Touch-Starved Cyberspace Mouse-Men

Mice and Langur monkeys—when subjected to incredible density—exhibit maladaptive behaviours, namely an inability to carry out complex social behaviours like mating.

There is an argument to be posed that humans—when subjected to a simulation of incredible density by the internet—act much the same. This human reaction to the apparent density of cyberspace is unfolding before our eyes. 

See, one summer, as a boy, I found myself venturing down a YouTube rabbit hole that began with a video about the Russian Sleep Experiment (which, as stupid as this sounds, kept me up that night) and ended with a video by Fredrick Knudsen about some kind of mouse utopia.1Knudsen, Fredrik, director. The Mouse Utopia Experiments. Down The Rabbit Hole, 2017 At that moment, I did not really understand the implications of the study.

Years later (and now several months ago), while taking a course on scientific writing, I came across the 1973 study that said video was about while working on an assignment. It was titled ‘Death Squared’ and documented the rise and subsequent collapse of a mouse colony.

The experiment was horribly Neomalthusian in its aims. It was conducted by John B. Calhoun, who’d previously conducted similar experiments but never on this scale. The primary idea behind Neomalthisianism is that population controls would have to be implemented to ensure humanity avoids a ‘Malthusian Catastrophe’, this being a point where technology enables overpopulation to the point where resource shortages reduce quality of life.2Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1989. In Calhoun’s eyes, the most pressing manifestation of overpopulation would be overcrowding in urban areas, something he sought to prove would disintegrate the world’s social fabric.

His experiment involved placing eight Norwegian mice in an enclosure dubbed “Universe 25”, comprising “walk-up apartments”3Calhoun, John B. “Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 66, no. 1P2, 1 Jan. 1973, pp. 80–88. lining walls surrounding a central courtyard. There were feeding stations around the enclosure providing a practically unlimited supply of food, water, and nesting material. In a sense, the enclosure was itself a simulation of the modern, industrialised urban environment: dense and with access to an excess of resources.

I’ll quickly summarise Calhoun’s findings for the purpose of this essay, though Death Squared is worth reading in its entirety if you have the opportunity. The life of the mouse colony played out in four acts: Phase A, Phase B, Phase C, and, get this, Phase D. Phase A was the period between the introduction of the first eight mice and the birth of their first young and Phase B a period of exponential population growth with the colony’s size doubling every 55 days4Calhoun, 83 (which is to be expected of horny mice). This second phase was quite predictable; harems and groups formed around dominant males who battled for supremacy and territory, the mice mated, the young were reared properly, so on and so forth. This epoch wouldn’t last.

The outlook swiftly turned grim in Phase C, with the social fabric of Universe 25 beginning to disintegrate. Dominant males abandoned their posts out of exhaustion, leaving their harems to fend for themselves which in turn led to stressed mothers failing to properly wean their young. Males unable to mate, now numerous, congregated in the centre of the enclosure, brutalising each other but never resisting brutality towards themselves, a dynamic had developed in this circle of mutual violence towards one another with no retaliation.

By Phase D, the colony saw its demise guaranteed; the mice raised in the turmoil of Phase C failed to carry out complex social behaviours, most notably courtship. The males—dubbed the “beautiful ones”5Calhoun, 85 due to their lack of scar tissue which resulted from a lack of fights, another social action—unable to mate, opted to forgo social interaction in favour of just sleeping, eating, and grooming. Their female counterparts confined themselves to the upper levels of Universe 25’s apartments, also refusing to do anything but eat, sleep, and wash-up.

With the colony’s citizens ageing out of their reproductive windows without mating, it was predicted that the last male would die around day 1780 of the experiment at which point the colony would be irrevocably dead. The breakdown of these behaviours, sex and all, was dubbed a ‘behavioural sink’. Calhoun’s explanation for the sink was the extreme density of Universe 25, which impeded socialisation both mechanically (with mice often physically interrupting intercourse, brawls, or other social behaviours) and created highly stressful conditions.

Mortality, bodily death = the second death

Drastic reduction of mortality = death of the second death = death squared = (death)2

(death)2 leads to the dissolution of social organisation = death of the establishment

Death of the establishment leads to spiritual death6By this Calhoun is referring to a breakdown of the individual’s ability to socialise. = loss of capacity to engage in behaviours essential to species survival = the first death


(death)2= the first death7Calhoun, 86

This is where the title Death Squared comes from: by providing the mice with all the resources and conditions they needed to survive unimpeded, the typical causes of death such as famine or disease (Calhoun wrote quite biblically) were eliminated; the elimination of these threats allowed the mouse city to grow dense enough for crowding to get in the way of, again, fighting and fucking.

The experiment posed a dreadful question: If mouse societies collapsed under such density, could human ones as well? “I shall speak largely on mice, but my thoughts are on man”8Calhoun, 80 Calhoun wrote in his introduction. Later studies, most notably one by Jim Moore concerning the phenomena of infanticide in Langur monkey societies, confirmed that the pressures of overpopulation often led to maladaptive behaviours.9Moore, J. (1999). Population density, social pathology, and behavioral ecology. Primates. 40: 5-26 Of course, at the time, the primary worry in terms of overpopulation was a human population that was actually large enough to cause such an issue in a physical world, not a virtual one.

