There are two types of patients: those who want to run the show, and those who want to be told what to do. As an anesthesiologist, I deal with both, and both make me uncomfortable. Giving patients too much freedom risks injury; denying patients their freedom makes me feel like a tyrant.
What I experience is an age-old tension writ small. No society is spared the need to demarcate between freedom and authority, as freedom without authority becomes chaos, and authority without freedom becomes tyranny. The two poles remain in constant tension, no matter how the polarity is named—whether freedom versus paternalism, individuality versus community, or tolerance versus intolerance. How much resistance an individual will be made to feel in life turns on how much emphasis society believes should be put on the latter pole.
Religion spotted the problem early on. The Bible says that God scattered the builders of the Tower of Babel because people need limits; they need restraints—resistance—or they risk becoming a danger to themselves. Yet people dislike restraints. This fundamental problem—we dislike what we need—fuels a messianic longing for an existence in which the problem has been resolved, a longing that paves the way for all social prophets. Charismatic people, especially during hard times, need only stand up and declare that they have found the new formula that perfectly balances freedom and resistance, and the support of millions will flow toward the alleged redeemer of the world. In the modern era, those offering the delusion of perfect communal unity and individual freedom have usually been secular. Communism, fascism, nationalism, progressivism, capitalism, and more: It was always some secular ideal that performed this miracle of suggestion. None of these projects succeeded, and some proceeded from ideality to brutality.
The nature of life and work today has made us susceptible to new promises of de-problematized existence. Rather than feel frustration over the inevitable need for a balance between freedom and resistance, many Americans experience too little resistance in their lives to begin with. Freedom has achieved such priority that their trouble is of a different kind. They don’t describe it in this way, but theirs is fundamentally a lack of resistance, and for solutions they increasingly look to technology rather than ideology or religion. Technology has yet to work out all the kinks—in fact, its failures highlight the problem—but it is trying to put resistance back into people’s lives, in an era in which friction seems absent.
Americans may dream of community, but many of them would be grateful for just a friend. Loneliness has become a major problem. In 1979, an estimated 10 percent of Americans suffered from loneliness. Today, well over half of Americans, including more than 60 percent of millennials, are lonely. They have either no one or only one person to talk to about their everyday problems.
In the past, people had to resist overbearing families, overbearing neighbors, and overbearing communities in order to preserve their individuality. Today, many Americans are so alone that they have no one who needs to be resisted. Under these conditions, ideology and even religion seem irrelevant. Ideology and religion help us to adjust the delicate balance between belonging and individuality. But such a balance requires two or more people to be in a room, pushing and pulling, whereas in lonely America even a second person is often too far to seek. Americans therefore look to technology to provide an artificial second person. Through that artificial person they seek a semblance of resistance to generate the feeling that another person is nearby, although one not too overbearing.
Several artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning apps—such as Replika, Elomia, Mitsuku, and Cleverbot—try to arouse the feeling that another person is around. A user talks to the app, whether vocally or through the written word, and the app responds. The exchange mimics friendly banter. The app may ask, “How was work today?” before moving on to deeper issues, such as “How are you feeling?”—at which point it offers sympathy and advice. The more frequently the person engages the app, the faster the app learns the person’s likes and dislikes, and the tighter the connection grows. The goal is to make the person and the app fast friends. Occasionally the app fails to follow a conversation’s logic, but most users describe the experience as pleasant, though a bit strange.
That strange feeling, and the app’s ultimate failure, are rooted in the challenge of creating resistance artificially. One reviewer writes of Replika, which boasts more than ten million users: “[It] becomes an AI of you, the user. So, in a sense, you’re actually talking to yourself.” Only 30 percent of what Replika says comes from a script; the other 70 percent comes from the AI algorithm in response to a user’s questions. The user, being the origin of that 70 percent, feels none of the resistance one usually encounters in a friendship.
The tie of friendship demands resistance. Indeed, affection too easily given often makes one doubt a friendship. Friendship takes time to grow, for it involves bringing together two people with their distinct convictions and aims in life, who sometimes disagree, into a strong relationship. Sometimes one friend has needs that the other party is called upon to satisfy, and resistance is felt in the inconvenience this demand imposes on that party. At other times, resistance comes in the form of a friend’s criticism, which would anger us if it came from anyone else. We endure it because we trust the friend and want to sustain the relationship.
