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Our Wire Mothers
On supplementing v. supplanting
“They just want my love and my energy.” —Doja Cat
In the late 1950’s psychologist Harry Harlow ran experiments on baby monkeys wherein he separated them from their mothers a few hours after they were born and replaced the real mom with two artificial stand-ins. One “mom” was made of wire and had an attached baby bottle. The other was made of soft cloth but provided no food.
The “point” of this awful experiment was to see which “mom” the babies monkeys preferred being with. I’m sure you’ve already (correctly) hypothesized that they spent more time with the cloth-covered “mother”. To me, and I’m sure to you as well, this result seems obvious. In what little defense I can offer Mr. Harlow, there was a growing movement at the time suggesting that giving infants physical affection caused them to grow into needy, weak-willed adults. Harlow, through his various experiments, “proved” that no amount of wires, cloth and food, can provide all that babies need to thrive into confident, emotionally secure individuals. So what is it about humans these days that despite having no shortage of real people around, we find ourselves spending the most time with our digital wire mother that is the Internet?
“Supplement, don’t supplant.”
Here’s a shorthand way to think about healthful technology use. Any technology, really, from an air conditioner or dishwasher, to TV or iPhones. Ask yourself:
“Is this tool supplementing my life? Or is it supplanting some aspect of it that is more meaningful to me?”
I like to take film photos. I find the effort rewarding. But I also appreciate the benefits a smartphone camera provides. With a smartphone I can spend less time fussing with settings and more time doing whatever it is I’m apparently enjoying enough to want a photo of. Not every picture needs to be some carefully considered artsy thing, sometimes you just want a quick snapshot, and the smartphone camera enables that while still allowing us to prioritize whatever else is happening that presumably we find more meaningful.
However, as I’m sure you’re aware, a smartphone camera can be a trap too; moments can really only be lived, they aren’t capture-able. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t ever tempted to try:
When we do stuff like record a concert, the camera is not supplementing, but supplanting our experience of the concert. The technology is physically positioned between us and the thing we (presumably) value. Our experience of the concert therefore becomes the experience of looking at our phones (or god forbid, an iPad).
A desire to capture moments is expected, as we are all cursed with the knowledge that our memories are imperfect, and that one day they will be lost, as Roy Batty famously lamented, “like tears in rain”. It can feel prudent to try and preserve the good times in high-def. But the whole idea is premised on a falsehood:
Experience is not made of moments, it is the moment. This thing, right now, is you experiencing life. The always-moving-but-always-present present cannot, by definition, be held onto. The fact of our inevitable deaths should cause the notion that we can “preserve experiences by living them a little less presently” to seem absurd.
That’s not to say that taking a few snapshots isn’t a worthwhile exercise now and then, only that we should strive to be vigilant in noticing when supplementation can turn into supplanting.
A Friendship of Convenience
The big thing that our modern tech is often, in my opinion, dangerously “supplanting, not supplementing”, is our need for socialization. Just as with life as it is lived, our relationships are not built using time, they do not take effort, they are effort, they are time.
Relationships can be supplemented with technology, telephone calls, texts, chats, facetime, video games, etc. But —like the iPad at the concert— technology cannot “experience it for you”.
Big tech likes to imply that their services are just as real as the real world, only more convenient. They’ll insist that they can automate the “maintenance” of life for us, which sounds nice on the surface, but what often ends up happening is they automate away the life part, leaving us with nothing but maintenance. An example I gave in my satirical piece last week, is how food delivery apps automate away the “enjoying a restaurant” part of going to a restaurant, “freeing” us up… for what exactly? More time working? Where’s the app that frees us up to go to restaurants?
At least Doordash (hopefully) forks out some actual food. What activity is Facebook and Instagram “saving” us from? Catching up with old friends? How does handing that “task” over to the machines enrich our lives? What human was asking for this?1
Truth is though, many of us willingly play along with big tech’s charade, because to believe the alternative is a tacit admission that many of our relationships are not with people anymore, but with technology. “This is my friend” we’ll say about someone in our feed who we haven’t seen, called, or interacted with in years, “I know all about their life”.
