Electronic Soma… or Addiction?

In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic novel, Brave New World, the government keeps citizens in line with soma, a drug described as having “all of the benefits of Christianity and alcohol without their defects.”  The “original” soma, of course, was a legendary Vedic drink said to convey immortality.

 Personally, I wonder if the current candidate for “soma” might not be the IPhone/Android/whatever handheld electronic communications/entertainment device.  Everywhere I look, people are buried in those devices.  They walk totally absorbed in such devices through city streets and college campuses, cross streets and often get hit, ignore crossing gates and get killed by trains… or they text while driving or doing something else.

In nearby St. George, earlier this year, a fifty-year-old woman was speeding and texting. She hit another car, throwing it onto the sidewalk where it killed a man and so severely injured his wife that she had fractured bones all over her body, had to have her skull rebuilt, and suffered 15,000 stitches.  The texting driver has been charged with vehicular homicide and assault and faces up to 15 years in prison.

 Every single day in the United States, there’s another spate of accidents and fatalities or injuries resulting from texting or from using some handheld electronic device, despite the proliferation of laws against use while driving.  Yet, for all the publicity, for all the laws, the possible legal consequences or even death from usage in the wrong places, the near-total absorption in such devices by tens of millions of Americans continues.  Why?  It’s not as though people don’t know the dangers.

 Could it be addiction?

 Just look at people. If they’re not on the device, they’re always checking it, and when they get a signal that “something” is arriving on their device, their faces light up in anticipation.  It’s the sort of look that people in love once displayed upon seeing their significant other, and I’m not sure that even happens any more. More and more often, since Cedar City is a university town, we see couples together in public places. More than a decade ago, they use to talk to each other.  Now they’re silent, sitting together, yet totally alone, each on his or her electronic device, seemingly oblivious to their partner.

 And, as for those messages… well… lately some parents of young people who’ve died in accidents while texting have published those texts… and they’re all absolutely trivial.  There’s nothing earth-shattering, or even interesting.  Yet there’s obviously something more addictive about being electronically connected than being personally connected.  Otherwise all those couples would be talking to each other rather than texting someone else.  And, frighteningly, in some cases they’re actually texting each other.  This gets you closer?

 From what I’ve seen, the electronic communications craze isolates people.  The other day, my wife and I wanted to invite an acquaintance and his wife to a party.  We see them on and off, but when we tried to call them, we discovered both their landlines had been disconnected.  He didn’t answer his office line or the message left on it.  Nor did he even open the email offering the invitation. We still haven’t been able to reach them.  And frankly, I don’t think I should have to drive over to their house some three miles away and knock on their door to invite them.  Besides, they’re likely so engrossed in their electronic diversions that they might not even answer the door.

 This is far from unusual.  Several of our grown offspring have disconnected their landlines.  But the problem with all this is simple – no one can reach you who doesn’t already know your number…or your Facebook name or account [and, dinosaur that I am, I refuse to do social media].  If you’re so into your handheld device that you don’t look at anyone around you and aren’t accessible to anyone who already doesn’t know you… how can your circle of true friends and acquaintances do anything but shrink.  Given social media, the only online “friends” you’re likely to get are people who think exactly as you do.  And all that means is that social polarization and individual isolation are increasing with the growth and addiction to electronic soma.

 Orwell’s soma made the routine of his Brave New World bearable, and apparently the handheld device of choice is doing something similar for people today, but unlike the Vedic soma, reputed to convey immortality, the most likely outcomes of excessive electronic soma are social polarization, growing physical isolation and an early death because sooner or later the outside world will crash into you, or you into it, in some form or another.

8 thoughts on “Electronic Soma… or Addiction?”

  1. Lisa Nohealani Morton says:

    Speaking as someone who doesn’t have a landline, I consider the fact that people can’t look me up and call me to be a feature, not a bug. I don’t particularly like to speak on the phone and I don’t want people to call me if I haven’t given them my number.

    I don’t think it contracts my social circle at all – I meet plenty of new people, but usually I first meet them in person and then give them the number (or my email, which I do keep publicly accessible, since I have much more control over whether and when to engage in a conversation via email). I can’t imagine doing it the other way around, and I think I’d find it pretty intrusive if someone called me out of the blue without my having given them my number.

  2. Kathryn says:

    I both agree and disagree with you, Mr Modesitt.

    Firstly, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the conclusions you perhaps accidentally draw between those accidents and the ‘soma’ (to use the same term). I think, really, that comes from a lack of awareness of the world around us, not necessarily from the presence of the ‘soma’. You need to be paying attention when crossing the road, or even just walking through a town, of both your surroundings and of other people and theirs.

