rather than as nobody, while, in the process, setting ourselves so far apart that our isolation is only deepened.

Wealth and Separation

As people move up the wealth ladder, they buy bigger houses in low-density suburbs to not only justify the amount of work that they are putting in but for the recognition gained. These low-density neighborhoods are, however, also characterized by large yards and tall security walls such that most neighbors hardly even acknowledge each other’s existence. Where in less individualist and wealthy societies people may live in multi-generational homes under a co-dependent arrangement that benefits the young as much as it benefits the elderly, the wealthy can afford the full-time geriatric care provided by nursing homes or can have the elderly in their own homes with a nurse around to help out. We buy cars for the added convenience and comfort of commuting to and from work while also depriving ourselves of potentially wholesome conversations that could be had on the train or bus with other members of our societies. It’s no wonder the wealthiest amongst us end up so out of touch with the state of the world in which they live. Under this new arrangement, we isolate ourselves even from those closest to us; where our forebears took road trips and bonded as a family, we hop on a plane and fly to our destination where, upon arrival, we rent out a private, luxurious villa so large that we hardly even see each other. All this is a result of the promise of modernity, the glorification of luxury and convenience, and the all-out war on discomfort. What is on offer, here, is a way out of the desolation of pre-modernity, the ushering in of a new, radiant age as humanity finally truly sets itself apart from an existence that so closely resembles that of the animals that we’re so desperate to differentiate ourselves from.

Modernity has Advantages

As with everything else, we can point to some advantages of the changes that came with modernity. Besides the obvious, easily discernible improvements to the quality of life and life expectancy in many countries, there are other intangible gains. Even as families boxed themselves in, cutting themselves off from the rest of the world, they were still, more often than not, forced to interact within their little boxes. Once upon a time, families huddled around a radio (and, then, a television) or played board games together. Before wealth and abundance, televisions and radios were communal in most households. For those that traveled often, or, at least, commuted to work and school together, the hours spent in the car together listening to the same music or radio broadcasts were precious. There was an increased sense of togetherness within the family unit by way of their shared experiences. Parents and children could bond over their shared love of the same music and television shows and characters. This nuclear family arrangement, as some studies have shown, provided the stability, strength, and consistency that helped children to thrive. In many cases, children grew up close to their parents who could serve as positive role models and also closely monitor their development, even if it meant distancing themselves from the extended family and community.

The effect may not have been instantaneous, but the arrival of television was a harbinger for the impending demise of physical space, communal entertainment. The post-war economic boom of the 1950s in the US brought a TV set into millions of American homes; by 1960 almost every American household owned one. When families sat in front of their televisions, it wasn’t just for the programming, but also to eat their dinner, a practice popularized by the marketing of so-called “TV dinners” and small, folding tray tables. A lot of the programming, the cultural effects of which must not be understated, promoted rugged individualism (the James Dean and Marlon Brando years) and idealized suburban living through portrayals of gun-slinging cowboys and happy housewives and wise fathers, respectively. It was here, too, at the beginning of the Cold War, that American individualism was presented as being oppositional to Soviet Communism, which would have undoubtedly nudged most patriots away from anything even remotely communal. This was the period in which television established itself as a genuine alternative to Hollywood and its motion pictures.

Technology Becomes Personal

Half a century ago, it may have seemed far-fetched to imagine that technology could become as personal as it has become today, but we can see that the groundwork was already being laid. In a time when computers filled up entire rooms and televisions needed multiple people to carry around, it’s understandable that what is normal today was unimaginable then. Yet, some had already set this as a goal for technology’s development. They envisioned a decentralized future where people could be free of the tyranny of community. Part of this thinking was spurred on by countercultural social theorists like Marshall McLuhan who worried that mass media was a tool to enforce conformity on the population. These people would certainly be happy to see how far we’ve come, with miniaturization being a basic requirement for any piece of technology. And, as our devices have become smaller, they have become more personal and will continue to follow that trajectory as we usher in the age of virtual and augmented reality.

