Friday, March 11, 2016

How to Be Human in a Cyborg Age

Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
 The photo above, initially released via Facebook, has been circulating the web attached to stories about the launch of new VR headsets. (To the uninitiated, VR stands for "virtual reality"--but you're excused for not knowing that, because it's one of the most ludicrous oxymorons humanity has ever devised.) I was wondering what our ancestors might have thought of this picture--I suspect a few would have found it vaguely alarming, and most would have found it hilarious. It's a vast group of grownups, sitting side-by-side, and pretending that they are alone. (No doubt that's why the Borg Queen--er, excuse me, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg--also seems amused.)

Now, I've never used a VR headset, so that's a caveat to keep in mind when digesting my Luddite pretentiousness. But even if it fulfills all its heralded claims of being able to draw us into new worlds of unreal bliss, I still think I would find something funny, and, at the same time, vaguely sad, about the picture above. Our technology is becoming more and more personalized and individualistic, to the point where much of the generation growing up right now is learning most of their skills of how to operate as a human-being-among-other-human-beings through the mediation of a technological device. That is to say, kids are finding it harder and harder to actually talk with each other, since the vast majority of their social interaction occurs in carefully curated blurbs shot across online servers. I had a hard time talking to other people when I was a kid, too, but it's not because I was waiting for the advent of Twitter; it's because the stark reality of being in the presence of an honest-to-goodness "other" is a daunting thing. In the real world, we have to learn the hard skills of interacting with people as they truly are. When dealing with people who are actually present with us, we can't simply remove their status updates from our newsfeeds when they become onerous; we need to know how to listen and talk in the unmediated reality of reality. And if we can learn how to do that, then broad new horizons open up for us--virtues of compassion, empathy, and sacrificial service; skills of civility, tact, and of speaking one another's "love languages"; and the journey of becoming something beyond what we could be when locked into the confines of a handheld plasticized box. The ancient Christian description of the tantamount sinful condition, pride, was "incurvatus in se"--curved in upon oneself--and that turn of phrase is a fairly good description of a life lived only on social media, the Internet, and "virtual reality." The real question for humanity today is not what sort of new wonders we could experience by using these new technologies, but of what sort of wonders we could become by pursuing the adventure of simply being human, together, in all our unmediated glory.

That's not to say, of course, that the mediating technologies of today are without value. I wrote this piece through just such a technological medium, and most of you who read it will have been directed here by Facebook (thanks, Borg Queen!). Further, there are a lot of people in the world for whom normal, face-to-face interactions are immensely difficult simply as a result of being who they are--and in cases like that, the mediated access to social interaction provided by these technologies is invaluable. All that I'm suggesting is that, before we dive headfirst into becoming an atomized cyborg collective, we make the resolution to also continue practicing the healthy habits of true human interaction. We need to continue attending to one another, to the sacred reality of the presence of the "other," because there, for all of its difficulties, lies the real adventure of being human.

The tragedy of the picture above is that it shows a group of people seeking a virtual reality, when, in point of fact, whole new worlds surround them, in the experience of one another as real persons. Let's not give that up too lightly.