    I mean I’ve seen people stop in the middle of a busy path, mothers pushing their prams out in front of them whilst checking to see if the road is clear, etc., etc. It’s a lack of basic awareness that causes these issues, and I don’t think you can blame it (entirely, at least) on this ‘soma’. And arguably what iPhones, etc. do now is no different to the scenario you had when walkmans hit the market and you had lots of people plugged into their tape players.

    But, of course, I will agree to some degree that mobile communication devices can be a negative thing in the hands of people. I, personally, don’t like to use my phone much. I have it for emergencies and for texting my family (almost never ring them) if I need to. But you see people walking along talking in their own little world, oblivious to everyone around them. You get people shouting down the phone so you can hear their side of the conversation. You get others who have the volume up so loud that you can hear the other person. And you get, perhaps the worst offenders of all, those who try to get services (use a bus, checkouts, etc.) whilst on the phone.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that these ‘soma’ devices don’t… create this situation. They’re not to blame for it. But they do provide a sort of catalyst for these kinds of ignorance, rudeness and – well – obliviousness that little else does. But I don’t think they’re the cause. They just have the potential to enhance what’s there. As with many things, it’s the person at fault in these situations.

  3. All you say is true… but it’s true of every form of addiction. Alcohol doesn’t “make” you drink. Generally, no one forces a drug addict to take the first hit. No one forces an IPhone “addict” to ignore the world…

    1. Kathryn says:

      Oh, certainly. There have been cases, I believe, of genuine texting addictions.

  4. Richard says:

    Asimov’s “The Naked Sun” is coming frighteningly close to reality. I think there’s an element of safety in electronic communication compared to human interaction. Too many people actually prefer to keep others at a distance.

  5. Emily says:

    I don’t have a landline and haven’t since 2003. It hasn’t hurt my friends’ and families’ ability to contact me, and in fact makes it easier for them to contact me whenever they want to and I have the option to answer depending on where I am physically. I don’t talk on the phone while driving, or even text; distracted driving – in any form – is extremely dangerous.

    I believe that the phenomenon you are describing where people (not just teens and young adults) seem to be glued to their phones for notification of their next “like” or status update is indicative of something more than just addiction. It actually shows how important the role of “approval” by peers has become, and amplifies the ability for “society” to disperse info on the newest, latest, and greatest, that is then to be followed, adopted, and adored, by those seeking approval. For example, an entertainment company puts out the latest hairstyle being sported by a star, and a 20’s something sees this on their web-connected phone. The 20’s something sees their friends talking about how great it is, and so the 20’s something goes and gets their hair done in style. It is imperative that the 20’s something immediately gets word out that they too have the newest, latest, and greatest hairstyle, so tweeting happens as the stylist is styling, and photos are uploaded as the credit card is being swiped, and lo-and-behold, the peers approve. With “likes”, “shares”, and OMG tweets, reinforcing for the 20’s something that she is liked, that her style is conformitive with the new standard, and her “friends” validate her choice of emulating society. It is this desire to belong, to have approval, and to fit into society, that is largely responsible for this zombie-like practice.

  6. Dave Ansell says:

    Ah, the march of the lemmings…

    I (like Mr Modesitt) refuse to “do” social media and can only comment on my observations of others in it’s thrall. But I do see links to the young generations need for instant gratification AND a desire for their voices to be heard. No longer is it necessary for arduous training, learning from experience and, dare I say it, actual talent & ability to make one’s mark on society & in the world. Now, a person’s worth can be measured by “friends” on Facebook and “approvals” on Twitter.

    What I also find disturbing is the anonymity that the Internet in general and “social media” in particular allows. To paraphrase Socrates, people no longer act as they wish to be perceived but merely tweet (or blog) to fit a persona they wish to (perhaps briefly) portray. In our society, it is becoming increasingly difficult to measure the integrity or worth of a person by their actions. The need to gain a solid “track record” of actual achievement is being dismissed as being “too hard” or “taking too long” or even “old fashioned” by our youth.

    I know history teaches that every generation worries about it’s youth and the directions they seem to be taking. But I do think there is a risk that the soma may turn out to be intellectual hemlock.

  7. “It’s the sort of look that people in love once displayed upon seeing their significant other, and I’m not sure that even happens any more.”

    I just thought I would assure you this most definitely does still happen, for me at least, wonderfully each and every day.

    Of course, the pain of spending months apart from one’s significant other does wonders for ensuring the simple fact of being together is never taken for granted.

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