–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Our Own Naked Sun

by | Mar 5, 2024

In The Naked Sun (1957), Isaac Asimov imagines Solaria, a low-population world in which residents live on estates so large that one never encounters one’s neighbors in person. As robots are employed in virtually every manner of labor, these estates are also almost entirely empty of human beings aside from their owners. This contrasts with the first installment of Asimov’s “Robot Novels,” The Caves of Steel (1954), which is set on an overpopulated earth, where people dwell in hive-like underground cities and privacy is almost impossible to come by. 

Unsurprisingly, the relative mores and norms of these two societies are very different. On the earth, elaborate rituals are imposed in shared spaces – and especially intimate ones, like washrooms and toilets – to maximize whatever tiny bits of privacy can be eked out of the overcrowded environment. On Solaria, meanwhile, residents consider it a serious breach of manners to appear at someone’s house or otherwise approach a person in the flesh, and find physical contact and especially sexual engagements repellant.

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In the waning months of the Covid pandemic, my wife observed that the common practice of shaking hands had largely disappeared. She couldn’t get used to it and found herself offering hands to people only to get a puzzled or even alarmed look in response. You’re offering to shake my hand? When there’s a plague on?! Of course, people happily shook hands with one another long before there were chemical sanitizers, antibiotics, antiviral medications, vaccinations, or any modern medicine at all for that matter. Our reaction was a choice; a conscious decision to adopt a new set of mores and norms. This was already happening well before Covid-19, when we collectively decided to engage in a civilization-wide social experiment in real time – using the entire population as test-subjects, including children – in which we radically altered the way in which people interact and communicate. I am talking about social media, “smart” phones, and information and communications technologies, and it’s quaint to remember how people used to worry about putting their kids in the hands of Looney Toons or Hana Barbara for a few hours, in light of the fact that no one today appears to be concerned about handing them over to Instagram or TikTok 24/7.

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Humans are primates, and it’s well-understood that primates require social and physical contact in order to develop normally. That being the case, one would expect our living environments and arrangements and the norms governing both to reflect and serve this need. Certainly, we would not expect to see the near-universal adoption of forms of life, technologies and norms whose aim is to minimize and even eliminate any opportunity for in-the-flesh interaction, yet this is exactly what we’ve done. Imaginary worlds that were once presented to us in a spirit not just of speculation but of caution and warning are now places that we are trying to realize in real life.

Shopping through Amazon and other online retail giants has significantly reduced the amount of time we spend in stores and markets, and automation has ensured that what little remaining time we do spend in such places is in the company of fewer and fewer people working in them. Dating and “hookup” apps mean people seeking romantic encounters need never go to bars or nightclubs or any of the other places where one socializes with other people in the flesh, while video streaming technologies mean fewer people are going to workplaces, where they might interact with others, once again, in person. Add to this an entirely online social ecosystem and throw in a few years of pandemic-imposed isolation, and you’ve created a solipsistic, Cartesian reality in which everyone is trapped inside his or her own internal consciousness and routinely interacts with others and with the world through avatars and icons. Especially the young.

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Unsurprisingly, Naked-Sun-style mores and norms and psychopathologies have followed. The social and legal penalties for unsolicited touching have grown like Kudzu, and even unwanted or disliked looks are now policed. Looking people in the eyes has been “problematized” and is no longer treated as indication of seriousness and good manners. Because avatars are entirely under the control of those to whom they belong, one is expected to accept and even genuflect before peoples’ personal ideations while in the real world, no matter how bizarre or at odds with reality they may be. Personal insult or offense is treated as if it was a violent assault on the body. Sex has become such a field of potential social and legal landmines that when you add the inevitable body-dissociation that comes from spending so much of one’s life online, it’s no wonder young people are having so little of it.

In virtual reality, everything is endlessly malleable and reformable and changeable and customizable and self-selecting, and spending too much time there can cause a person to forget that this is not true in the world of flesh and blood. Worse, it may lead a person to attempt to carve the flesh-and-blood world into the image of the virtual – to “customize and personalize” one’s material reality – which bears much of the responsibility for the hostile, malicious, antipathetic civic and work environments we find ourselves in today. One can easily “cleanse” one’s virtual spaces of unexpected or undesired or incongruous elements, so why not do the same in one’s material spaces? 

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Capital will always seek to create a zero-labor world. People, however, need to work – to be engaged in substantial, productive activity – for both material and psycho-“spiritual” reasons having to do with self-image and worth – which is one reason (among many) why it’s madness to allow unbridled, unregulated markets to do whatever they like. Companies selling online products and services will always want us to spend all of our time online – which as we’ve seen is terrible for us – so it makes no sense to allow them to take over all of our modes of social interaction, whether communications, commerce, or romance. Medicine will always try to produce zero-levels of illness and disease, and yet, people need to interact socially, in-person, for the reasons already discussed, so it’s crazy to allow the medical sector to control our day-to-day activities, aside from in the most extreme of circumstances. As I walk through supermarkets and stores and see entirely automated checkouts; when I watch news features on drones taking over package- and mail-delivery and self driving taxis; when I see young people so anxious and awkward that they cannot look you in the face or tolerate a pat on the shoulder; when I talk to my daughter, who didn’t have a romantically satisfying experience until she was almost out of college; all I can see is Asimov’s Naked Sun. And all I can do is wonder why anyone in their right mind would want it.

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