The Walkman is an early example of increasingly personal technologies which offered their users both privacy and choice. Cassette players may have existed before the Walkman, but the combination of portability and choice was what set it apart. With the Walkman, people could carry in their pockets a device that freed them from the tyranny of the radio DJ just as today, one no longer has to succumb to the dictates of television network scheduling. What we have been sold, through music and video streaming, is the ability to have full autonomy and control so that we can choose what to watch, when to watch it, and, importantly, who to watch it with. And, with this ability to choose between, for example, communal experiences like movie-going or attending a concert and the maximum enjoyment that streaming platforms promise to bring into the comfort of our homes, most evidence seems to imply that people often choose the latter.

One might point out that reading, which had become quite popular since the invention of the printing press, was an equally isolating activity. That is partially true, though it must be noted that, when reading, one must take an active role in isolating oneself. Your reading bubble, the cocoon in which you enclosed yourself as you read, was always in danger of being breached by the first person who called out your name. The Walkman, on the other hand, had no such problems. The gift of hindsight allows us to see the true extent to which Sony’s release of their portable cassette player was revolutionary. Gone were the days when people were forced to listen to whatever the person with the boom box was playing, or endure listening to the radio DJ ramble on between songs. The main selling point must have been the opportunity for you, as the individual, to choose what you wanted to listen to and lose yourself within a personalized haven in which you could be the only resident. And, maybe this catered to some of our insecurities — after all, I, too, have felt the discomfort of wondering whether or not everyone else is enjoying the music that I’m playing. What we could have, then, was a family sitting in their car on a road trip, each one with their cassette player listening to the music of their choice. And, in true opposition to the humble book, the Walkman both delivered music directly to you while also blocking out the external world. Disruptions from people trying to talk you could be kept at bay (this was even before noise-canceling technology became mainstream). Needless to say, the Walkman was a hit. It was described by many tech publications as world-changing because it altered what people thought was possible with technology. If there was ever an example of a tool dictating how the user could use it, this was it. The Walkman offered unrivaled privacy and convenience and the people lapped it up.

An Age of Separation

For those of us that have grown up in the internet age, the simple act of sitting with another person to share an experience is becoming close to intolerable. We’re quick to whip out our phones, to check our tailored social media feeds, to reply to that text message from 3 days ago that we’ve been scrolling past over and over again. Cyberspace offers an easier escape route than we have in reality — if the conversation is difficult or uninteresting, don’t reply — such that we find ourselves gravitating towards fulfilling our socialization needs on the internet for this very reason. We sit on the bus with our headphones on, bobbing our heads to our favorite playlists, while the onboard speaker system plays music, too. But, I don’t like the music that they’re playing, you would probably say, and, God-forbid I have to endure just a few minutes of it (or, even worse, silence) on my daily commute. Where families of the past gathered around the TV, today, everyone has their laptop, phone, or tablet and they spend hours curled up in the dark like trolls so long as they maintain complete autonomy and control over what they watch. Implicit in our vision of a decentralized future is the idea that discomfort, particularly the kind brought on by having to participate in communal activity, is something to be eradicated. The future, as presented by modernity, promises to ensure the primacy of I, to facilitate the full expression of our separation; you are an individual and you must proclaim your uniqueness. But, we must be willing to ask what happens to us, to our brains, when we become so far removed from those around us. Is being able to watch or listen to what we want when we want more important than spending time with loved ones or those surprisingly wholesome, spontaneous conversations with strangers? And, when faced with a difficult situation such as keeping the conversation alive with an old friend, our impulse is to pick up our phones and scroll through social media, what does it say about how our brains are being rewired, and how we’ll approach future difficult situations?

For the conspiratorially minded amongst us, it’s hard to imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has accelerated a downward spiral into full-on cyberspace existence, could not have been, in some way, engineered by those that stand to gain the most from it. Since the beginning of 2020, there’s been a push to increasingly digitize our lives spurred on by pithy slogans like “flatten the curve” with the promise that we could all do our part to ensure public safety. We have been forced to accept inferior, digital ‘equivalents’ of activities that we often enjoyed in the physical space. Cinemas, restaurants, pubs, and many other public gathering spaces were shut down and replaced by digital alternatives. Video conferencing platforms, especially, thrived, offering solutions for everyone from remote workers and separated families to couples and groups of friends hoping to catch a movie together. Even something as fundamentally physical as sex was repackaged in the digital sphere to keep us both separate and glued to our phones. Through the proliferation of platforms like OnlyFans which allowed viewers to interact directly with the performers thus giving them the illusion of a more connected, personal experience, the message was that anything could be just as good in the digital sphere as it was in the real world. Beyond that, even though we were physically alone, we were led to believe that staring at loved ones through the portal of a tiny, glass screen could cure our isolation. In the end, it may not have been planned, but the outcome was the same cheapening of our social lives.

