From Hunter-gatherer to Digital Scavenger
A Post-Foragers Report
For 200,000 years around a million of our ancestors roamed the planet as hunters and foragers. We were highly mobile. We were nomads who moved on average 6 times a year in search of food, water, and shelter. * Seeking accurate and detailed information about our environment was vital to survival. Sources of game, water, nuts, fruit, mushrooms, fish made detailed knowledge of habitat an essential feature of life. Ecology information allowed us to predict resource availability and difficulty or ease of access. As today, hundreds of thousands of years ago, quality information about how events unfolded over time had high value.
Foraging and hunting was more than a way of life; it was the way in which our ancestors experienced reality and provided their worldview and identity. Updating, revising, challenging information about the nature and value of resources in the environment was an important part of hunting and foraging. Science indicates that as a species, like many other species, hunting and foraging has been baked into our DNA. It has shaped us psychologically and physically.
Fast forward to 2021. Billions of ex-foragers and hunters in their rooms, sitting out the second year of a pandemic. Covid-19 has accelerated our pre-pandemic social media addictions. We are seriously hooked. Our drug of choice ranges from computer games, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tik-Toc, and Instagram. As descendants of hunter gatherers, we sit in a room staring at a computer screen, scrolling through information. Using our phones to text others.
We are digital foragers. Cut off from direct contact with extreme heat, clouds of dust, ticks, leeches, river rapids, parasites, bears, lions, and wild dogs, we draw our conclusions about risks, opportunities, and adversaries from a safe distance scrolling through videos and news feeds. We spend our days in a Sisyphus effort to push the digital boulder of video clips, stills, text, emojis up the mountain. Each day we start all over again. Caught in the web of our Ground Hog Day movie, we count the number of likes and positive comments as the measure of our hunting and foraging success. We complain (online) about the isolation of lockdown. But, deep down, if we are honest, we secretly love what lockdown has given us: all the extra hours of screen time.
We’ve adapted our foragers’ instinct to the digital landscape, an alien place. In this new hyperreality we our natural instincts that let us to explore and learn from the environment are retooled. We spend our days pushing a digital shopping cart grabbing the dopamine high as we raise down the aisles on the computer screen. We’ve created technology to amplify our urge to roam around a physical environment. We’ve been hacked. We know this intellectually but emotionally we are trapped by a full-on rush of neurochemicals. Our innate curiosity that once was an important tool in daily survival has been captured in cyberreality. We lost our sense to process the difference between potential richness and dangers and risk and rewards. Tribal abstractions have recomposed our identity. The Internet and communication networks have overturned the use of exploration and curiosity for commercial gain and government surveillance. Social media has been highly effective in framing messages that excite the same neurotransmitters as our ancestors felt at that critical moment of a hunt or discovery of a field rich with ripe fruit. We have entered an epoch of post-foragers playing, loving, hating, hunting, buying, and dying in an illusory world.
Hunting and foraging required engagement in a real-life experience: it focused our senses, all of them. We worked the full human sensory panel: seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and touching. This has fundamentally changed in the post-foraging world of digital experiences. We are largely narrowed to visual experiences shuffling non-stop across the deck of our consciousness. Dog, monkeys, birds, seas, cows, elephants, chickens, children, dead people, explosions, weapons, weeping, running, smiling, naked, scanty clothed, the muscled and hospitalized, the raging face and the serene one. Our training data is not the data set our hunter gatherer ancestors used. Our passions and desires have migrated to the digital world where we’ve lost the consilience of senses. We switch between websites while sitting motionless. We ignore our Fitbit watch alert telling us it is time to move. The illusion of movement is the new motion matrix.
Marshal McLuhan warned us that this was coming fifty years ago. The medium becomes the message. Our technologically fine-tuned medium is disconnected with the medium in which we evolved.
What happens when we discover that we’ve also become part of this new post-forager, digital scavenger medium? There is little chance of reversing course and going back. We burned our bridges with the natural environment. On our screens we see a climate changing world, we view clips from around the world of scorched fields, burning forests, dry riverbeds, and melting glaciers. But we are strangely disconnected from these events from the comfort of our rooms. What we see are a succession of visual images from a blurring of multiple realities invented to keep us attentive. A tiny slice of reality that is remote from our lives. We don’t experience the reality, feel the heat, sweat dripping from our chin, or the soot and ash in our lungs. That’s a problem when we transport experience to the digital world.