That time was of course the second half of the twentieth century, an era before the internet’s adoption by the general public and integration into daily life. The prevalence of cyberspace adds an entirely new element to the menace of crowding.

The internet is unlike any form of mass media before it in the sense that we don’t consume it, rather we engage with it and we engage with others through it. In its ability to connect us with anybody, anywhere, anytime, cyberspace simulates a reality where we, being the human population, are all in a kind of living room together. Considering the entire human population is crammed into this room, it’s overcrowded to say the least. The outcome is a behavioural sink formed by the density of cyberspace.

The data illustrates this: Gen-Z is the first generation to spend their entire lives in a world with the internet and its members report a higher rate of suicidal thoughts than any other age group, a higher rate of bipolar disorder than any other age group, a higher rate of self-harm in women than any other age group.10Baker, Carl. “Mental health statistics for England: prevalence, services and funding”. House of Commons Library, Number 6988, 23 Jan. 2020, 8-11 Nearly one in six people aged 16 to 24 reported suffering from symptoms of a mental disorder in the past week.11Baker, 4

This isn’t enough though, it could paint a picture of a socially inept group, or just a very unhappy one. To really illustrate the sink, as we will call it from here on, we need to talk about sex, specifically cybersex.

Cybersex is exactly what you would expect: sex through technology, in this case sex in cyberspace. In the UK, a dramatic decline in the rate of teenage pregnancies is arguably an indicator of awkward teens having less awkward teenage sex than previous generations. While the government may attribute this drop to a strategy implemented in the late 90s,12Office for National Statistics. “Teenage Pregnancies – Perception Versus Reality.”, Office for National Statistics, 9 Mar. 2016 the real bulk of the drop occurred around 2007, a time which saw the oldest members of Gen-Z enter their teenage years.

At the same time, engagement in more unconventional forms of cybersex, camshows for instance, have been on the rise.13Rao, T.S.S., et al. “Cyber Sex Addiction : An Overview.” Indian Journal of Private Psychiatry, no. Special Supplement on E-Psychiatry, Sept. 2012, 56. Obviously, the increasing prevalence of the internet is a massive factor in this move,14Dhuffar, M.K., Griffiths, M.D. A Systematic Review of Online Sex Addiction and Clinical Treatments Using CONSORT Evaluation. Curr Addict Rep 2, 163–174 (2015) though what’s remarkable is the preference for cybersex that involves a level of interactivity with another person over your everyday internet porn. I think there’s an argument to be made that what we can call ‘interpersonal cybersex’ between individual techno-monkeys is a redirection of intimate energy in a world where a behavioural sink has made it more and more difficult to romance in real life.

Even then, however, there’ are people so afflicted by the sink that they cannot even engage in cybersex with others: incels, who consequently present a blatant human parallel to Cahoun’s beautiful ones.

Mewing Mouse-Men

As a quick disclaimer, most of this section will be written based on my own observations which I feel yours will corroborate. Forgive the lack of footnotes here but scholarly material on incels is not abundant; it would seem academics haven’t dedicated much time or effort to exploring inceldom, perhaps out of regard for their own mental health or perhaps because they simply have more worthwhile things to do.

Now, of course, you are familiar with what an incel is, you probably stumbled here from Theorygram after all. Incel stands for ‘involuntary celibate’ and there are more subgroups of them than Mountain Dew flavours (my personal favourites are ‘gymcels’). The similarities here can be broken down into two main factors: a refusal (or inability) to mate, and an intense fixation on grooming.

First and foremost: sex. Possibly the most notorious characteristic of inceldom, arguably manifest in its most pure form in ‘MGTOW’ (men going their own way) there can be both an aversion to sex or total failure to ‘mate’ among self-proclaimed incels. The case of the former is more important since it isn’t just an inability to do so, it’s an avoidance of it as evidenced by the refusal to interact with more accessible cybersex.

In this sense the incels are a reflection of the beautiful ones. People driven into an almost masochistic abstinence by a constant connection to a virtual human enclosure which feels like a crowded hell. It is worth highlighting here the stereotype that incels spend more time online than most people, thus making them more applicable in an analysis of the social effects of cyberspace (if, of course, you agree with this notion).

On a more complex level: grooming. While you’d be right to assume that the excessive grooming exhibited by incels is performed as a supposed prerequisite to sex—a vain attempt to use looks to compensate for everything else—I would argue that on another level it expressed a total submission to the sink. Grooming doesn’t necessarily have to be solitary in nature (you could always shop or go to the gym with others) but it often is for incels. It’s a rejection of what could be a social moment, a transformation of it into something totally individual and, in turn, isolated.

The social malfunctions of incel communities online are not hard to see with the naked eye and I would highly suggest taking a trip to /fit/ to witness it all first hand.