Our weapons of mass separation have rewired reality, cultivating lifestyles that have fundamentally altered what we hope to get out of life itself. As mentioned above, we have become all but incapable of enduring any mild discomfort having grown up with the necessary tools to avoid it. In this age so desolate and devoid of social interaction, many of us grow up without ever having to learn to be accommodating to people with different values or temperaments. In other words, we grow up un-socialized. This must, at least in part, explain the desperate need amongst Millennials and Gen-Zs for safe spaces. We have all come of age in the digital realm where we are endowed with the ability to curate our feeds so that anything that makes us even the slightest bit uncomfortable is avoided. The digital space offers far more control than the real world — if someone is harassing you, just block them; if you don’t like someone’s opinions, just unfollow them. Necessary skills for conflict management and resolution are never acquired because, between living in little boxes with only our family members with whom we’re more likely to agree, to commuting to and from school and work in our other little boxes, we avoid, at all costs, the unpredictability of the real world. We communicate mostly through platforms that are severely restrictive in the scope of expression they allow (e.g. 280 characters on Twitter). The need for emojis and stickers and gifs on most platforms shows the inadequacy of, let’s say, plain-text communication, especially in short form, yet the popularity of messaging platforms continues to rise. Then, because we don’t fully understand each other or can’t truly express ourselves, we resort to trolling and passive aggression which only serves to fuel the bridge-burning flames. Many of us today are shockingly unaware of the ideas and opinions that are prevalent in our societies because we never get to interact with anyone beyond the confines of our cherry-picked circles. And, when the few elite members of these cyber circles offend us, cutting them off is just as easy as pressing a button or leaving a message on read because we believe that those connections are replaceable. And, why not? When one has hundreds or even thousands of social media followers, there’s a callousness with friendships borne of the belief that one could never truly end up alone.

Consequences of Modernity

Through all this, we can see the dire consequences of 21st-century living. Our desperate need for constant entertainment and occupation is a result of both increasing anxiety and insecurity in a fast-paced, lonely world and the advancements that modernity has brought. In the past, where and when we could listen to music or watch TV was restricted by limitations of the technology. Today, nothing is stopping me from pulling out my phone while waiting for my order at a McDonald’s and powering through an episode of The Fresh Prince. With our technology becoming more portable, our devices becoming more geared towards content consumption, and the proliferation of short-form content on platforms like TikTok and YouTube ([Shorts]), there’s hardly any room left for interaction. Instead of what we may see as meaningless small talk with strangers on the train or bus, we instead gravitate to our devices because, maybe, they are better at filling those tiny, uncomfortable gaps between one task and the next. The little communication we get, then, is restricted to cyberspace where, as a lot of research has illustrated, our social needs remain unfulfilled because of the inherent limitations of these media. Of course, for those with whom we are geographically separated, we may have to rely on online communication, but it is also important to make an effort to get even a tiny dose of real-world, physical communication because, as research has shown, our social needs are not just limited to exchanging words with other people. The deeper connections that we crave might be hard to fulfill through instant messaging platforms.

Breakdown of Communities

In similar ways, an increase in wealth equally facilitates separation, especially with the help of technology. The result is that most people are no longer as reliant on their communities as people in the past may have been. For the wealthy, there are so many alternatives to walking over to your neighbor’s house to ask for help. Forgot to buy salt? — There is an online grocery delivery service that has you covered. Need to fix something around the house? — Lookup a solution online or call a professional. Need someone to watch the kids? — Call a babysitter. Our increasingly materialistic world encouraged us to see our social connections with members of our communities as transactional. Then, because we had alternatives to the material support that they offered, we began to believe that we had broken free of needing them. Somewhere along the line, we were stripped of our ability to recognize how socializing could be fulfilling. What remained was the belief that we only ever needed each other as a means to an end and when we could fulfill those ends without the discomfort of having to ask for help (something that’s been vilified in our individualist societies), we thus believed that we no longer needed each other.

