I recently started reading Isaac Asimov's robot series, which follows the progression of humanity from a few hundred years in the future, to eventually several tens of thousands of years. We develop a huge reliance on robots (and eventually break that reliance), that in a refreshing departure from most fiction, are designed from the beginning to help humanity. They can be manipulated to bad ends by humans, but they don't turn on humans themselves. In fact, one is instrumental in directing the course of humanity for the better, but I don't want to spoil anything.
In the second book in the series, The Naked Sun, the main protagonist, Detective Baley, visits one of the dozens of planets Earth has colonized. More than any other planet, Solaria takes strict measures to limit their population. Every individual has tens of thousands of robots at their beck and call, making it completely unnecessary for anyone to interact. That lack of necessity eventually turns into full-blown neurosis, with everyone preferring to "view" one another through electronic means, and people actually breaking down in tears if someone threatens to "see" them.. visit them in person. Much further along it turns into something akin to anthropophobia, with only a thousand people on the planet, who are intent on hiding their existence from the rest of the galaxy. But I'm getting ahead of things again...
Back to The Naked Sun. Baley goes to Solaria to help solve a murder, but was told to keep his eyes open too. Earth considers Solaria to be incredibly advanced, with a veritable army of robots. They've extended their lives, they live in comfort, and they've become overly-confident in their individual planet - and in their individuality from one another. Baley recognizes it as their greatest weakness, not strength. When he gets back to Earth, he shares his discoveries with his superior:
Baley said, “The Solarians have given up something mankind has had for a million years; something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything; because it’s something that made everything else possible.”
“I don’t want to guess, Baley. What is it?”
“The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals. Solaria has given it up entirely. It is a world of isolated individuals and the planet’s only sociologist is delighted that this is so. That sociologist, by the way, never heard of sociomathematics, because he is inventing his own science. There is no one to teach him, no one to help him, no one to think of something he himself might miss. The only science that really flourishes on Solaria is robotics and there are only a handful of men involved in that, and when it came to an analysis of the interaction of robots and men, they had to call in an Earthman to help.
“Solarian art, sir, is abstract. We have abstract art on Earth as one form of art; but on Solaria it is the only form. The human touch is gone. The looked-for future is one of ectogenesis and complete isolation from birth.”
Minnim said, “It all sounds horrible. But is it harmful?”
“I think so. Without the interplay of human against human, the chief interest in life is gone; most of the intellectual values are gone; most of the reason for living is gone. Viewing is no substitute for seeing.
It's impossible not to see some similarities between the book and reality, but then that's what a good story does right? It should give us pause, and make us consider how today's decisions could affect tomorrow.
This story from 60 years ago seems relevant today, during a time of pandemic when we're able (and maybe preferring) to turn to online tools for conversations. Like any tools, they're not inherently bad things! They help people stay connected with friends and family... that's a huge blessing. When close contact might mean getting someone sick, they're better than nothing.
I can't help wonder what the future holds though. If I'm honest with myself, I know there have been times when I could've knocked on my neighbor's door to ask something, but I text him instead. I could've called someone, but sent an email instead. At times, I seek out the least interactive ways of interacting with others, and that might be a relief in the short run, but what's the cost in the long run?
What if we grow past the zoom fatigue and come to prefer the online tools, especially as they continue to advance? What if we grow to prefer to not leave the comfort of our homes? To not work through the slight discomfort of meeting someone new, in person, when they're right there in front of us and we're forced to get acquainted? To not work together, in-person, to solve a problem?
A complete change like that would be a long ways off I think, but still... the questions seem worth asking.