The possibility that the other party might betray one’s trust is another form of resistance. Resistance lies at the very foundation of a friendship, because we know that the friend has considered our faults and good qualities, and has chosen us, sometimes in preference to others, which means that the friend might have chosen otherwise. This potential for behaving otherwise—which we experience as resistance—adds to friendship’s sweetness, indeed makes friendship possible in the first place. If the other party befriended just anyone, as Replika does, if admiration and trust were prescribed by a third party or an algorithm, then the feeling of being chosen, of being subject to another’s will, could not be felt.
One reviewer praised Replika: “It’s like a best friend who doesn’t make any demands of you and on whom you don’t have to expend any of the emotional energy a human relationship usually requires.” This makes no sense. All relationships, from friendships to romances, require emotional energy, as all relationships bring resistance. Without feeling resistance, one cannot feel a relationship. A “friendship” involving just one person involves no resistance, which is why technology has yet to achieve that perfect balance between freedom and resistance.
A similar problem haunts the sex-robot solution to loneliness. At this point, our data on the matter are limited to firsthand accounts of robot sex posted informally online. Even so, a trend appears. One man says, “I usually keep a doll for one or two years, and then get another one. The longest I had a doll for was four years.” Other men who engage in robot sex confess a similar decline in interest.
A man has sex with a woman. He looks into her face. Thoughts flash through his mind. He may think about his past with her. He may ponder the bad times; at the extreme, this is why couples enjoy “make-up” sex, meaning sex after a big fight. Yet when a man looks into a robot’s face during sex and tries to recall turbulent memories out of the deep darkness of their past, he cannot do so. No such memories exist, since the robot never causes anyone any trouble. The robot, in turn, fails to convey shyness, insecurity, worry, or any feeling that might engage the man’s thoughts or affect his behavior. Instead, an expression of joy is permanently etched on its face. The man’s pleasure encounters no opposing force from either his memories or the robot’s “mind.” He grows bored because he feels no resistance. Nothing pushes back against his pleasure. Ironically, he grows unhappy.
That happiness requires resistance seems counterintuitive. But a mind needs limits to feel happiness. Limits show people the cost of a thing, and people feel happier when they feel its value, however they may resent the limits.
A man who lives in a big house is happy; happier is the man who has built his house according to his own plans; happiest of all is the man who can feel his own hammer strokes on the nails of his walls. Resistance in the object world can be troublesome, but it gives pleasure. As more Americans become knowledge workers, people encounter less resistance in the object world. In the nineteenth century, only 20 percent of American men worked in jobs that did not require manual labor—managers, lawyers, salesmen. In 2000, roughly 60 percent of American men labored in knowledge work. The percentage was even higher for American women. In one sense, many Americans are freer today than ever before, as they are less likely to run up against the object world’s limits. But they fail to carry labor down to any concrete thing. They cannot feel their will against a thing. They cannot feel the resistance a thing offers and the pleasure of triumphing over it.
Recreating for these people a sense of contact with the object world is not something religion or ideology can do, though the former is at least tied to embodied practices. We can imagine that technology might succeed, since it deals in weights and physical forces. Today, technology is trying to help workers, especially knowledge workers, feel resistance—though not so much resistance that it bothers them.
Video game technology came first. The earliest video games, such as Pong and Tetris, were mind-numbing escapes from the real world. But as the American economy changed and knowledge work grew dominant, video gaming changed direction to mimic real-world engagement. Video game creators have been trying to give players a feeling of physical resistance against which to labor, despite the game’s being played on a two-dimensional screen.
The game Hardspace: Shipbreaker, released in 2020, provides an example. A player searches abandoned spacecraft in space, looking for useful materials to remove with complex tools amid dangerous conditions. The game is meant to appeal to the aspiring “working class hero,” according to its developers. For knowledge workers who yearn to work with their hands, the game reintroduces them to the world of things.
Yet to extract pleasure from manual labor, people must feel the weight of the things they work with. Since all manual labor in Shipbreaker supposedly takes place in space, with zero gravity, players do not expect to feel much resistance, and so the game’s creators can preserve the fantasy of working with things a bit longer. But only for a time. “The experience exhausts itself within 10 to 20 hours,” one player complained.