We are supposed to be the most connected generation in human history, yet, it seems, loneliness and misery prevail. The cycles of the emergence of social platforms, from the early days of MySpace and Facebook to TikTok, Clubhouse, and Zoom today, show that we are still clearly searching for something. Tech companies are constantly innovating and disrupting each other, and we cling to hope that someone will develop something that will sufficiently fill that gaping hole that threatens to consume us. The difference, unfortunately, between real-world interactions and their digital counterparts is not a difference in magnitude, but a difference in kind. Living our lives completely in cyberspace is not a substitute for physical interaction — that is true no matter what the people in Silicon Valley who hope to profit off of our mobile phone addictions tell us. In the same way, the gospel of consumerism gives us the impression that there’s always something out there that we can buy that will make us feel happy and fulfilled. We are led to believe that we’re always on the cusp of finding that social platform that will revolutionize communication and make us all understand each other, or that the next purchase or update will be the one that finally hits the right spot. Instead, many of these things achieve the singular goal of increasing our isolation, leaving us vulnerable to further manipulation. We took the wrong turn ages ago, and, now, Google Maps is just urging us to keep forging ahead because we’re on a path that leads to a better place; better, here, curiously resembling where we are coming from. Our optimistic futurism has us believing that the solutions to our problems must lie in the future, in better apps and gadgets, not in the past, because the myth of progress has us all convinced that the present is, in every way, better than the past, or that any attempt to take what was good in the past would also bring along the unsavory aspects that we’re all happy to have moved past. So, even with some recognition of all the failings of modern society, we are encouraged to look forward, to never question the path we’re on because modernity’s benefits are visible and tangible, unlike what we’re losing — family, fulfillment, community, connection — these are things whose importance is disparaged because they are immaterial and the effects of their loss are often difficult to directly measure.

Author Dan Schwabel has described what we are living through as a “loneliness pandemic”. This was back in 2018 before we were all plunged into many-month-long lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, many people have found that most of their interactions with loved ones as well as with co-workers and classmates have been restricted to cyberspace. The common misconception is that loneliness is an affliction only for those who are alone such that those who immerse themselves in vibrant online communities could never feel so. In reality, loneliness results from a “perceived lack of intimacy with others and with oneself”. It is often the loneliness of those who are surrounded by many people that cuts deepest. While, in many ways, modernity offers us enticing avenues to privacy, convenience, and control, what we are sacrificing may be of far more value. When we feel a gulf that cannot be bridged between ourselves and the people in our lives, the impulse may either be to retreat into ourselves or to continue to search for ‘better’ methods of communication. In the latter case, we imagine that somewhere out there exists the ideal form of communication that can and will truly connect us. In the former case, we stop putting ourselves out there, especially when we feel snubbed or that the people in our lives don’t prioritize us as we do them. And, this is much easier when there are so many alternative ways with which we can fill the void. Yet, despite providing temporary refuge from our malaise, these distractions do nothing to change or improve the situation. All they do is help us hide from instead of confronting our problems.


Is there a way back, then? I use the word ‘back’ deliberately because the solution might be somewhere in our collective past. As Jaron Lanier puts it, the solution is to “double down on being human”. The more we allow ourselves to be alienated from that which makes us human; our social connections, communities, friends, families, places that are of significance to us, the more we will continue to feel a certain lack in our lives. As a result, we will continue to seek solutions in the very thing that is the source of our dissatisfaction, fostering the kind of vicious cycle that Helena Norberg-Hodge spoke of, where our imagined solutions only seem to exacerbate the problems. This, in turn, leads us to double down, thinking that we need to do things better, not differently. As Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Wealth and technology are our hammers, and so long as we continue to believe that they are the only ways to alleviate our suffering, we will continue to dig ourselves into an inescapable trench of separation. If there’s any wisdom to be gleaned from Norberg-Hodge’s Ancient Futures, it’s that there may be much for us to learn from the ways of life of the few remaining communities that have not been so insidiously penetrated by modern conceptions of wealth and technology. Though not perfect, their ways of life show us that we cannot just abandon the traditions and values that got us to where we are in our never-ending quest for innovative, new ways of doing things, lest we find ourselves throwing the baby out with the bathwater.


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