Review: Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo & Nikita D. Coulombe

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Man (Dis)connected by Philip Zimbardo & Nikita D. Coulombe book cover
Man (Dis)connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What it Means to be Male (2015) by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita D. Coulombe is a clear-eyed appraisal of modern masculinity and how technology is accelerating the decline of men. The book follows four years after a short but provoking TED talk delivered by Zimbardo in 2011. His message to the psychology community and beyond then was simply this: hooked on a cocktail of porn, video games, and prescription drugs, young men are failing like never before, academically, socially, sexually - it’s time to do something about it. Since then research into the effects of online pornography and video games has increased, and Man (Dis)connected represents a fuller appraisal of the current situation as well as an opportunity for the authors to work through some potential solutions, something that the world-famous psychologist’s TED talk tantalisingly omitted.

Although pornography and video games are the headline news here, what lies behind this exploration of how young men are living their lives is far less to do with the technology directly, and more to do with the isolating effect it has on young men. While women - who are disposed to be more social than men, Zimbardo argues - increasingly outperform their male counterparts academically, socially, and increasingly in the work arena, young men are retreating to the isolation of their own bedrooms, where video games offer a safe and easy way to gain a sense of achievement, and pornography provides a warm embrace without the requirement to negotiate any form of social interaction. Of course, the more often guys retreat into isolation, the less opportunity they have to develop the life skills they need to succeed in the world. It is in these self-formed realities that guys’ sexual education is played out. No wonder then, that sexual failures and objectification of women are on the increase. When young men do venture out from digital sanctuaries, their concentration is wrecked from the lightning fast stimulation that video games provide and they are increasingly diagnosed with ADHD as a consequence. Not only this, but anxiety disorders are on the increase, and young men are more likely to be medicated than ever before, whether for supposed ADHD or an anxiety condition. All this is set against a picture of absent fathers, disconnected families, economic turmoil, poor health, and lack of exercise that makes up the modern world for many youngsters in the west.

It would be easy to feel despair at the state of modern masculinity when painted in these terms, but Zimbardo and Coulombe’s message is not one of hopelessness. Indeed, they see positive aspects to all of the technology they discuss and the final section of the book is reserved for the discussion of potential solutions as the authors see them, whether these be suggestions for how the media - porn and gaming included - can adapt to offer a healthier message, the government can help encourage men to take responsibility for their own lives and reach their potential in the real world, or for the men, women, and families who are affected by the new digital world to adapt to this new arena. While the authors are convinced that there is financial-incentive enough for pornography companies to produce romance-led films and move away from the dulling objectification of women, video games companies to produce more social games, and governments to produce better citizens, one is aware at all times that this has to be a financial argument as, after all, digital media is designed to appeal to men’s every desire - from lust to violence - and make money from it. Ultimately, it is the companies that profit from keeping men spellbound that will determine the shape of media going forwards.

Trying to unpick the effect of technology on modern masculinity in under three hundred pages sounds like an incredible task, and it is, but Zimbardo and Coulombe have organised Man (Dis)connected - cycling through the symptoms, causes, and solutions - into a remarkably reader-friendly series of information flashes; short, sharp, and reminiscent of the style of browsing digital media that insists information be compacted into chunks bearable to even the most addled grazer. This is a smart move, and even when the chapters become longer as the book moves towards the causes of the problems, it never becomes weighed down. Instead, it is a light and breezy trip through an area of social psychology that should be as important to the general public as it is to researchers. The digital world is ubiquitous and failure to engage with everything that stems from this can only be to the detriment of society’s shared future.

Engaged is, in fact, a perfect word for Man (Dis)connected. Undoubtedly this is helped by the extensive survey data collected by Zimbardo, which is often referred to and offers a chance for young men to have their own say on the problems that affect them. Despite being a somewhat whistle-stop tour of the issues (the pages of notes and references kept neatly to the end of the book indicate how deceptive the feeling of lightness in the main text is) there are few areas that one feels are left unaddressed in some form. Young men will recognise the landscape as described here, and for everyone else this will provide an entree into the often disturbing worlds of young men. Orwell wrote that the “power of facing” was one of the key skills of a good writer - so too for a social psychologist, and little is turned away from in Man (Dis)connected. At times, the authors appear to be pointing back to a form of masculinity now swept away as the preferable model for modern man, but aside from this and a few sentiments relating to the rise of women that might be challenged, this is as clear-eyed and on-point an evaluation of modern masculinity as one could expect from what is, in essence, a popular psychology book about the plight of young, heterosexual men.

To declare a bias, Man (Dis)connected is, to my mind, the non-fiction equivalent of what I attempted to capture in fiction in my own debut novel, ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Clearly, this makes me both the ideal reviewer and the most biased, but this seems to me a well-rounded, engaged discussion of an absolutely crucial topic for our times. Young men are starting to recognise the problems of their lifestyle, and it is time that the wider community acts on this before a generation of young men are lost entirely to the stupefying effects of the digital world.

Clearly, this is a book that was bound to speak to me. I'm pleased it exists and pleased with the truly engaged manner that the authors have addressed the issues. I expect to see more literature/research in this area, and this is a great starting point for the mainstream.


Useful Links
Reviews of Man (Dis)connected on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Man (Dis)connected on Amazon (US)

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1 comment:

Matthew Selwyn said...

I got a little bit of time with Professor Zimbardo at the end of last week, so there will be an interview with him to follow in the next 24 hours hopefully. If you're interested, make sure to check back - it'll be worth reading :)