Thursday, October 14, 2010

Life without ... what?

Recently I've come across three random tidbits that struck me as strangely connected. They are all narrowings of self-definition, of what it means to be a human being.

Humanity = electricity

My son and I have been enjoying some episodes of a television series called Life After People. The series examines what would happen to all the things humans have built in the days, weeks, months and years after we all mysteriously disappear. (We interpret "disappear" as "ride off in really cool space ships.") Part of the show involves computer graphic representations of famous buildings slowly becoming covered with mold, rust and vines and then crashing to the ground. (I often find myself cheering for the molds and vines, which I suppose makes me a species traitor.) These imagined scenes of destruction are interspersed with interviews where people responsible for maintaining facilities gamely talk about what would happen in the years "after people." The interviews are the best part, specifically those about the elaborate maintenance systems that keep urban structures intact in the face of daily affronts from natural forces. Some of the graphics are cheesy and the speculations ridiculous, but overall the series raises some interesting ideas.

So here's the thing I found most amazing about this show. I've now seen the introduction about a dozen times, and it took that many viewings to realize what was hidden in plain sight. Each episode starts with the words, "What would happen if every human being on earth disappeared?" On the word "disappeared" the image shown is that of a street full of houses, with the lights in those houses going out, one after another, until the street is dark. The two scenes before it? Streets without cars on them. The privileged place given to electricity (on the very word "disappeared," as proof) shows its greater strength in self-identity.

The amazing thing is that it took me twelve times watching this to realize how amazing it is. Electricity and self-propelled vehicles were nothing but curiosities a hundred and some years ago, and were absent for all but the tiniest sliver of human history. But they are now so central to our self-definition that to show the entire human race disappearing, all you have to do is show lights going out and cars not going round. Wow.

From estimates I've seen, about two-thirds of the people on earth have reliable access to electricity, and about a tenth have cars. So that's either ninety or thirty percent of "every human being on earth" for which the words "disappear" and "vanish" would have no reasonable connection to the images shown. Of course this is not the audience of Life After People. But it makes me wonder what sorts of images people without cars and electric lights would choose. What would life after people look like to them? A fire gone out? An empty path? A door left open? Uneaten bread?

Do you know what? I can't guess what it would mean to these people. I'm just making stuff up. I have no idea what image would work. Isn't that striking? Can you guess? What does that mean about what it means to be human? Shouldn't we all know what we all think it means to be human? Did we ever know? Will we ever know?

Humanity = television

The other day I got a catalog of stuff for your house that you don't need, and I was glancing at it before throwing it away, but one product in it started me laughing and carrying it off to show my husband. I've since found this item on the web; it has many glowing reviews at It is a television simulator. This little box emits multicolored lights that make it look like you are watching television. People use it to deter burglars. You can set it to come on at dusk and run for either four or seven hours, or all night. (There are apparently no options below four hours, which is in itself striking.)

So, not only can electricity and cars stand in for all humanity, apparently now television can too. A few satisfied customer comments:
The flashing behavior looks completely real. It screams "someone's home!!" 

Anyone observing my home would assume that someone is HOME and AWAKE.
What is the proportion of humanity that lives without television? About three quarters. Now this one is starting to get personal, because I put myself into that group. My family does own two televisions, but we probably turn either of them on for a few hours a week at most. According to this device we do not fit a reasonable definition of humanity. Hm.

Humanity = social media

I've been bouncing around the web reading various blog posts about Facebook, mostly because I don't get it and am trying to understand why some people do (standing with my nose against the glass, I guess). I came across somebody mentioning a study showing some people still use email more than Facebook. The amazing thing, to me, was that the blogger said, "Who are these people?" Meaning, the people who don't use Facebook.

Curious (and yes a bit miffed), I Googled a few pages of links using the phrase "who are these people," and surmised that it has three general meanings.
  1. The innocuous meaning of "let's get to know these people better" is typically found on web sites saying "About Our Staff" and so on. We can put that aside as it is the least often used.
  2. The "I have nothing in common with these people" meaning is typically used to talk about people whose worldview is quite different and cannot be imagined. This is more of an "outside my tribe" parochialism that may be based on trivial appearances (like the famous "we all wear jeans so there will be no more wars" idea).
  3. The "I am nothing like these people" meaning is typically used to talk about people who have done reprehensible things from which the writer wants to maintain a visible distance. These are people forcibly expelled from humanity through their lack of conformity to social norms.
Which of these did the blogger mean? To be charitable, probably the second, but I wonder if any of the third element had crept in. Would it be a fair statement to say this blogger felt that "people who use Facebook" can stand in for humanity, in the same way that the creators of Life After People felt they could use empty streets and dark houses to show depopulation? It's not as strange as it seems, because the proportion of people using Facebook at this point is apparently not that different from the proportion owning cars. If the Facebook phenomenon continues, will future Life After People episodes show dated Facebook pages?

These trivial acts of self-definition start to feel a little bit less funny when you are on the other side of them. They start to feel ... a little bit scary. What has defined a person throughout history? White skin? Male gender? A title? Property? Geography? Belief? Could it be that technology -- or even technological choices -- is the new answer to that question? What does that mean about choice? If you stop using technology, do you stop being human? What does that mean for the future of humanity? What will stand in for people a hundred years from now? Will it stand in for all of us?

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