How Technology is Destroying Human Happiness
(a work in progress)
Although the people of the contemporary world enjoy unprecedented personal wealth, abundant food, the most effective medical care in human history, and the longest average life-spans ever recorded, they remain surprisingly unhappy. Study after study by researchers from numerous scientific disciplines shows that the lives of contemporary people are filled with chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness at levels that have rarely been reported for any human society.
Seeking relief from their psychological torments, modern people have turned for comfort to drugs, foods, and electronic communications. But their addictive consumption of these products has only compounded the problem. Now, in addition to their psychological suffering, their gross overconsumption of foods, drugs, and electronic communications has produced an epidemic of physical and mental health problems severe enough to become life-threatening.
This book is an attempt to explain the origins and nature of a strange paradox: that the triumphs of modern technology seem to have resulted in an actual reduction in human happiness.
To begin to understand what has happened to us, we must go back to our earliest beginnings and trace the evolution of the human species.
Throughout the millions of years of evolution, the human mind and body—like the prehistoric apes from which we evolved—was adapted to living intimately within the natural environments of tropical Africa. Hunting game and gathering plant foods, wandering constantly in search of new supplies of natural foods, living in caves or in primitive huts and tents, armed with simple tools and weapons of stone, bone, and wood, and protected from the elements by little more than their crude and tiny dwellings, the skins of the animals they hunted, and the small campfires they built to keep themselves warm, prehistoric humans long ago adapted to the lifestyle of nomadic hunting and gathering that characterized all human societies until well after the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago.
Yet it was only a few thousand years later—and more than 100,000 years since the human species attained its modern form—that humanity developed an entirely new way of life based on agriculture and settled down to live in stationery houses and permanent communities. The technology of agriculture eventually led to the abandonment of the nomadic hunting and gathering way of life, the emergence of cities, and ultimately to the rise of the urban civilizations that have flourished all over the world for most of the past 5,000 years. And it was only a few hundred years ago that the invention of precision machinery, modern firearms, the steam engine, electricity, and the internal combustion engine completely transformed the world, and with it, the lives of its human inhabitants.
This book will show how our modern lifestyle—based on the unnatural world that technology has created—no longer harmonizes with the human natures we inherited from our hunting and gathering ancestors. And it will explain why the clash between our natures and our technology-driven world has created a plague of unhappiness that is arguably both more widespread and more severe than has ever been recorded in human history.
The Assault on Human Nature
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the ancient harmony that once existed between human nature and the natural environment has been swept away, replaced by the profound disconnect that now exists between our inherited natures and the technology-driven world we have created for ourselves. The result of this disconnect is the profound mental and physical unease that now afflicts most of the people living in the world’s most technologically advanced societies.
Technology has changed every aspect of human existence, but the highly adaptable human species has grown so accustomed to living an unnatural life that it no longer recognizes the disconnect between its inner nature and the technological world it inhabits from birth to the end of life.
Human Nature in a Technological World
Living the Unnatural Life In a Technology-Driven Society
Hunters and Gatherers in the Natural World
The Invention of Agriculture and the Rise of Civilization
The Unnatural World of Modern Society
Neural Adaptation: How the Brain Adjusts to Unnatural Conditions
Social Acceptance: The Power of Other People’s Perceptions
Our inherited natures as human beings took shape during our prehistoric ancestors’ multimillion-year history as nomadic hunters and gatherers in the natural world, and it was this hunting and gathering lifestyle to which our species has long been adapted. But when people invented agricultural technology beginning 10,000 years ago and began to alter the landscape to produce food rather than forage for it in the natural environment, human life—including the nature of human communities, human diets, and the nature of human work—changed radically.
Along with these changes in human society came an equally radical transformation of the natural world, as the forests, fields, mountains, and rivers that humans had long inhabited were gradually converted into production units devoted to the exclusive fulfillment of human needs. Meanwhile, the slow death of nomadism and the establishment of permanent communities led to the birth of urban civilization, and with it, the gradual separation of humanity from nature.
