(Commute begins.) Let me start by thinking about yesterday’s post. There’s an image I saw recently- an artistic image of a man wearing a VR headset. I found myself thinking “that’s kinda weird-looking, people are gonna call these folks weirdos.” The thought that followed was, “well if you think that’s weird, wait till you realize that a human wearing a VR set is actually a metaphor for a brain wearing a human.”
That in turn got me thinking about how information is consumed, how the current iteration of the VR set is a magical piece of glass we hold in our hands, how it used to be newspapers and books. I glanced down the train and saw everyone else on their phones too, and thought about how everyone’s really trying to escape from the strange, dehumanizing circumstances of a daily commute.
(As I write this, the teenage girl next to me is on Snapchat, smiling to herself as a friend makes faces- a signal of warmth, sent from one piece of magical glass to another, across a massive infrastructure of undersea cables and electromagnetic signals through the air. Another is messaging a friend. Another is reading a book. Another is staring into space. I’m writing this. We’re all doing the same thing- trying to get away from the discomfort of our commute.)
All these commutes (and a lot of my life outside of it) has got me thinking about the systematic domestication of human beings. I don’t want to be prescriptive or pass moral judgments- I don’t want to say that it’s a good or bad thing, or find someone to blame, or necessarily change anything. I just want to make sense of it all. Why do we do this? How did we get here? Where are we going?
There are a couple of books and blogs that have influenced my thinking on these things.
1. Antifragile, which uses phrases like “Soviet-Harvard complex”. It’s been a while since I’ve read it so I’m a little rusty- I remember Taleb’s frustration more than his arguments.
2. A Sideways Look At Time, which points out that time itself has been colonized, standardized, divided and subdivided. Why do we use the calendar that we do? Why do we have 7 days in a week? Why 5 weekdays and 2 day weekends? Why are holidays distributed the way they are? It’s all political. For a lot of cultures, time used to be local, flexible, following the natural rhythms of the environment. Railroads meant that an objective clocktime needed to be established. The Singapore timezone was shifted from GMT+7 to GMT+7.5 to GMT+8. What would it be like if we shifted it back? What if that’s part of the reason so many people are bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived, caffienated?
3. Ribbonfarm’s posts on nomads, barbarians and legibility. Just consider the words “civilized” and “barbaric”, and how we naturally assume that one is positive and one is negative. We’re rooting for OUR team, of course. But imagine what civilization looks like to a free barbarian riding through the wilderness – with its strange jails and its necessity for contracts and lawyers and commutes. Civilized folks ask nomads, “why are you travelling?” But nomads ask, “why are you stuck?” Human legs, after all, were made for walking and running long distances.
There is so much more to the picture.
Food – We eat too much sugar and carbohydrates, probably hundreds or thousands of times more than our ancestors. Our food pyramids put bread, rice, wheat etc at the bottom. If you walk around any mall, it’s practically impossible to get any snack that isn’t either made of sugar or doused in it. Our kopi and teh are full of condensed milk even when siu-dai’d. It makes us cranky people who need constant stimulation. We just don’t realize it because it’s all we know, and we haven’t witnessed the alternative.
Schools – We’re beginning to experiment with new and different things, but that doesn’t change the fact that ultimately, fundamentally, public schooling around the world is an industrial process that has a standardizing effect on people. It’s part of why so many
Sex – I’m always pretty amused by how brazenly we put up hypersexualized models on display to sell products, the top 1% of supple breast and chiseled jaw used to remind everyday folks of their imperfections and inadequacies, anxieties hopefully relievable by purchase.
What am I getting at with all of this? I suppose I’m just trying to talk about how humans have been domesticated, and I’m listing out the ways in which it has been the case. I haven’t even gotten to the more insidious parts of propaganda, thought control, overton windows, the media, the news, entertainment, celebrity culture, and so on. Getting into those things would take weeks. (Which I’ll probably do, actually, just not right here or right now). Rather, I want to think clearly about HOW I want to approach all of this.
Why am I doing this, hasn’t anybody else done this already? Well I haven’t personally found anyone writing about it in a way that appeals to me. What do I find unappealing? I think very often when you watch those documentaries– Zietgiest or whatever – they go through a massive amount of trouble to pick some sort of enemy, and then demand that we take some sort of radical action– become protesters, or start farming vegetables ourselves (which is probably a good idea, to be honest). But I want I want to read is some real talk about what it means to be a human in 2016, navigating all of this, trying to find some peace of mind.
I don’t want to portray anybody as an enemy or a villain. Everybody’s the hero of their own story, one way or another, and I think we do ourselves and the subject of our interests a disservice when we try to simplify things into a hero vs villain story. It can’t possibly be that easy, or it would’ve been solved already. There has to be a path out of partisan hackery.