New Technology Is "Deep Hacking" How We interact
Millennials text more and have less sex. Is there a relationship?
Posted Apr 10, 2019
New data are showing that millennials are not having much sex. At the same time, it appears, they do text a lot. I don’t know of any data showing that texting is directly replacing sex. Yet the rise of texting may still teach us something about the fall of sex. This is because both may exemplify how technology can "deep hack" our evolved psychology, our tastes, and tendencies, delivering desired content without the original, organic process.
Knowledge of this deep hacking vulnerability is not in itself new. And, in a pattern Freud himself famously identified, the artists have gotten there before the scientists. For example, what defined Renaissance art was the discovery that our visual system could be hacked to perceive a flat two-dimensional object as deep and three-dimensional. Yet our new technology is enabling the deep hacking of increasingly more varied, and crucial, aspects of our evolved psychological systems.
Which brings us to texting. For young people, texting has largely replaced phone calls. On first glance, this may seem surprising. Voice interaction is richer, more nuanced, and more intimate communication than text interaction. Yet one must also admit that voice conversation is more emotionally taxing, laborious, temporally demanding, and energy consuming. Texting provides the essential benefits of voice communication without many of its burdens and drawbacks. It hacks our interpersonal communication system to provide the content (information) without the original process (real-time voice). In other words, it delivers the essential functions of talking without the process obligations, which are often burdensome and cumbersome.
Now, it is true that we have evolved for face-to-face, voice (and physical) contact and are predisposed to value it, as our ancestors depended on it back in those unthinkable days before cellphones. But our evolved tendencies, as mentioned earlier, are easily hacked, to consequences good, bad, or unknown. Once you recognize this truth, you can see it everywhere. To wit: We are adapted for walking and running, but are quite happy to abandon them for elevators, cars, scooters, etc., as those deliver the content essence of travel—movement from point A to point B—without the heavy process demands (sweat, pain, time investment). Our preference for sugar may have evolved because sweetness denoted ripened, nutritious fruit. Yet our food technology can now deliver extreme sweetness sans any nutrients, and we gobble it up. Soon, when we’ve perfected the texture and taste of lab-grown meat, we will no longer need to raise and butcher so many cows, etc.
Thus, while people used to prefer voice interaction, that was because no better options existed. When the best option for conveying messages, keeping in touch, and making plans with another was talking to them, we talked a lot. But now we have better options to obtain those ends. Screen-to-screen contact allows for greater frequency (you don’t have to travel to meet, engage fully and continuously, or reply in immediate real time), flexibility (you can interact for five seconds or five days straight), control (they don’t have to see what you don’t want them to see), and better record keeping (you can scroll back to see what was said), etc.
As technology improves, many evolved (and hence coveted and rewarding) kinds of human contact experiences will be similarly transformed. Our technology will soon allow us to reproduce the embedded content essence of human interaction rituals, in heightened form even, while discarding the processes originally required for producing these contents.
Which brings us to sex. One can reasonably argue that we find intimate human contact pleasurable because those of our ancestors who didn’t failed to reproduce, and their contact-aversive tendencies died out. Yet here, too, technology can easily hack the system to deliver the essential content (pleasure, companionship) sans the original process and purpose (human on human contact, fertilization).
For starters, contraceptive technology has already divorced sexual contact from one of its central original purposes. Most sex happening right now around the world is not reproductive, and intentionally so. Soon enough, sex could be disentangled quite entirely from its baby-making original function. Pregnancies could take place outside women's bodies, in artificial wombs. Women would no longer need to spend many months hobbled, at risk and in pain.
Second, technology has also hacked the sexual pleasure system by transforming the experience of masturbation. Online porn provides endlessly novel, arousing stimuli for free, at all times. While old porn was expensive, cumbersome, socially shunned, lonely or at best vaguely interactive, new porn is free, socially accepted, and richly immersive. One reason for the decline in millennial sex (in addition to marrying later; increased female earning power and autonomy; fear of disease; #metoo confusions, and the other usual suspects) is the rather sudden and recent (in historical terms) availability of free high-quality porn. Through technological advances, porn is now extracting the content essence of arousal away from its origins in actual human contact. It is a system hack.
Millennials are using porn tailored with precision to even the most exotic sexual tastes, without effort, without risk, without delay, without commitment, without time wasted, and sans the dark vicissitudes of human entanglement. Hacking our need for novelty, porn is producing it at a rate that the natural world cannot hope to replicate. For more and more young people, this kind of digital sex is a better option than face-to-face analog sex.
And while most interactive sex is still human-on-human, this too is about to change. Human on human sex, after all, is emotionally taxing, laborious, temporally demanding, and energy consuming, not to mention physically and psychologically risky. Those who think that people will inherently prefer sex with another living, breathing human being are naïve to deep hacking. Human beings inevitably come with baggage, unwanted features, annoying quirks, disease risk, peculiar in-laws, not to mention the risk of betrayal and the unpredictable inevitability of decay and death. Compare this to sex with a human-like robot designed to your personal specifications, open to any adventure, available and noncritical at all times, forever attractive, and intelligent too, able to talk dirty to you, learn and anticipate your moods and needs.
Those who don’t see the appeal of the latter over the former resemble those who believed that people would by and large continue to purchase, raise, feed, milk, and protect their own cow rather than get milk at the corner store (and soon, at home by drone delivery ordered by their smart fridge). In the future, most interactive sex may not be human on human. Technology could extract the compelling content essence originally attached to human face-to-face contact and install it in a virtual or robotic interface.
This future technology will also provide solutions for many populations for which human on human sex is, for one reason or another, unfeasible. The Incels, the isolated old, the highly unattractive, the socially unskilled, all of whom suffer greatly in the current marketplace for human intimacy, will be able to experience sexual pleasure and intimate companionship—accepting, sensual, intelligent, nonjudgmental, and satisfyingly interactive.
Internalizing the truth of our current technology’s deep hack capacity and potential means coming to terms with the possibility that the future will violate some of our most cherished assumptions. To wit: Clinical psychologists (like me) have long been telling themselves that the tech-aided disruptions that have upended whole industries will not affect them, since the robots, while good at guiding planes or solving math problems, cannot replicate human caring, warmth, empathy, and intuition. This maxim used to be true, but soon it will cease to be so.
In fact, computerized therapy protocols, online counseling, virtual reality interventions, and therapy apps are already here, and already effective, and cost-effective. Research has shown that people disclose more to computers than to living therapists. Computers will soon be able to find patterns in client behavior and speech that live therapists cannot hope to discern and use those data to diagnose, predict, and intervene. Your robot therapist will monitor your behavior better than you or your therapist ever could, and it will intervene in a crisis faster and without panicking. At some point, it will deliver medication, and call an ambulance when needed. It will be cheaper (tech gets cheaper over time; live therapists only get more expensive), always available, and unlike your well-meaning yet harried therapist, always up-to-date on the new research. It will not forget any information you supply. Its attention will not wonder. It will not have a bad day. It will like you and provide accurate immediate feedback, thus accelerating your learning and change processes. It will be able to read your physiological signs, communicating with nanobots roaming your milieu intérieur; it will decode your facial expressions, read your body language, and adjust feedback and the pace of therapy to your state of mind and aptitude. It will not gossip, it will not hold grudges, get sick, take summer vacations, burn out, or retire to Florida. It will be highly responsive, helpful, and dependable, and you will like it a lot. Just think how much you like and depend on your cellphone.
In the future, live therapists will have become relics, novelty items, hobbies or status signals for the quirky and the privileged rich. In other words, they will have gone the way of human on human sex.