But when the industrial revolution occurred less than 300 years ago, the human lifestyle became so unnatural that our inherited human natures are no longer capable of harmonizing with the technology-driven society it created. Yet modern people go through life with little or no awareness of this disharmony, because the human brain has an astonishing ability to adapt to the most unnatural conditions if they persist over time—and to accept other people’s perceptions that this life is “normal,” even when these perceptions fly in the face of reality.
A Rising Tide of Unhappiness
Stress, Anxiety, Loneliness, and Depression is the New Normal
The Loss of Freedom and Autonomy
The Loss of Human Companionship
The Shock of Change
Chronic Anxiety and Stress
Although advanced technologies have bestowed numerous benefits on humankind, the completely unnatural lifestyles they created have done lasting damage to our psychological well-being. The unnatural aspects of the modern lifestyle includes the loss of personal freedom and autonomy, the loss of human companionship, a mental life drowning in information overload, and the shock of rapid and continuous change. These unnatural conditions, unknown among hunting and gather peoples, but common in modern industrial societies, have produced high levels of chronic anxiety and stress in the most technologically advanced nations and are universal hazards to the mental and emotional health of contemporary people.
Overworked, Undercompensated, and Insecure
The Part-Time Work of Hunters and Gatherers
The Full-Time Work of Farmers and Herders
How Modern Employment Dominates Human Life
Boredom, Alienation, Insecurity, and Anxiety
When anthropologists began to study the working life of hunting and gathering societies, they were astonished to find that even in the harshest environment, people spent less than twenty hours per week hunting and foraging for the food they needed. Agricultural people, on the other hand, worked much longer and harder to accumulate the surplus wealth that allowed them to survive periods of famine and to create the complex, large-scale societies that grew into the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and the Americas.
Since the work that preindustrial people did was woven into the fabric of their daily lives, the concept of employment did not exist for most of human history. But with the coming of the industrial revolution, a new type of society arose, built on the premise of employment for wages. In this new contemporary society, the vast majority of people depend for their livelihoods on doing specific jobs for near-strangers, receiving in return neither food nor goods but rather symbolic wealth in the form of money that can be exchanged for food and goods. The result, for the majority of adults, is a working life characterized by boredom, alienation, insecurity, and anxiety.
Artificial Light, Unnatural Schedules, and Chronic Insomnia
Sunrise, Sunset, and the Moon
Sleeping With Fire and Staying Up Late
Lamplight, Candlelight, and Electric Lights
Sleep in the Clockwork Society
The Health Risks of Inadequate Sleep
When the industrial revolution replaced the dim, flickering light of fires, lamps, and candles with the artificial daylight of electric lighting, the human brain no longer took its cues from the rising and setting of the sun. Instead, humanity began to lose its connection to the rhythms of daylight and darkness that govern the behavior of all other forms of terrestrial life. No longer connected to these natural rhythms, human sleep has taken a back seat not only to the demands of work but also to the temptations of social life and electronic entertainment. As a result, sleep disorders have become commonplace and chronic, and the unnatural patterns of sleep in modern life have progressed to the point where they have become a serious risk to human health.
The Broken Human Life-Cycle
Growing Up in Captivity
When Childhood Was a Time of Freedom
Enforced Isolation, Structured Lives, and Adult Supervision
Age Grades and Age Segregation
Walled Off From the Adult World
Childhood in preindustrial societies was once a time of freedom, exploration, intense peer interaction, and constant exposure to adult role models. But children in modern society are raised in comparative isolation and captivity. Their opportunities for play are severely restricted. Their daily activities are increasingly structured, and they live under nearly continual supervision by parents, teachers, and other authority figures. They are required to sit still in schools for hours at a time, prohibited from interacting freely with their peers. Lacking sufficient opportunities for interactive play and social experimentation, they are slow to develop the social and psychological skills they will need as adults. Finally, they come of age with little or no exposure to the world of adult society. Thus, with each passing generation, the new generations struggle—with diminishing success and ever greater desperation—to assume meaningful adult roles or to develop satisfying adult personalities.
