Eating the Dinosaur

November 12, 2010

As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now.

Why do we enjoy secretly watching others?

Certainly in the age of the internet but perhaps all along, “it’s interesting not to know things.” This is why we fall in love with Kim Novak in the opening scene of Vertigo. “Observing someone without context amplifies the experience. The more we know, the less we are able to feel.”

Ignorance is not bliss. That platitude is totally wrong…But what if ignorance feels better?…Think back to ordinary life situations where the outcome was unclear, and try to remember how you felt during those moments: You’re introduced to someone you’re immediately attracted to, but you don’t know why…you play blackjack and the entire game rests on whatever card is drawn next…Mentally these situations are extremely stressful. But–almost inevitably–the physical sensation that accompanies that stress is positive and electrifying…Unknowing feels good to your body, even when it feels bad to your brain–and that dissonance brings you closer to the original state of being. It’s how an animal feels. Take the wolf, for example: I suspect it’s unbelievably stressful to be a wolf…Yet the wolf is more engaged with the experience of being alive. A wolf isn’t as “happy” as you, but a wolf feels better. His normal state of being is the way you feel during dynamic moments of bewilderment. (90-91)

Insofar as you have no idea what will happen next, secretly watching other people (who don’t know they’re being watched, who aren’t performing) is like being a wolf. It’s a more raw state of being.

And is it not incredibly naive to think that our brains, which evolved over a hundred thousand years, are totally prepared for the new inventions–the new ways of being in the world–that have recently come along?

Humans have existed for 130,000 years. The Great Train Robbery [the first motion picture] was made in 1903. For roughly 129,900 years, we were conditioned to understand that seeing something in motion had a specific meaning. But that understanding no longer exists; today, we constantly “see things” that aren’t actually there. Intellectually, we know that there is a difference between a person and a Facebook profile…But is there any possible way that 129,900 years of psychological evolution can be altered within the span of a single century? Is it any wonder people feel paradoxically alienated by the mechanical devices they love? (220)

On nothing particularly important

A really interesting line of reasoning if you can get over the fact that it’s inspired by something Ted Kaczynski wrote:

The Unabomber writes that society evolves irrationally, which is probably how he justified mailing people bombs. But what would a rational society look like? He never explains that part.

When it’s warm out, I like to sit inside air-conditioned rooms. This feels rational to me. It seems rational to want to be comfortable. But is it rational we expect to be cool when the outside temperature is 95 degrees? I suppose it isn’t. But why would it be irrational to build and use a machine that makes things cooler? Here again, that seems rational.

Yet what am I giving up in order to have a 70-degree living room in July?

Nothing that’s particularly important to me.

For the air conditioner to work, I need to live in a building that has electricity, so I have to be connected to the rest of society. That’s fine. That’s no problem. Of course, to be accepted by that society, I have to accept the rules and laws of community living. That’s fine too. Now, to thrive and flourish and afford my electric bill, I will also have to earn money. But that’s okay–most jobs are social and many are enriching and unnecessary. However, the only way to earn money is to do something (or provide something) that is valued by other people, what I do to make a living is not really my decision. So, in order to have air-conditioning, I will agree to live in a specific place with other people, following whatever rules happen to exist there, all while working at a job that was constructed by someone else for their benefit.

In order to have a 70-degree living room, I give up almost everything.

Yet nothing that’s particularly important to me.

When Kaczynski wrote, “Technology is a more powerful social force that the aspiration for freedom,” I assume this is what he meant. (220)

We as a society have decided that in order to feel cool when it’s hot out, it’s worthwhile to give up most of our freedom. Think about that. As an aside, think also about how we feel in the summer when walking into a non-climate-controlled building or subway car: Oh my God, it’s disgustingly hot in here. We haven’t just turned our backs on reality. It offends us. And at what cost?

As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now. (228)

At first, this seems nonsensical. We’re humans, so isn’t whatever we do 100% human by definition? If you didn’t know Klosterman, you might think he’s just defining “human” in an old-timey, way-things-used-to-be kind of way that pathologically nostalgic people sometimes do. But he’s not. I think what he’s pointing out is that never before have we been so utterly dependent on technology for not just our biological needs but our emotional and psychological ones as well. Am I wrong to assume that, before the computer, it was rare that a machine would make a human being happy? On the other hand, is this such a bad thing?