A recent family vacation provided a fascinating revelation about the current impact of tech. And it depressed the hell out of me.
Here’s the backstory:
We have a cat. Well, more specifically, my wife and kids have a cat. I personally hate cats. But the creature came with the deal. So, I am now a cat owner. Kind of sucks.
One of the cat-owner problems that I inherited was the ‘what do we do with this beast when we go away for an extended period of time?’ problem. I always assumed you just sent the damn thing to some cat hostel and be done with it – but since the cat in question is like 95 years old in cat years, we are unable to leave the thing in some unfamiliar environment or it will die of xenophobic shock. So, we had to hire some kid to come over a few times a day to “be the human” and give the cat some company.
Another challenge we had to manage was feeding the damn thing. The kid we hired couldn’t come over and feed the cat consistently enough to keep it alive so we needed to come up with another solution. So, the geek that I am, I purchased one of those auto-feeder things. This one specifically:
I got the thing set up, timing it to dispense 3 small servings of dried feline nibs 3x a day – at 7am, 1pm and 7pm.
Before the trip, we tested it out for a few days. The cat responded well. It even got to the point that the beast sat and stared at the thing like a horny freak at 6:59 – waiting for it to spit out its portion of dried bounty.
So, we shoved off for our vacation – my wife and kids secure in the knowledge that consistent food and company would be provided to the animal.
Upon returning and seeing that the cat was still alive and properly fed, we collectively determined that the food dispensing wizamajig was so good that we would just keep using it. So now, instead of the kids having to feeding the cat 3x a day, we simply re-filled the food reservoir once a week. One full load was enough to feed the cat for about 5 days. It was a lot easier – and it removed a chore from the kids to-do list.
After a week of this, I noticed something fascinating, and heart-breaking.
Something I really did not fully appreciate before becoming an accidental cat owner is that cats are born hunters. As such, at night, every night – and when we all left for the day – the cat would, well, hunt.
It would bring us offerings – mostly stuffed animals from the beds of the girls, and leave them in the hallway; strategically placed in front of doors or in the middle of the living room – as if to say, “Thanks, man, for the food and shelter and shit. Here’s some fresh kill. Let’s keep it coming. You all rock.”
This nocturnal hunting ritual was accompanied by a loud series of yelps and meows. This night yelping and hunting became a ritualistic moment for all of us – and it became part of the regular cacophony of sounds associated with our NYC apartment living.
Despite my dislike for cats, this nightly hunting observance struck a chord with me. Listening to the cat, I connected to this primal activity – and how the animal’s vestigial instinct carried on even in this modern urban environment.
What had happened is that once we set up the feeding contraption, the cat stopped hunting.
No more night yelping, no more stuffed animal eating, no more, well, cat balls.
What I came to realize is that by simply automating a helping of dried cat nuggets 3x a day, we essentially removed its need for instinctual survival behaviors. We gave the cat a techno-neuter.
The hunting ritual was the cat’s own internal way of maintaining its instinctual connection to its own survival. On some level – pre-contraption -the creature associated its hunting ritual with us providing its food.
The “animals” that the cat “killed” were not edible, but they nonetheless satisfied its feline instinct. Somehow this ritual linked us humans to its survival. Pre-contraption, the cat took an active role in its feeding. This “relationship” was part of its instinct engine. It was part of the cat’s identity – tied back to eons of evolution.
And the techno grub-feeder made all of this obsolete.
It was depressing to witness.
Upon coming to this realization, I immediately removed the batteries from the device and told the kids that the auto-feeding respite was over.
Damn if the beast didn’t start hunting again that evening. Its primal directive re-activated, almost within hours.
In addition to the cat neutering, the introduction of the grub-feeder also eliminated one of the core responsibilities from the kid’s chore rituals. This realization brought to focus how this was happening in other areas – that the same had been done-in by the dishwasher, and the auto-coffee maker, and the remote controls. These devices had turned my kids into lazy blobs of couch beef.
Here’s where it gets even sadder.
I have an older stepson, who is 21, and like most throbbing young men, he uses Tinder and other dating apps.
He was over for dinner last week and I watched in amazement – like an old grizzled fart looking at a TV for the first time – as my son casually swiped away pictures of babe after babe, determining which one he wanted to slay that evening.
After my initial amazement wore off (‘holy mother of moly, if we had this when I was a kid…’) it was replaced by despair. I realized that with this contraption he and his ilk would never fully appreciate the value of the hunt. And even worse, he is being stripped of a scarring ritual that made me – and my entire generation – who we are today.
The heart-pounding act of walking straight up to a girl, face-to-face, looking her right in the eyes, smelling her perfume, and asking her on a date – and getting rejected – is just as inherent a part of the human experience as a cat hunting for its supper.
Primal interpersonal rituals like courting and proposing (and breaking up) build character, create skills, and formulate the rites of passage that we take into our adult lives. I saw that hidden behind the protective veil of these digital dating gizmos, his generation will miss out on an entire component of personal development. Learning to navigate the pick-up ritual is as critical to young people as the eggshell is to the baby chicken. The mere act of breaking out of the shell builds strength and provides that initial proving rite to development.
Technology is stripping us of our connection to human trial and error. Human connection is no longer necessary. We have become encased in a soft, fluffy protective shield from the very things that gave our ancestors the grit to endure and propagate. Our reliance on technology is propagating a society of soft, untested, pantywaists.
Mind you, I am not saying that this is the end of society. Being a mobile technology advocate and self avowed nerd, I am fully aware of how advancements in technology have made the world as a whole a better place.
I have simple become more aware of the reality that the rise of the mobile era is making our kids miss out on an entire spectrum of developmental experience – who will never fully appreciate what these rites of passage provide. Sure, more is possible, and the wonders of mobile and automated technologies are endlessly fascinating and brilliant.
But at what cost?