Zuckerberg’s Universe 25

Like always Capitalism is at play, specifically Neoliberalism’s rebellious lovechild with science fiction: The Californian Ideology. This is, as the name might suggest, the form of Capitalism that crawled out of Silicon Valley’s slimy womb at the beginning of the digital age. Coined by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in an essay of the same name, it’s not only a strange amalgamation of Leftist optics and Liberal thinking, but also the “long-predicted convergence of the media, computing, and telecommunications into hypermedia”.15Barbrook, Richard, and Andy Cameron. “The Californian Ideology.” Science as Culture, vol. 6, no. 1, 1996, 44 Put more straightforwardly, this Cali-pitalism is the pure embodiment of experimentalism,16Suarez-Villa, Luis. Technocapitalism: a Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism. Temple University Press, 2012, 8-30 a notion that unrestrained technological progress will undoubtedly lead to humanistic progress. It’s this very specific strain of tech-capital, the school of ‘move fast and break things’, that led to the conditions that in turn created the sink.

This is because the modern internet—to the average person comprising just a small plethora of social media platforms, and consumer media namely in the form of streaming services—was born out of a new method of commodification of our interpersonal connections in-and-of-themselves founded by the perpetrators of the Californian Ideology. This phenomena was really a revised version of the commodification of conversation that existed since the inception of Liberalism, with capital creeping into the public realm through privatised public spaces: bars, cafes, restaurants, clubs, sports centres, so on and so forth (sniff). The capitalisation of human interaction has existed alongside the sale of public spaces all along; what happened at the turn of the millennium was a digitalisation of this, the transfer of this good from the physical realm to cyberspace in the form of social media. In a sense, it’s a ‘neo-neoliberalism’ which further extended capitalism into cyberspace.

Unlike the era of HTML4, characterised by YTMND, Final Fantasy forums, and the like, the epoch of HTML5 turned the web into a true second reality. As mentioned in the introduction, the internet is a form of mass media interacted with, not consumed. While previous iterations of the internet allowed for user interaction with digital images, that which we live under now pushes for interaction between one another.

It was the dense environments of the internet, created by wide-eyed tech capital’s embrace of cyberspace as an additional realm for the capitalisation of socialisation, that drew us all into a behavioural sink.

A Social Desert

At the end of the day I am writing this for an issue called ‘Futures’, so where exactly will the sink drag us? Unfortunately, there’s no aesthetically pleasing cyberpunk world in store for us, at least not due to the sink, and despite how everything played out for Universe 25 it’s highly unlikely that we’ll face a Children Of Men-esque demise where our collective failure to make the first move results in our extinction.

Additionally, it would be foolish to assume that we’ll collectively withdraw from the physical realm and find ourselves in a world where all socialisation is confined to cyberspace, not in the coming few decades at least. The stigma of an all-cyberspace life is still there, so really what we’ll have until it disappears is a blend of reduced real world socialisation and an ever-increasing degree of interaction in the enclosure. That is a contributor to this overcrowding: the combination of real life interactions (not reduced considerably by the sink) with an increasing number of online ones, the permanent online-ness of our world living room. Rather, the future unveiling itself is merely a more exaggerated version of our world today.

The future we face as a result of this behavioural sink is, instead, a paradigm of violently introverted hedonism and some kind of depression paradigm which has already made itself known to some extent. On top of sexlessness and the paradigm of pseudo-inceldom, we could also see more human facets of abnormal socialisation. Though I would argue it is usually best to avoid involving more or less unrelated ideas in a piece like this, it is clear that some of the conditions described by Mark Fischer as symptoms of post-Fordism are also prevalent in a sink world (as a result of both). One in particular, the horrible impermanence of the modern work environment, in this case the relationships associated with it, is arguably also a product of the sink.17Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative ? Zero Books, 2010, 31-38

This muted de-socialisation seems to be the forecast, though not forever.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t want to end this piece on such a pessimistic note, or perhaps because I’m writing for an audience that comes from Theorygram and it’s impossible to avoid this topic, but there is obvious accelerationist potential in this phenomena and through the ensuing collapse an escape from the social landscape of Universe 25.

As the hypermedia breakthrough that’s been anticipated for the past few decades, the internet is intensifying any social processes already underway at a rate faster than any previous mass-media. On this note, you could also argue that the increasingly destitute social paradigm we find ourselves in (again, one of pervasive inceldom) is turning us back to dreams of the previous century, according to Williams and Srnicek necessary for the collapse.18Johnson, Joshua, et al. Dark Trajectories: Politics of the Outside. NAME Publications, 2013, 154

Humans are inherently social creatures and thus unable to drudge through lonely lives. We’re already seeing a longing to escape our walk-up apartments in the reclamation of Soviet aesthetics, and this longing will only intensify alongside the poverty of our social lives.

There is a breaking point, it’s unclear where we’ll find ourselves once we reach; it is there, waiting for us in an even deeper depth of the pit after history. Regardless of whether it brings us fully automated luxury gay space communism or a post-civilisation nomadic sancturary, the collapse is coming, and our internet induced collective shyness is only bringing it faster, much the same way Amazon drones fly over your body-pillow at a far faster rate than the mailman.