Civilization forces us to adopt artificial, nonhuman goals, and to engage in activity that serves ends that are not in our own interests. This much is obvious. What might be less obvious is the extent to which this corrupts our moment-by-moment experience.
If you catch a wild animal and put it in a cage, it is not uncommon for the animal to do something that seems entirely out of context. A captured squirrel might start building a nest, for instance. Psychologists refer to this as displacement activity. The squirrel’s natural inclination is to escape its imprisonment and run away—that is its number one behavior of choice given the context. But it is unable to satisfy its natural inclination, and rather than do nothing and stew in its nervous juices, it runs down the list in its behavioral repertory until it finds an activity that it can perform within the limited confines of its immediate situation, and does that instead. Displacement activity is a form of anxiety reduction.
Caged wild animals are not the only creatures who engage in displacement activity. Humans living within the confines of civilization continually encounter situations in which oppressive rules, social expectations, or the restrictive physical environment prevent them from engaging in their behavior of choice at any given moment. Eating can be a displacement activity for some people. Numerous forms of Internet distracturbation may be more common.
There is a higher-order class of displacement behavior that some (Ted Kaczynski, for example) have referred to as surrogate activity. Civilization prevents us from pursuing many of the goals that would be natural for us to pursue if we were hunter-gatherers, goals that are tied directly to our immediate community and our relationships with others as human beings, goals that would be entirely consistent with our evolved behavioral predilections. And so we adopt surrogate goals and pursuits, ersatz goals offered up by the machine, pursuits that are never entirely fulfilling but that leave us with the illusion that we are doing something meaningful. These can include anything from organizing a fundraiser to developing nanotechnology—in fact, virtually all activity in industrial society that is not directly related to biological necessity (and even much of that) is surrogate activity in the broader sense: activity that we engage to accommodate the design of the system rather than the design of our own beings.
So, why am I writing this? Whose goals are being served? What is it I’m not doing instead? What personal goals has my captivity forced me to abandon—or worse: what goals have I been prevented from ever even considering as possibilities?