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COVID’s Dopamine Prison
"Thanks to the enforced isolation of lockdowns, there isn’t a moment of our lives when Jeff Bezos isn’t yanking us around at the end of a digital leash"
The purpose of COVID lockdowns was to save lives. But they have accelerated the trends of atomisation and anomie in society, smashing individuals into little consumerist fragments who interact with the world solely through the filter of proprietary digital technologies. We’re all locked into this prison and it’s not clear that we will come out when COVID ends.
You can imagine it. You get up in the morning and workout along to a YouTube instructional video. You call into your office via zoom. At lunch you read a book on your e-reader, or do some internet shopping. Your mind drifts in the afternoon and you browse fast-food lunch options, piss about on Twitter or Instagram. After work you facetime your brother in the UK and wait the grocery order from Tesco you scheduled online last week. Into the evening you play video games, watch Netflix, more internet shopping. If you’re single maybe you while away the evening on Tinder or Grindr or Bumble. Depending on the type of person you are this all interspersed with Twitch, 0nlyfans and P0rnhub. The glow of the screen is extinguished at 3am and wakes you again at 7, like an evil sunrise/ sunset, and you begin again.
All this would be bad enough if the only effect of these technologies was that they created a distance and a barrier between you and other people. It’s not just that. These are proprietary technologies, which means they have been refined and gamified to within an inch of their lives. In the shallowest short term way they are crafted to give you a dose of fulfillment you looking for and hint that they next pellet is within reach. Even the most benign of them is made to be unfulfilling, addictive and self-perpetuating.
This system is great for getting you to buy or use products, and getting you good at playing the pellet-dispensing game. But it’s terrible at providing the long term sense of personal achievement you looked for when you went into the trap. A key feature of these systems is that they destroy your capacity to concentrate.
The promise of Lockdowns was the chance to turn off the part of your brain that frets about personal interaction and be free to be yourself, in private. But in practice removing people from a framework of traditional moral norms to allow them to “flourish” actually means the fall into the default mode of our age which is that of a brainless consumer worker bee, or a person who can’t do that and is therefore useless. Now there isn’t a moment of our lives when Jeff Bezos isn’t yanking us around at the end of a digital leash. This is the Malady of the Infinite described by Durkheim, yet somehow worse.
The Gnostics believed that the world was an illusion, created by a demon, within which we were imprisoned, and that could only be transcended by direct personal experience of the divine. Using technology we have somehow, during COVID, created a world where there is more literal truth to that vision of the world than at any other time in history.
Again - all of this was a problem before lockdowns. Now it’s a catastrophe. We’re gambling addicts who have taken refuge from a storm in a casino. What are the chances we’ll willingly leave when the storm is over? what are the chances we’ll even be able to tell when the storm is over? What are the chances the casino operator will let us leave?
The first way to tackle this would be to see coverage and discussion of COVID acknowledge that there is a psychological cost to limiting people’s freedom in the way we have, in the age of ubiquitous and heavily gamified digital media; and that some people are becoming fabulously wealthy via the enforced atomisation of society. It was true before COVID and is massively more true now. How do we account for the interest and influence of these powerful people in deciding when and how to end our current situation?
The second way is to be more personally discerning about technologies we engage with. If you can’t talk to your family face to face, I reluctantly accept that Skype/ Facetime etc allow you to keep in visual contact, so to that extent they’re a good thing. I’ve been learning/relearning Irish on Duolingo, though as soon as I can I’ll try and drop it for face to face classes. The good technologies are the things that let you do essential and nourishing life tasks in a better way; though they are always inferior to, and more psychologically dangerous than, face to face contact with real people.
I started praying during COVID. I’m not religious, and there were a variety of reasons I felt the need to do it, but it in part it was an impulse to get past the fake world and penetrate it, to something real, to rend the digital veil. Accomplishing something, being real, living like a human means clearing the clutter of products you have built up around yourself. So the final thing would be to look for opportunities to rend the veil in that way, by meeting and interacting with people face to face, making real things, holding real objects, whenever possible, and by simply choosing at some moments not to look at life through the magic mirror, even though it might be less convenient to do so.