One of the first essays I ever posted to Stay Grounded was called “What is it you’re friends with, exactly?” I wanted readers to consider that what social media platforms refer to as a “friend”, bears little resemblance to actual friendship. Indeed, what might once have been a real relationship often gets reduced to little more than another feed to scroll. When that happens (despite what Meta System Incorporated says) I contend that whatever it is, is not a relationship any longer —not with a person at least— but something supplanting your need for human contact with a facsimile of one. A wire mother.
I do not want your takeaway from this to be that internet-centered relationships cannot be meaningful. In fact, I think the internet can be a great way to meet new friends and find community that might not be accessible in our physical lives2. But we should be careful not to fool ourselves into believing they can fully satisfy our need for socialization. Friendships can begin on internet platforms, but they cannot wholly exist there, not to the degree we need. The process is also one directional. Friendship cannot “go the other way”, by starting in the real world and becoming digital. We cannot hand off the nourishment of a new friendship to internet-based services and expect it to flourish the same way.
It’s also not wrong to consider someone whom you don’t see or call very often a “friend”. It’s painful when we don’t see our friends, but it’s a healthy pain that motivates us to put effort in, because friendship is this effort. What social media gives us is temporary relief of the pain of missing someone, and maybe some relief from the guilt of losing touch in the first place. At the risk of drawing too dramatic of a parallel, “pain relief without addressing the underlying problem” is how opiates work. And we know how that’s going. Talk about “supplanting not supplementing”.
“Fans ain't dumb, but extremists are.”
American rapper Doja Cat was recently pilloried by her own fans for pointing out what seems to me to be the obvious fact that she can’t love someone that she doesn’t even know:
Arguments about tone and graciousness aside, the fact that fans appeared genuinely shocked and hurt by this revelation is, in my opinion, a sad indicator of what happens when we let technology supplant too much of our social lives. Consider that nobody with a healthy support structure would be affected in the slightest by the news that someone they’ve never even met doesn’t love them. But also consider how few of us truly have robust circles of emotional support these days.
I’m not a big city psychologist, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the rise of aggressively militant fandoms and parasocial online relationships involving celebrities and influencers stems from this technological pseudo-isolation. It feels like a logical result of what happens when people are not actually meeting their daily requirements of meaningful social contact, and so begin seeking out whatever may resemble it via the internet. Burned out from unfulfilling “maintenance”, and deprived of meaningful connection, it’s easy to see why someone might settle for the nourishment provided by the ever available breast of the wire mother.
There’s a hard-to-swallow flip-side here, though. While the wire mothers in Harlow’s experiment provided very little to the monkeys, without their milk, the babies would have died in days, if not hours. Wire mothers do give something more than just milk, they gie a desperate hope, a chance to hold on one more day, for a future where things might be different. Our digital wire moms can’t give us everything, and they can’t give it forever, but sometimes they can keep us alive another day.
There’s no shame in turning to the internet for supplementing socialization when doing it “better” isn’t feasible. It’s easy to imagine situations where someone might not have access to a community that keeps them sane. A gay teenager stuck in rural Alabama. A woman born into a controlled religious society. A New York sports fan in Boston. Some days in life, the best we can hope for is making it until tomorrow in one piece.
Epilogue: The Best Sauce in the World
I have never personally gone back and watched a video I’d taken at a concert. Two seconds in it becomes shamefully obvious that I have not captured the experience. These days I still might record a few seconds, just enough for a personal record that I was there. A small present for my future self that might trigger the good memory. A supplement to life.
But when I want a recipe for spaghetti sauce, I call my Mom. It takes a lot longer than asking the wire mother that is the internet, but the time spent is more meaningful and let’s be honest- the sauce just tastes better.
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I mean, the actual truth is no humans want this. Lots of companies sure wish we wouldn’t spend so much otherwise “productive” time enjoying human stuff, but I don’t want to get into all of THAT.