We really do live in a brave new world now. Our technological marvels have nearly made it possible to live, work, and get our recreation, all without ever having to encounter the natural world. Artificiality is nothing new for us. Since we climbed down out of the trees, we’ve been painting our faces and ornamenting ourselves. We have padded shoulders and bras, toupees and hair plugs, breasts enlarged or reduced, nose jobs, face lifts, and tummy tucks. I myself have dentures, or as they used to call them, false teeth. I have this memory from childhood, something my mother used to say when we were about to go out to dinner or a movie. She’d say she had to put on her face first, and that always cracked me up. The cosmetics industry is a billion dollar enterprise, and the field of prosthetics has made gigantic strides, so to speak. Cochlear implants and pacemakers are becoming commonplace. Artifice of one kind or another is part of ordinary life; we don’t think about it. We put on a face when we’re in public, too, a façade that masks what we may truly feel. Being totally up front about our feelings isn’t always within acceptable social boundaries, so we play nice, and learn to go along to get along. Only libertarians seem to feel they can do anything they want whenever they feel like it, but then they don’t believe in society.
Let’s accompany Joe Average on a typical day. He lives in a manufactured home, as do most of us. He wakes up and brews coffee in basically an electronic campfire, and toasts a couple pop tarts in another. Leaving for work he walks down the sidewalk (an artificial path) across the lawn (an artificial meadow). He gets into his car and drives on a highway (an artificial trail), past a city park (an artificial forest) to the building where he works. If it’s a modern office building, the windows don’t open and he has to breathe piped in air all day, like the airlines. Joe works at his computer until lunch, when he nukes a couple Hot Pockets and washes it down with some flavored sugary drink. He’s just got time for a chapter of the book on his e-reader before his break is over.
On the way home, Joe stops at the supermarket. There he buys some packaged soup mix, a loaf of bread, a tub of margarine, and a few frozen TV dinners. He turns on the TV for some artificial news (the corporate media, especially Fox). He flips around between reality shows — as far from reality as you can get — and ends up watching a football game. The field is Astroturf, but then I don’t need to tell you that. Question: has Joe been exposed to any actual food today? It’s not the bread, I can tell you. When I was growing up, bread was made with just four ingredients; flour, water, salt, and yeast. Take a look at the ingredients on that Mother’s Happy Valley 24-grain bread. That’s not bread, it’s a chemistry set. My favorite is “oxygen inhibitor added to improve stability.” You mean it might explode otherwise? No, coffee is the closest thing poor Joe got to real food today.
And my, has food technology come a long way. Our distant ancestors had plenty of fat in their diet, but sweet or salty tastes were relatively rare. Today’s food scientists and lab technicians strive for the perfect combination of those three ingredients — in the industry it’s known as “mouth feel.” A lot of design and experimentation went into that Hostess Twinkie. That’s why the worst foods taste best, in case you were wondering. In nearly every supermarket, around 70% of everything there has been processed in some way. I’m not going to bring in GMOs, as that’s a different and complex issue in itself. As I’m writing this I just heard about a new food substitute, called Soylent. I know, I know, but this is not “made out of PEE-PUL!.” It’s the brain child of a Silicon Valley guy, Rob Rhinehart, and it promises all you need in artificial food, and cheaper, too. Maybe it will end hunger, though, so I shouldn’t be judgmental. I can see it now, in a not too distant dystopian future, passing it out to the poor and needy, while the elites and oligarchs still dine on steak and lobster.
I’ve never been able to understand people who reconnect with nature by going camping, but bring their homes along with them. That Winnebago has water, heat, lighting and plumbing. Isn’t it really a false home? But I’m strange, I guess. More than once I’ve been walking along a trail in a beautiful forest with the birds singing, and a jogger passes me but he’s wearing ear buds, listening to music. Well, I’m never going to understand that.
The internet age has brought us the concept of virtual reality. We all spend a staggering amount of time on line. There are games and simulations so enticing, some people prefer to spend all their time there. One such popular game a few years ago was “Second Life.” You built a character and lived your second life in the simulation. In Texas, a woman discovered her husband’s character was having an affair with someone else’s character. I’d say that’s a figurative affair, not a literal one, but oh well. She divorced him — literally, not figuratively. A more horrific story came out of South Korea in 2011. A young couple had let their three-month-old baby die of malnutrition, because they had spent most of their time at an internet café, raising a virtual child. And of course a great multitude of web searches are for pornography, for those interested in artificial sex. Extreme digital denizens refer to our physical reality as meatworld.
For many of us, being on line is a way of life, (and sometimes also our work). The rise of social media has amplified our anxiety about checking in constantly for messages, to keep connected, stay in touch. We have to be “plugged in,” like Neo in “The Matrix.” It’s not uncommon today to see a young couple together, but instead of talking to each other, they have their noses in their mobile devices talking to someone else. People are increasingly becoming disintermediated, meaning they don’t talk directly to people any more. A virtual world needs a virtual currency, and so we have bitcoin. It has real buying power, too. More and more businesses are accepting payment in bitcoin.
At the M.I.T. Media Lab they’ve been working on social robots. They can read our social cues and respond accordingly. They experimented with a few of the robots at nursing homes, and the residents became very attached to them. Many of these are Alzheimer’s patients, and may not know the difference between the human touch and the cold hand of a mechanical thing. Remember Ray Bradbury’s story “I Sing the Body Electric?” The results seem promising, sans relatives, but to me there’s something very sad about it.
Futurists, like Ray Kurzweil, want to take all this even further. He envisions computers being the size of cells, and can’t wait to inject a bunch of them into himself. It’s a new movement called transhumanism, and those people think we’d be better off as cyborgs. Please don’t misunderstand me; I am not really a Luddite. I genuinely like indoor plumbing and electricity. If I had to scrounge around for wood and build a fire every time I wanted a cup of coffee, that wouldn’t work very well for me. What I’m asking for is that the human race develops an understanding of the word “enough.”
Behavioral scientists are concerned about what the internet is doing to our brains, and it’s a legitimate question. I’m more concerned about what the internet is doing to our planet. Because we live in a consumer society, we feel we must have that newest thing. In China (and other countries as well) there are mountains of old computers, cell phones, and other electronic junk. We’re digging up the Earth for rare metals to make more newest things. To me it seems insane that we’re destroying our natural habitat in order to create a virtual one. We have a technology that provides us with a wealth of data, but a shortage of wisdom. And all this because Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to a race of irresponsible children.