The Failure to Mature Becomes Commonplace
Almost Endless Adolescence
The Decline of Lasting Sexual Partnerships
Choosing to Remain Childless
Adulthood in contemporary society seems to arrive later and later in life. For the generations who came of age in the 21st century, living with their parents and remaining dependent on their financial support has become commonplace well into their thirties. Marriage—which was once considered a mandatory requirement for achieving adulthood—has become not only optional but has been declining in popularity for decades in the most technologically advanced nations. And even among the shrinking number of people who marry or establish permanent sexual relationships, having children has lost much of its appeal and is no longer regarded as either an inevitable or even necessary outcome of choosing a life partner.
Unnatural Old Age
The Elderly Lose Their Relevance, Prestige, and Self-Esteem
The Obsolete Generation
Disconnected From the Family
Alone at the End of Life
It was not long ago that men and women who lived to a ripe old age were valued as vital sources of experience and wisdom, and they were treated with respect and deference. But in our fast-changing society, the elderly have become marginalized and—due to the rapidly-changing nature of modern society—much of their knowledge and experience has become obsolete and of little or no interest to the younger generations. Increasingly separated geographically and socially from their children and grandchildren, they often live in isolation and loneliness. And at the end of life, they pass out of this world less often in the bosom of loving families and more often in the sterile solitude of a nursing home or hospital room.
The Disappearing Family
Weakened Roles and Broken Relationships
When the Family Was the Bedrock of Human Society
Family, Kinfolk, Clan, and Tribe
The Decline of the Family in Modern Society
Why Governments Have Assumed the Responsibilities of the FamilyHomeless Amid Plenty
For nearly all of
human history, the family has been a bedrock of human society, but in modern
times this bedrock has been crumbling. Traditional family roles have fallen by
the wayside, the sharing of work, wealth, and property among family members has become increasingly
obsolete, and a growing number of people live without homes, without families,
and without a meaningful connection to society. In recent decades, the nation-state
has assumed increasing responsibility for the welfare, protection, and support of the
elderly, impoverished, and disabled members of society. Has the human family
finally become obsolete?
Searching for Happiness
As they experience the pain and frustration of their unnatural lives and broken life-cycles, it is inevitable that modern people have come to seek comfort and relief in activities that provided humans with biologically pleasurable rewards. Thus, human nature itself drives people to seek the things which, throughout human prehistory, have been able to ease the pain and sorrows of our ancestors. These include especially the pleasure of eating, the relief of medicine, and the comfort of human communication.
The problem for modern people is that modern food has become singularly abundant and unnaturally pleasing to the human palate, medicine has become a powerful and addictive source of emotional gratification, and human communication has become cheapened and diluted by being squeezed by the arbitrary limitations of electronic media. Thus, in seeking relief from chronic unhappiness, people have been ruining their bodies with excessive food, ruining their minds with excessive drugs, and losing the comfort of spontaneous human interaction by becoming addicted to the artificiality of electronic communications.
Ruining Our Bodies by Seeking Comfort in Food
Eating for Pleasure
Overfed Yet Malnourished
The Wages of Obesity
Sugar and Salt, Oil and Fat
The Diet as Cure-All
The foods that now dominate the modern diet are eaten not so much to sustain life as to provide solace in the midst of unhappiness. The human body is programmed to crave sweet and salty food as well as meats rich in fats and oils—all of which were in limited supply as long as people had to hunt and gather wild foods. But the foods produced by industrial agriculture are plentiful and inexpensive, and the foods that sell best are often rich in calories, deficient in vital nutrients, loaded with chemical additives, and marketed relentlessly for profit. The result is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease without precedent in human history. Understanding that modern dietary habits are not only unnatural but often unhealthy, modern people have embraced a bewildering variety of diets and food taboos. But since unnatural eating is only one part of the puzzle, all of the other problems remain.