How we experience the day is how we experience life.** How we experience the social connection and relations with others from the digital world is making old tribes more war like, violent and belligerent. Cyberreality has cranked up the bizarre, surreal, and unusual. A Black Swan event happens every hour of every day. We are witnessing the berthing new tribes affiliated on strange, crazy beliefs. We watch. We scroll. Our fingers dance across a keyboard. We are in lust. We are in love. We hate. We are angry. We laugh because we’re amused by a video of a dog grooming a cat. This is our world, our environment, our nest, our digital ecology. Being indistinguishable from the medium, we are our own message. We are in a recursive loop and lack any desire to break it. What can we read in this “own goal” message? It’s the identical message every junkie knows by heart: I know what I’m doing and what is happening. I’m going to disappear somewhere inside my head. Head tripping where the idea is to hitch transport rails that carry me into a world way beyond myself, a place where I’m free and in control.
A glance at my iPhone delivers the evidence of my personal cyberreality.
“Portland to hit 115 today.”
“Indigenous peoples in Brazil are currently being attacked by the Brazilian government in a manner which will also lead to the destruction of huge swathes of the Amazon.”
“Hong Kong police arrest journalist at the airport.”
“Spiders are able to produce parachutes with their silk threads that they use to sail up into the air and which allow them to travel high above the earth in the jet streams for more than 25 days.”
“The Pfizer & Moderna shots’ effects could last for years.”
“Brian Kilmeade claims he read Mein Kampf in school.”
“The self is an illusion, and we must learn to live with that.”
“Everything you need to know about film noir.”
We are at the formation stage of making a new class of information scavengers. The quotes above were harvested from my Twitter feed. They were posted by members of my digital tribe. The days are long gone where proud foragers studied the landscape one footfall at a time. That was then. Now we are like hungry trash pickers fighting over the latest pile of fresh rubbish. Fresh kill. News, opinion, packaged panic with a bucket of craziness, stirred while smirking, mixing in equal parts parody and lies, doxing the heretics. We experience a high as we rake through the digital dumpster. It as if we’ve had the thrilled of a hunt and bagged the game.
Who has the largest tribe? Count the followers. Competition drives ensures an hourly report of someone pushed into a ditch. Spearing enemies brings on that good feeling There is a downside: you carry a load of anxiety and uncertainty about who has a spear with your name on it. You keep alert. Who can you trust? No one is whispered in your ear. You fear that if you look away that you’ll miss that next big thing. Or a digital spear traveling at you.
We stay up late and rise early to keep our attention focused just in case something important happens. The New Scavengers feed on other people’s kill. We have yet adapted an old hunter gathers fear of crossing a stretch of an open savannah.
The digital hidden world hides the code that runs our simulated reality. The code doesn’t emerge from nature. Code emerges from within a select number of our species.
The code is a vital force shaping our world, the meaning and purpose of life. In the meanwhile, we surrender ourselves to surveillance to refresh and update the code. Its dance never ceases. The dance card is never full. In some Borges infinite library is a digital file which knows what kind of trash I love to see. It keeps track of what I find irresistible and is guaranteed to pull me back to enjoy more of the same. Somewhere my contacts, likes, interests, plans, medical data helps someone I’ll never meet entice me to buy their product or service. It is hard to think of myself as the lion in this story.
In our shared digital reality, like you, I’m another wildebeest in our vast herd. We are corralled in our rooms waiting to be processed. Twenty-four hours of day. Adjusting our nature and our bodies from the conditioning required to hunt and gather to a new normality which is an out of conditioned, slow moving shadow of prior selves.
You wake up one morning and while in the shower (the one place where you are separated from your cellphone) you have a glimpse of what has to your life has become. You ask yourself, Am I going to volunteer myself to be hunted and eaten by invisible forces on my iPhone screen again today? You know the answer. And your day begins as it ended. You are back in the saddle. But the horse never leaves the barn.
The Walking Fish
It may take a couple of more generations to complete a transition to digital scavengers as the new way of experiencing life. We are taking a step in that direction each day. The profound truth is we don’t know how this will end. If you step back for a moment, look where we are and where we are heading, you will catch a glimpse of the future.
Predatory governments, organizations and corporations feasting on the once might hunter gatherers who no longer hunt or gather in the real world. Sedated and overwhelmed, we are losing the will to turn away. We become accustomed to gorging on our diet of low-bad-misinformation environment. In our digital ecology information is part of the blame, rage, and hate game. We have become the prey. Our new overlords are far more effective than their predecessors. The newly emerged predator class will achieve levels of power and influence that Mussolini, the Great Khan, and Pol Pot could only have dreamt of.
But you can be sure there will be an online poll to register a thumbs up or a thumbs down and that will be a snapshot of life.
The Dodo Bird
We are all on the fast road leading to a horizon where Human.02 evolves. Two Darwinian alternatives are suggestive of what lies beyond the horizon for our species. We flourish in a new niche like the first fish that climbed out of the sea and walked the land. Or we go extinct like the dodo bird that could neither fly nor run fast enough to avoid being eaten.
*Rooms: On Human Domestication and Submission (2019) by Christopher G. Moore
**Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.