Alienation and Art

I use the term “alienation” to mean emotional detachment from reality. Alienation is a growing problem in late modernity, for three reasons:

  1. Material abundance: Our brains evolved to solve problems of survival. Modern civilization has eliminated most problems of survival. Almost everyone has adequate food, shelter, comfort, health care and personal security. This is a good situation to be in, but it is also a strange situation for a life form. Our brains are not adapted to this condition.
  2. Sexual liberation: Birth control has “liberated” us from the natural consequence of sex: children. Changes to laws and norms have “liberated” us from the lifetime commitment of marriage. Women have been “liberated” from their dependence on men by the state and the market. These liberations have created an environment to which our sexual emotions are not adapted. If you “follow your heart” you will probably end up lonely.
  3. Information abundance: In late modernity, we not only have material abundance, we also have information abundance. With a few clicks of a mouse, or a few touches on a screen, you can get almost any type of information that you want: porn, role-playing games, social media, music, TV shows, etc. Most of this information is artificial, and most of it is designed, either consciously or by memetic evolution, to manipulate us. Our brains are not adapted to this condition. We can easily become addicted to artificial information, or in other words, to art. The information revolution has created an abundance of art.

As I use the term, alienation is the psychological condition of emotional detachment from reality. It is caused by the mismatch of our emotions to the modern world.

Emotions have a biological basis, and they evolved to drive action toward solving problems. Emotions determine what we view as a problem. The emotion of hunger makes getting food a problem. The emotion of lust makes getting sex a problem.

Alienation occurs when our emotions generate artificial problems instead of natural problems. What makes a problem “natural”? I’m going to call a problem “natural” if solving it serves the ultimate biological purpose of reproduction. Our brains evolved to identify and solve natural problems.

Late modernity is an especially alienating environment. It is full of “alienation traps”: addictive substitutes for real problems and solutions. Many of these traps are art-forms, such as video games, porn, social media, etc. They consist of information that simulates natural problem-solution cycles. People become trapped in these problem-solving cycles.

Not all alienation traps are informational. Opiate drugs are a chemical alienation trap. Opiate drugs alienate you from reality by satisfying emotions artificially.

Each of your emotions has some important function. Hunger makes you eat. Thirst makes you drink. Lust makes you fuck. Physical pain makes you avoid injury. Anxiety makes you work for the future. And so on.

Opiate drugs take away hunger, thirst, lust, physical pain and anxiety. The opiate addict falls into the addictive cycle of pursuing one fix after another, rather than solving natural problems. The cycle of taking the drug replaces natural problem-solving cycles.

Video games are an informational alienation trap. People can become immersed in video games to the point of spending thousands of hours playing them. Video games have artificial problems and solutions that are designed to plug into human emotions. In particular, they plug into emotions that have been “orphaned” by the modern environment, such as aggression. In modern civilization, you rarely need to fight enemies or monsters. In a video game, you can do that all day long.

Ironically, we use modern computer technology to simulate the problems of a stone-age hunter or iron-age warrior, but without the risk of real injury or death. Fighting monsters feels more natural than working at a boring job, or asking out a girl. And, when you are solving problems in that artificial reality, you feel as if you are doing something important.

Porn is another alienation trap. Men can easily become trapped in a cycle of using porn to generate and satisfy lust. Porn is an artificial substitute for sex with real women. It can generate the same feelings of arousal and satisfaction, without the risk of rejection, but also without the possibility of reproduction.

Porn is not the only sexual alienation trap. Anime waifus are fantasy girlfriends, designed to plug into the emotions of adoration and love, rather than lust. A man can use a waifu and his imagination to experience falling in love and pair-bonding. Women can do the same thing with romance novels and soap operas.

Cute little pets plug into parental instincts. Pets are an art-form. These days, most pets exist only to manipulate emotions, not to solve real problems. They are substitutes for children.

There are also alienation traps that plug into our social emotions. There are “social fetishes”: art-forms designed to simulate real societies and/or real social interactions.

For example, a spectator sport such as football is a social fetish. Spectator sports are art-forms. (It’s only a sport if you are playing it yourself. Otherwise, it’s art.) Rooting for a team generates the feeling of being part of a small group, united in pursuit of a common goal. Spectator sports are a simulation of tribal warfare.

Our brains are adapted to small societies, consisting of only 100 or so members. Beyond a certain size, a society cannot plug into human emotions by itself. Modern societies are large and complex, and they are based on abstract ideas, such as laws and money, rather than emotions and personal relationships. As a consequence, modern societies are alienating.

Social media platforms, on the other hand, are designed to engage our social emotions. People naturally form into groups on social media, compete for status within those groups, and fight with other groups.

Social media generates a collaborative art-form, similar to an MMORPG. This art-form can be highly addictive. Pwning someone on social media feels important. Likes and follows feel important. However, those feelings do not reflect reproductive utility, because our social emotions evolved in a completely different environment.

To reproduce, we need to interact with people in real life. So, real-life interaction is generally more adaptive than social media interaction. However, real life interaction is also highly artificial. It is a kind of improvisational theater, in which we play characters whose beliefs and feelings differ from our own.

The artificiality of social interaction causes a kind of internal alienation in which the social persona replaces the true self. The social persona is an art form: a fake self. Even when we are interacting with others in “real life”, we are often immersed in an artificial reality. In those situations, instead of using art as a substitute for reality, we use art as a substitute for ourselves.

Can you be emotionally detached from reality without being immersed in a fantasy world? Yes. Generally speaking, that corresponds to nihilistic depression. Existential nihilism is the view that life is absurd, devoid of meaning and purpose. It is an emotional detachment from reality without an artificial substitute. Nihilism is philosophical alienation.

There is an ironic reflex built into progress. We naturally try to shape our environments to satisfy our desires, using technology and art. Technology makes it easier to solve the natural problems related to survival. Art allows us to substitute artificial problems for natural problems. But the more we adapt the environment to our desires, the less well our desires are adapted to the environment.

Late modernity places humanity in a very strange condition. The industrial revolution made it easier to satisfy our survival-related desires. The sexual revolution made it possible to satisfy sexual desires without marriage and children. The information revolution allows us to satisfy desires with art. Each of these revolutions detached our emotions from their natural functions, and thus emotionally detached us from reality.

Increasingly, we live our lives within little bubbles of technology and art, solving problems of our own creation.