Of robots, friends, loneliness and Facebook

“Hi, Honey, I'm home!”

We're lonely. 

One guest on the Catholic station Relevant Radio was decrying the fact that for the first time ever, fewer than 50% of the households are headed by married couples.  Depending on the ethnic and socio-economic group in question, from 40-80% of all live births are to single women.  Among those who do marry, divorce remains at 50% for first marriages and higher for subsequent ones. 

This instability in family life creates young people without strong bonds to family.  If home life is chaotic, we fail to learn the normal give and take of daily life, and it leaks out into our relationship with society at large.

So along comes technology and hey, if you're uncomfortable around other people, the telephone is better than face-to-face, and a letter is better than the phone, and email is better than a letter, and eventually an avatar is better than you and me!

I remember in the 80s a new phenomenon: the “bedroom boys.”  It seemed that all of a sudden I started meeting lots of families whose teen-age boys spent virtually all their time in a virtual world, eating in their rooms, and avoiding interactions with others.  Although all were from highly educated families, some of these boys failed to graduate from high school.  They had dropped out in every sense of the word.

This time last year I wrote about the movement to have robots supplant humans in direct care services, such as for the elderly, the sick, or handicapped, or the babies.

In traditional societies this work was performed by women.  If a woman were wealthy, or powerful, others did it for her, except for the birthing part, which pretty much used to have to be done by the woman herself.  Of course now even this is changing.  In India you can rent a womb, have your embryo implanted in it, and spend the nine months basking on the Riviera until Junior hatches.  Then I guess you hire a nanny to care for him til he goes off to Harvard.

Providing direct care for other adults has always been about the last thing anybody ever wanted to do for anybody else.  Think of the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible.

People like nursing sisters, and men in certain orders like the Alexian Brothers, who were mostly nurses, took vows to do this work.  They answered a call to care for the sick, the destitute, the lonely and forgotten.

They founded hospitals and schools and orphanages and places for the handicapped to live.  They were called to do it.

Society today feels called to build robots for Grandma and Grandpa to get their morning orange juice, or be flipped like a pancake in their bed.  “Look, Ma! No hands!  No strained back!  No….person!” 

Hey, could I have Lassie instead, please?  I'm sure she's up to the job, and at least she's something I can relate to.

Well, I digress.  Where are the bedroom boys now?  Some went off and founded sites like Facebook, which I don't believe is the AntiChrist, but there is an article in this month's Harper's entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

The answer is no.  We were already lonely.  That's why we came up with Facebook in the first place.  Remember the movie, The Social Network? 

I could have told them that.  Any society that builds robots to take care of people has travelled way far down the highway of loneliness.

But the article makes a good point: we've created this society because this is how we want it!  We've always moved away from dependence to independence. “Please, Mother, I'd rather do it myself!”  Remember that one?

I always feel a little twinge when I hear the Ranchers state, “I want to be more independent.”  God love them, I know what they mean, but they don't know what they're asking for. 

On the other hand, people have a super-romanticized notion of what life at the Ranch is like.  They imagine us gaily gathering eggs and slopping the pigs, getting in the hay, dancing the Virginia Reel, and baking cookies. 

All of which we do.  Sometimes gaily, but sometimes, late Sunday evening perhaps after a long weekend spent with volunteers, we wish the coyotes would eat the  chickens and the pigs would choke.

At the Ranch, we are all of us very familiar with real life.  We have undertaken to care for one another in the flesh, in the all-too-human flesh.  We tend the sick and clean up the messes they make. We bicker and have misunderstandings and hurt feelings.   We laugh a lot and dance a lot and cry a lot, and there's much we understand but way more we don't.

I do believe that's called the human condition, and all the robots in the world cannot do as much to alleviate it as one human hand holding another in the dark of the night.

Photo courtesy Google images