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Category: Humans

Never Mind
Let me declare right off that I have nothing against labor saving devices. I like having my labor saved as much as the next person. I have resolved, however, that my affection for these tools will not blind me to their hidden costs.

A hammer, for instance, can really speed up the process of driving nails — especially if you’ve been using a big rock. A hammer will cost you a few dollars, but the hidden cost of the hammer is its weakening effect on our rock-wielding skills. If you put me into a home-building contest against some prehistoric carpenter and limit us to using only his tools, then Ugg is going to win the hut-off every time.

Now, you might suggest that pounding nails with a rock is not really such a valuable skill to lose, and you might be right. Even if civilization somehow lurches backward a couple of steps, there will still be plenty of hammers around for neo-Neolithic builders to use. Things would really have to turn sour before humans would need to re-acquire their stone tool expertise.

These issues might not be so clear-cut, however, if the tools in question are the home computer and the World Wide Web. The kinds of labor these devices save are of a different type than pounding nails. With computers, the hidden costs come in the form of a dulled memory, a blunting of our problem-solving skills, and a general decline in cognitive abilities. Who needs a memory when you have all that data on your desktop? Why nurture your cognition if you’ve got Google? And what’s the point of problem-solving acumen if there’s an app for that?

You don’t have to be a Luddite to be a little troubled by this seeming diminution of our powers. You can love computers and still be alarmed by their effect on us. You might wonder, for instance, does our reliance on these tools portend a decline for our species? Does our dependence on them make us vulnerable to sudden societal changes? Are we doomed?

Well, don’t worry — we have our best philosophers working on it. And so it is that Andy Clark and David Chalmers have stepped forward with the concept of The Extended Mind. According to them, we should not view these digital wonders as tools at all, but rather as extensions of ourselves. Not as crutches for our minds but as parts of them.

Under this theory, the horizon of our consciousness and control extends to the furthest reach of our instrumentalities. The hammer becomes a part of our hand, and the smart phone becomes an upgrade for our mind. That grocery list is a part of our memory, and the web is an extension of our ever-expanding brilliance.

So we’re not getting smaller, we’re getting bigger! Also smarter, deeper, and more godlike! I like thinking of myself this way, and I want to thank Andy and Dave for providing the philosophical underpinning to do so. It’s a total rush, man.

I just wish I could have made the high keep on going. When it faded, I was still left with the question, “So what?” So what if my self spreads outward with every new invention and interplanetary probe? If the asteroid hits and civilization crumbles, I’m all the way back to a hairless, talking ape, only this time I’ve forgotten how to take care of myself.

I’m going to keep using my computer, and I will continue to surf the web. For now, I am willing to accept the trade off that may end up destroying my mind. This bargain did, after all, save me the labor of researching Andy and Dave’s work the old fashioned way by getting me there with just the touch of a button. Which gave me the time I needed to catch up on Miley Cyrus’ latest escapades. I’ll take that deal any day.

Besides, if I ever change my mind, I have a big rock outside and I still know how to use it.
That Thing
I found that thing yesterday. You know, that thing I lost two years ago. I remember being frantic about it at the time — not because I needed to have the thing, but because there was absolutely no way I could have lost it.

It couldn’t have happened, but I have to admit that these little episodes do occur. What’s more, they tend to undermine my self-image as a place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place, thoroughly together kind of guy. I can deal was this, but it will force me to spend a lot of time gathering evidence to contradict the growing mountain of data showing that I am not that guy. This will surely be exhausting, especially with all the time I’m already spending to prove that I am as young as I used to be. I’m beginning to suspect that such efforts may, in fact, be futile.

There had been a place for that thing two years ago, but the thing wasn’t in it when I looked. I am forced to admit that it had been used (by me, it seems, and not by my wife, who is always the prime suspect in these mysteries) then carelessly set down and forgotten. When I finally found the thing, it had been sorely abused by the elements. It had once been a nice thing; now it is shabby.

I have found a new place for the thing (it had long ago been displaced by a new version of itself), a place more suitable to its degraded condition. It will be a sheltered place, I have decided, but with plenty of the fresh air it has become accustomed to. Now I have to decide whether to make the new place clearly visible or to banish that thing from my sight.

My concern is that a prominent placement would constitute a further affront to my self-image, a constant reminder that I am not what I present myself to be. If I see it every day, it might even encourage me to abandon the hopeless task of proving the unprovable and to accept that I am flawed, weak, and unworthy of love. Such a realization would be healthy, no doubt, and signal the onset of some long overdue maturation. As with most advances toward maturity, however, this process would be painful and humiliating.