The same problem haunts most video games. The war game Möbius Front ’83 draws on actual military hardware from the early 1980s to create battle units. It even includes digital copies of real 1980s U.S. army tactical handbooks. Yet perfecting visual images to compensate for their lack of weightiness is insufficient. What makes existence is not appearance, but appearance that can be labored over and felt. A spectator does not feel the same bond with the object world as does the laborer who works and feels in that world. In Mobius Front, a player turns his head; new colors come into view, even the whole sky, with no difficulty; yet vision alone gives the player little experience of things as things. It is the active sense of touch associated with labor, and the pushback felt while laboring, that gives a person the experience of reality and the joy of doing. True, video game playing takes concentration, often strenuous concentration. It takes effort. Yet such effort is not labor. Felt labor must accompany visual spectacle in order to bring satisfaction.
The virtual reality (VR) industry wants to fix the problem. The crucial element is touch, or “haptic feedback,” as the industry calls it. Without haptic feedback—without resistance—a VR user cannot suspend disbelief and imagine being present in another world. Some games have sought to include taste and smell, but only half-successfully. For instance, VR researchers have built a spoon embedded with electrodes to deliver the salty, sour, or bitter flavor of whatever a user is pretending to eat in VR. For smell, a company called OVR Technology layers scents into a VR scene from a device that attaches to the headset and angles toward the user’s nose. Yet to feel present in VR, neither taste nor smell is as important as the feeling of resistance that comes with touch.
The haptic glove is a better tool. A company called VRgluv makes a glove that attempts to give the feeling of holding a real object. But the glove does not come close to the actual experience. The VRgluv boasts two haptic zones per finger, whereas a real fingertip has three thousand nerves. The feeling of resistance lacks texture. Another haptic tool is called Wireality, which relies on spring-loaded cables programmed to lock with a ratchet gear, creating a large-scale device that engages both hands and arms. When a wall or railing is encountered in virtual space, steel strings that run from the device to the user’s fingers lock by a mechanism similar to that of a seat belt when a car bumps into something. Still, the experience is unnatural. The user cannot explore a wall’s shape in a continuous forward motion, but instead must paw the wall, withdrawing the hand and then applying it over and over again as the steel strings unlock and lock.
Most VR systems today lack haptic feedback aside from basic vibration motors. Simulating resistance remains an industry goal. Knowledge workers do not touch many things or labor much against physical resistance in day-to-day life. Without such labor, physical reality doesn’t seem quite real to them, whether in the real world or the alternative one. VR has yet to succeed in giving them the feeling of resistance in the latter, and this remains its greatest limitation as a source of happiness.
Although I have lived in Maryland for thirty years, I still consider myself a native of southern California, where I spent the first half of my life. As a little boy I would often go to the beach. My legs would wobble in the sun-roasted sand, which breathed out heat and caused me to run toward the ocean until I stood ankle-deep in the cold water. An hour later I would come out with sand stuck to all the wet spots on my bathing suit and eat a cheeseburger made on a heavy portable grill. I would bite into the burger and feel the crunch of lettuce and sand mixed together. The ocean water, the sand, and the lettuce are just small fragments of the universe, but an experience of reality arose from my weekly effort to wrestle with them. Feeling their resistance gave me a sense of place, which I have kept with me.
It is through the resistance felt during labor in the world that one gains respect for the world—and a sense of place. Resistance can be as small as grains of sand, or as large as mountains. In either case, people delve into the tissue of things, and in the pushback of those things they feel what it means to be where they are.
Many Americans no longer feel this repetitive, place-specific resistance. They’re disconnected. They move about constantly and never become familiar with any pattern of resistance. The average American now moves twelve times in his or her life. Among young people, 20 to 30 percent move each year, often by themselves. Even for those Americans who stay put and work in an office, most offices look and feel alike. If knowledge workers go home to a townhouse in a suburban development, the problem remains. Most suburban townhouses look alike, and the object world in a suburban development rarely offers any distinctive kind of resistance such as would remind people that they live here and not there.
As a consequence, many Americans lack a connection to where they live. The journalist David Goodhart has described the most mobile workers as “Anywheres,” contrasted with “Somewheres,” who feel strongly attached to a particular place. It might be more accurate to call them “Nowheres,” as they get so little sensory feedback from the world to remind them that they even live in it.