Fighting Unhappiness by Drugging the Mind
Treating Normal Emotions With Psychoactive Drugs
Drug Addiction, Legal and Illegal
Drugging Children to Make Them Behave
Drugging Adults to Help Them Accept Their Unhappy Lives
Modern medicine has greatly extended the human life span, but the practice of medicine has become corrupted by the unprecedented profitability of the drug industry. The result is excessive overmedication—not only for a vast range of psychological problems, but also for behaviors that are the inevitable result of the unnatural conditions that people face in daily life. Compounding the problem is that the practice of psychiatry—as well as the pharmaceutical industry—has been profiting immensely from the prescribing and sale of psychoactive pharmaceuticals. Inevitably, this vast influx of money has corrupted—sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly—both the regulatory institutions that have allowed this practice to grow as well as the politicians who ultimately control (or fail to control) the government agencies that are supposed to provide oversight.
To a degree that would have been unfathomable to earlier generations, the use of psychoactive drugs in modern society has become accepted as normal, and—incredibly—a large part of the population—including both children and adults—are not only regular drug users but—in every sense of the word—drug addicts.
Seeking Companionship in Electronic Media
The Human Need for Communication
Communication in Small-Scale Societies
How Agriculture Limited Human Interaction
How the Industrial Revolution Stifled Human Interaction
The Electronic Media Enters the Void
Addicted to Digital Communications
Cultural anthropologists have long observed that people in tribal societies talk to each other constantly from morning to night, and in most of these societies, the concept of privacy is virtually unknown. In fact, the innate human need for constant communication with others is part of our human DNA—as it also is among chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, our closest biological relatives. But as technology has played an increasingly greater role in society, face-to-face interaction has been increasingly suppressed. When agricultural societies emerged, the long hours of work in the fields and pastures as well as the fact that their permanent dwellings were often built far apart made daily conversations more difficult.
When the industrial revolution broke up the old farming communities, it also broke up family life. Men went to work, children went to school, and women stayed home, cooking, cleaning, sewing, and mending. As loneliness and solitude became widespread, the frustrated human desire for companionship and communication was gradually replaced by a growing army of electronic devices.
The first of these devices emerged in the early 20th century, when the hand-crank telephone and a few dozen local radio stations came on the scene. But by the beginning of the 21st century, immense AM and FM radio networks, hundreds of broadcast and cable television channels, the internet, the personal computer, and the ubiquitous smartphone had become a part of everyone's daily life. The long-frustrated desire for communication with others has by now been largely replaced by the media of electronic communications, which have become a singular feature of modern life. In fact, the inhabitants of modern society have now become so dependent on communicating by email, text messages, and social media that the art of face-to-face interaction and simple conversation might be slowly withering away.
The Quest For a Natural Life
Restoring Harmony Between Human Nature and Our Technology-Driven World
Respecting the Need For Sleep
Liberating the Young
Reinventing the Family
Reducing Dependence on Psychoactive Drugs
Rediscovering the Art of Human Communication
Reconnecting With Nature
Our technology-based world is here to stay. Civilization is not going to devolve back into some form of preindustrial way of life, because that is not what people want. Yet in a world where the simple pleasures of happiness and satisfaction are in short supply, the thirst for change is strong.
In a world overflowing with wealth, it should not be necessary for people to work two or three times as long or as hard as the simple hunters and gatherers of prehistoric times. In a society enlightened by unprecedented advances in scientific research, people should never be starved for proper or sufficient sleep. In a world filled with automation, robots, and artificial intelligence, children should not continue to be trained for the mind-numbing jobs of the modern industrial economy by sitting still for hours at a time, performing mindless, repetitive tasks. And in a world where the human species has the power to determine the nature of its daily existence, it should not be necessary for people to drown their sorrows through the excessive consumption of fattening foods and mind-altering drugs, or replacing the lost arts of human interaction by an addiction to electronic communications.
Technology is a human creation, and despite the doomsayers’ warnings of humanity risking extinction at the hands of robots and artificial intelligence, technology has been and will always be under the control and direction of human begins. If we have allowed technology to dehumanize daily life, we can equally well place ourselves on a path in which technology helps us to humanize daily life once again. Above all, this will require that we understand, appreciate, and respect our inborn human natures and that we reconnect our lives with the natural environments from which we evolved. Only by putting these principles into practice will we succeed in restoring the harmony that has been lost between our human natures and the technology-driven world that we call home.