Has Technology Sabotaged What It Means To Be Male?


Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Coulombe have written a very scary book. I wish I could say that they overstate their case. I’m afraid that, if anything, they understate it.

If you want a taste of the argument of their book Man (Dis)Connected, you can watch Zimbardo’s TED Talk, “The Demise of Guys” (with almost two million views attesting to its nerve-hittingness).

The basics of their wake-up are as follows. On all levels of education, girls are outperforming guys—by a big margin. Girls make higher grades, they are better readers, and now more of them are going to college and graduate school.

That might sound like good news to those who have been worried about the dominance of males in society, but the reason that females are pulling ahead is that males are falling behind. They don’t care about school, they don’t care about success, and moreover, they don’t care about getting married and taking care of a family. They’d rather play video games and watch pornography. In these two fantasy worlds—worlds that often overlap—they achieve both masculine success in virtual combat and sexual success in virtual bedrooms. Why bother with real life, when real life and real women are a real hassle?

So, more and more, young men are opting out of life.

This is not a small problem, but an epidemic—that’s why it’s showing up in the statistics in educational success rates, as well in countless psychological studies of young men’s attitudes toward work and sexual habits. Males are choosing not to become men in real life, but to remain boys absorbed in fantasy worlds entered through the least of efforts on their part—the click of a mouse.

The problem is so imposing because the internet and graphic technology has created alternative realities that are, in a perverse sense, better than the real thing, and certainly far easier than the real thing.

Thus, a skinny, acne-ridden 14-year old or a tubby-soft 15 year old or a slouching college drop-out male can run, leap, perform amazing martial-arts acrobatics, wield swords and machine guns with deadly accuracy, all in the name of ridding the world of Orcs or Nazi Zombies in the virtual world. In doing so—for hours and hours, days, and months—he can thereby climb up the success ladder in the gaming community, achieving actual community status in a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft, when in real life, he couldn’t run half a block, fire or even lift a machine gun, or punch an inflated clown let alone a hyper-muscled foe.

“Massive multiplayer online games are especially absorbing,” note Zimbardo and Coulombe, “because a player can become anybody in the virtual world, attaining looks, acceptance, wealth and status that are elusive in real life for most people without hard work, education and social connections.”

So also with sex. Thus, that same 14-year old, 15-year old, and college drop-out can also be regularly invited into sexual fantasies with far more alluring and voracious women than he’d ever get near in real life—scoring every time, sometimes several times a day—when he’s deathly scared of actual women and has never been on a date.

Virtual reality allows them to be the thing that, in real life, they aren’t and never will be.

That is why, Zimbardo and Coulombe argue, the current generation of young men are increasingly disconnected from reality, disconnected from all the real-life activities that use to make boys into real men. Success in real life is too hard. Success in virtual reality is too easy.

And, to make matters worse, it isn’t just a set of simple choices these disconnected man-boys are making. Continually playing video games and watching pornography are (to use our parlance) addictive: the more you do it, the more you can’t not do it. Addiction to the frantic excitement of virtual warfare and pornography makes the real thing pale and tasteless.

So it is, report Zimbardo and Coulombe, that soldiers on active duty are sitting up all night playing World of Warcraft, and then going out into actual battlefield conditions the next day as sleep-deprived somnambulants. So it is that boys and men, with willing girlfriends and wives, are choosing masturbation and pornography over real sex. (Zimbardo and Coulombe don’t distinguish, morally, between non-marital and marital sex—a defect of their book.)

And since we are making matters worse, let’s add the obvious: there’s really big money in drawing boys and men into virtual reality. The game Grand Theft Auto 5, surpassed one billion dollars in sales three days after its release—that’s more than any movie in history. The forecast for the video gaming industry revenue for 2015 is 111 billion. Pornography makes at least that much—and much to our shame (as the authors report), the US is the top producer of pornographic web pages in the world, with 89% of all porn web pages worldwide.

And yet worse. Add to all this, the dramatic rise in drugging boys in school who are (often conveniently) diagnosed with ADHD. One of the effects of drugging them is damage to the nucleus accumbens in the brain, an area that helps turn motivation into action. The result of taking ADHD drugs is increased apathy and contentment, creating (in the authors’ words) “a smiling couch potato—a great candidate for gaming and porning. Again, much to our shame, the US leads in prescriptions of such drugs worldwide, at nearly 85%.

And still worse. One of the leading causes of young males wanting to disconnect from reality, the authors’ argue, is that the natural way for a boy to become a man is under the guidance of his father, but more and more families are fatherless. Either there is no father there at all, or the father is an ineffective shape occasionally taking up space in the home. The decades-long decline of fatherhood is thereby feeding the creation of more males who have no desire to be either a real man or a father, so that in the future we will have even more males born into fatherless families and ripe for sliding into fantasy-filled techno-sloth. Topping off this trend, the authors point out, is the sharp increase in the number of the millennials and Gen-Xers who “think that marriage is archaic.”

Small wonder that fatherless gamers and porn-addicts are on the increase among young men, and the trend will only continue unless…

Here, Zimbardo and Coulombe are decidedly weak. While their analysis is illuminating, they are decidedly liberal in their approach, saying things like “a moderate amount of porn-viewing isn’t bad; it’s only a problem when done to excess.” Porn, for them, isn’t a bad thing, but one can have way too much of a good thing.

But porn-viewing isn’t like eating cupcakes, something that can be done in moderation or only on special occasions. Porn-viewing is like adultery: you can’t engage in a moderate amount without doing damage both to oneself and to others.

They take the same approach to gaming, but seem unwilling to treat its epidemic addictiveness with anything more than a “pull back a bit, boys” approach.

With that having been said, they at least make us aware of a very, very serious problem.