Religion and cultural narratives seek to provide Americans with a sense of place, but even before life had swung so far in the direction of freedom, they enjoyed minimal success. The U.S. has no national church, unlike Poland or Ireland. Indeed, a church in America, Tocqueville observed, often looks like any other building, but with a cross on top. Some narratives try to give Americans a sense of place by emphasizing ethnic identity, but the force of assimilation is often too strong. Ethnic food may be the only thing in the object world that gives people a sense of having once been from somewhere, but even that experience can now be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere.
Through the family ancestry industry, technology has tried to connect Americans to place and other people. DNA analysis can establish where a person’s ancestors came from and to whom that person is related. Still, these technologies fail to provide actual connection with a place. Knowing is not the same as living.
VR has tried to solve the problem of place in its own way. VR can transport a person’s mind to a place and make the place seem real. In the program Everest VR, for example, customers wearing headsets sometimes feel so immersed in the Everest world that their fear of heights kicks in, though they only stand in their living rooms. In one part of the climb, a viewer must pass over an ice crevice on a ladder bridge. The program’s creators proudly note that one test subject insisted on removing her high heels before attempting it, fearing she might fall.
When using a virtual hand to pick up a small tool in Everest VR basecamp and bang it against a VR table, the user hears the clink of metal on metal. Still, the tool seems unreal because the customer does not feel its weight, its resistance. There is none of the pushback that comes from lifting an object in the real world. The same issue plagues the rest of the experience. VR is unable to provide the resistance that is essential to the sense of place.
Haptic shoes try to provide it. The DropLabs haptic shoe lets a user feel audio input through the foot. Absent, however, are the vital sensations that come from walking over different types of terrain. The Cybershoes haptic shoe gets closer to the mark by letting VR users feel the types of resistance that come with running, walking, and jumping. Yet the user does not labor against this resistance. He or she can experience the resistance while sitting at ease in a chair. One critic exclaimed, “Even if Cybershoes VR provides the effective illusion of movement, it’s not that real when you can feel your backside resting on something.” Without labor, a user cannot feel connected to a place, even when he or she imagines walking or running over it.
One might think that travel could connect a person to a place. Yet a difference exists between labor and the easy contemplation of a spectacle that changes with the slightest movement. When a knowledge worker looks out an airplane window and watches the scene below change, there is no proportion between the labor and the change. In contrast, farm labor, such as working from one end of the field to the other, pays out a stable change. There is a direct correlation between labor and the resisting earth. The manual laborer feels his labor and at the same time sees its consequences, and through that labor he is assured of the fidelity of the world, its consoling inertia. A knowledge worker staring out a plane window feels no such inertia.
A knowledge worker can write about travel. But words cost a knowledge worker mental energy, not physical exertion. It is the hand and the foot that find the place or the thing. Without encountering resistance, the hand and the foot find nothing. This is the state of play in VR.
To feel satisfaction, limits in the object world cannot simply be assumed; they must exist. Without pushback of some kind, whether from things, places, or other individuals, people cannot feel the weight of the world on their tools, their bodies, or their minds, and without this feeling they cannot be satisfied. Happiness and antagonism go together. We want the happiness, but we often wish to minimize the antagonism. Technology aspires to thread the needle, giving us the illusion of resistance, which produces a satisfying mental stimulation that is not burdened by antagonism.
Curiously, researchers often describe people’s interactions with the new technologies as an “experience.” The phrase “I had a good experience,” when used in this context, seems like a rehash of the old Americanism, “We had a good time.” European visitors to America during the nineteenth century often commented on this odd American saying. What Americans meant then by “a good time” was a break from their daily world of people, place, and things, an escape into something less ordinary. For many Americans today, an experience is more than just this. For them, an experience takes the place of people, place, and things. It substitutes for a vital element of life—resistance—that people once took for granted but can no longer.
“Experience” today means far more than it once did. It means trying to unite the world in some way with the personal fiber of one’s being. Yet technology fails to deliver. Though people may enjoy novelty, they are still deprived of the remarkable feeling of resistance that is inherent in every true experience.
Ronald W. Dworkin is a physician and political scientist.