Atrophy of the Relational Muscles

Fortunately for me, my kids have taken it upon themselves to direct me to cool, new music, TV shows and YouTube videos. Both are ardent fans of “Stranger Things,” a recent Netflix series that is set in the 80s and stars Winona Ryder. We recent watched “Friday Night Lights” again, which is also set in the 80s. There are many more such shows and movies set in the period.

What is this fascination with the 80s? My theory is that the 80s were the last decade that was culturally much like the present, but technology had not yet remade the lives we lead today. There were still life dilemmas in the 80s that were tangible, could be shown, and there was no technology solution.

For example, if a guy wanted to talk to a girl, he had two choices; walk right up to her and start a conversation or call her on a landline phone. Both paths were fraught with peril. That social dilemma is gone and has been replaced by texting and social media, which is far less compelling to commit to film. The whole transaction is really just people hunched over a tiny screen.

Are you lost on a highway? Can’t find a phone? Are you out of film for your camera? Are you lonely, or bored, or just unpopular? Not sure what that rash is all about? These problems and many more are solved by your phone. Again, there’s not much to see or hear; just more people staring at a box and wiggling their thumbs around.

It seems screenwriters are having trouble supplying the dramatic conflicts that don’t have an immediate phone solution. The phone and the internet are incredibly powerful problems solvers and that is a new and serious problem, and not just for writers; it’s a problem for people.

The human problem solving muscles are atrophying along with our handwriting and other literal muscles. Human relationships are problems to be solved and technology provides a compelling way to distance oneself from other people. Shy people used to be called “bookish” if they retreated into fictional worlds on the printed page for comfort. And yet, our life on the phone is entirely fictional. Is there anything more pathetic than looking around a restaurant and seeing people sitting across from each other but staring at their phone? When people are at live events, some growing percentage will be recording it on their phones. Life, happening live right in front of them, and yet they are viewing it through the phone screen, presumably to share so others may experience it on the same little windows. We are progressively becoming less present in our owns lives because of these little screens.

The human body was designed to endure under very primitive conditions, and yet few people are ever in an environment that challenges the body to dig into its vast reserves. Hard physical exertion, eating simple, whole foods sparingly between bouts of hunger, and being both hot and cold triggers the health responses of the body. Very few of us ever experience any of those conditions unless we seek them out, and consequently, our caveman physical potential is never called upon.

What if our technology suppresses our likelihood of being required to solve complex human relational problems as well? As hard work builds the body, learning to think and solve problems builds the mind, and together, they form an advanced human. If nothing in our world encourages any of this, we’re allowing machines to be alive for us. They grow more able, we do not.

It has taken decades to come to the ground truth that our industrial food systems and our sedentary lifestyles are destroying our bodies. Alternative ways to eat have emerged and the fitness industry sprung whole cloth from nothing in the 1970s and 1980s to be what it is now. If the most inventive and clever storytellers on the planet find it difficult to conceive of meaningful human dilemmas without retreating to an era in which both the internet and the iPhone didn’t exist, perhaps the devices are corrosive and we’ll have to discover ways to counter their tendency to atrophy our relationships.

Interesting update from 2023: Humans could face reproductive crisis as sperm count declines, study finds – It might not just be our relational muscles that are in decline.