Right now it seems better for me to continue being immature. I suppose I might miss out on some deeper happiness, but I can’t imagine that it would be worth all the hassle. Life is simply too short for agonizing self-appraisal. I will conceal the thing in a less obvious place, then, and thereby avoid an excruciating confrontation with my own inadequacy.

I don’t see any harm coming from this choice. If I do forget where the new place for that thing is, I’ll just ask my wife a few pointed questions about when she last saw it and her whereabouts at the time it went missing. I am confident that she will have the maturity not to feel threatened by my accusatory tone and just tell me where it is.
Consumption, which was the common name for tuberculosis in its heyday, is an ugly, scary disease. It’s an aggressively contagious bacterial infection that attacks the heart and lungs, causing fever, night sweats, weight loss, fatigue, and coughing up blood.

Thank God we’re not going to discuss that. Instead, let’s talk about a much more popular form of consumption: buying stuff. It’s a much more enjoyable topic, right? Well, not if I can help it, citizen.

There is no denying that consumption is most often thought of as a good thing. Upturns in consumer confidence, for instance, are seen as cheering signs, one of the indicators of a robust economy. After 9/11, George W. Bush called on Americans to spend their money as the highest form of patriotism. Shopping till you drop is considered by many to be the ultimate recreational experience. Consumption, then, is the sweet fruit of good times, right? It’s our duty and birthright as humans in good standing to consume to the max.

Let us agree that buying stuff does stimulate the economy. When you plunk down for that bright yellow Hummer Hybrid, all kinds of things happen. The salesman and his boss get fatter paychecks, and so do the folks at the factory. In fact, anyone who had anything to do with the creation of that product gets a fiscal shot in the arm. They all spend that money, and they hire new workers who in turn spend their money. The ripple rolls through the whole economy, splashes against the far side of the pool, and comes flowing right back. Pretty soon, you want a matching candy apple red Hummer for your mate. And on it goes; before you know it, the whole economy is humming like a Hummer. Birds are singing, children are laughing, and the world is a beautiful place.

In your heart, though, you know it’s all too easy. You think there has to be a higher price to pay for all this abundance, don’t you? Something beyond the mere sticker price? What about the cost to planet earth, for instance? Think of the last time you consumed a beer. Once you got to the bottom of the glass, that beer ceased to exist. There may have been other beers delivered to replace it, but that particular lager had disappeared, never to be seen again. It had been consumed — exhausted, used up, and pissed away. Forever.

So it is with the planet. Every part of that Hummer, from the triple-stitched manatee hide interior to the Tiffany taillights, will be headed to the dump someday soon, never to be used again. Oh, there will be some attempts at salvaging the metal bits, but everything else will have been exhausted, used up, and pissed away. Forever. There will be other Hummers, but that particular helping of nature’s bounty is gone. I hope you enjoyed it.

I submit further that the price we pay may be steeper still. If you agree that we are unique creatures who have evolved within this unique environment, then what happens when we destroy a chunk of that environment? Doesn’t each act of consumption, then, destroy a chunk of us as well?

Hold on, you may interject. Do you dare to suggest that we humans are being consumed by our own consumption? Let me assure you, citizen, that the answer is yes. Yes, we are the tubercular contagion infecting our own society. Yes, our compulsive urge to consume will cause our culture to be exhausted, used up, and pissed away. Forever. And yes, we will be run over by our own Hummers.

Never let it be said, though, that I have given up hope. If we all move back into caves, live solely on the bounty of native plants, and try to die (of consumption, perhaps) before we’re 30, there’s still a chance for us. But it will have to be soon, according to my calculations — probably before the end of July.

Old, and Weighing In
Youth is wasted on the young, they say. Well, allow me to suggest an update to that saying: wisdom is wasted on the old.

That’s because, dear reader, old people are obsolete. I like to think that there was a time long, long ago when the young deferred to their elders on a wide variety of subjects. The old were seen as the repositories, not just of high wisdom, but of ordinary practical knowledge as well. If you wanted to know how to track and kill a mastodon, for instance, you’d ask Dad for a few pointers. And when Dad answered, there’d be no eye rolling or copping of attitudes. Not if you wanted to eat, anyway.

With the rise of technology, however, the deference toward elders began to fade. All age groups had equal access to the latest thing, and Dad no longer had a monopoly on know-how. And now, with the advent of digital technology, the old are not only dismissed as sources of practical knowledge, they are also viewed as ignoramuses across the board. If you’re old, I’ll bet it’s a challenge for you simply to text OMG without flubbing a keystroke. Most five-year-olds, on the other hand, can hack into your bank account with an iPod. Compared to you, they’re geniuses.

And so, here we are in a new age, an era of high-speed, impersonal interconnectedness and non-stop sharing that only the young can truly appreciate. I’m not really complaining, though, because it’s all kind of creepy.

If you ask me. Which you won’t.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee