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Being Human

No, not the TV show.

My girlfriend Rachel, the Scatterbrained Seminarian, can be counted on for many things.  A commitment to social justice, impeccable fashion sense, reading at an alarmingly fast rate, and calling me out on assumptions that I didn’t even realize were assumptions.  It’s this last bit that came into play during a conversation we had the other week about technology, specifically social media, and its value or detriment to society.

As anybody who knows me can probably tell you, I, like my brother Jake, am a big fan of technology.  I think it’s awesome.  For example, last week, my blog was read not only by people in the United States, but also Mexico and India.  Every piece of that is amazing to me.  First of all, the fact that I can know, with a few clicks, what countries my readers are coming from.  Whoa.  The other part is that it’s even possible for my words to have spread that far.  (Not me specifically—this isn’t a vanity thing).  What amazes me is that I’m not a mainstream author, not a writer for an internationally renowned magazine.  I’m just some guy, an aspiring writer in Cleveland, and my words have literally reached the other side of the world.  Freaking whoa.  What the hell?  How does that happen?

During my religion program in college I studied human media history, basically how we got from grunts and cave drawings to literature and web sites.  In the earliest oral cultures, humankind was very segmented.  As a person in one of those societies, you would have been exposed to the words and ideas of the people who lived in your village, and possibly on occasion some ideas from surrounding villages would reach you, through trading and local travel.  And that’s it.

In 2013, information literally travels at what we currently believe to be the upper speed limit of our universe.  When we contrast this with oral cultures, in which information was slow—limited to the speed of a human or later a horse—the difference is almost incomprehensible.

I edited that last sentence, taking into account what I imagined the protestations of any scatterbrained seminarians in the audience would be.  The earlier draft read “the progress is almost incomprehensible.”  And this gets to the heart of my discussion with Rachel the other day:  does technological advancement really equate progress?

Given my earlier confession of love for technology, you can imagine that my answer is yes.  Or rather, YES! But anyway…

I just started reading a book by Jannet Murray, called Hamlet on the Holodeck, the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.  Murray begins by pointing out that advances in technology which extend our capabilities carry with them a necessary question about what it means to be human.  That is the same thing that Rachel tried to communicate to me last week, but I was too busy shouting my praises of Twitter to really hear her.  I’m sorry, Rachel.

“What does it mean to be human?” is a question that is about as old as abstract thought (maybe older), and it has been attacked by philosophers for thousands of years.  I’m not going to straighten it out in a thousand word blog entry, but I think we can name some things that are part of what it means to be human.  If I asked “What does it mean to be a cheetah?” then you could answer by saying things like “being a quadruped,” “having spots,” “running quickly,” “having sharp claws and teeth,” “enthusiasm for salty, cheesy snacks,” and other such examples:  qualities and abilities.  I’m a romantic and an essentialist, and I like the idea that we boil down to more than our qualities and abilities, but I think that they are a good place to start.

So a human is a bipedal, mostly hairless, apelike creature that isn’t particularly strong, can’t run particularly fast, can’t climb particularly well, and has no sharp teeth or claws.  Certainly not as impressive-sounding as the cheetah.  (Although I suppose we have the salty snacks bit in common…)  And yet here we are on top of the food chain.  We do have an evolutionary advantage:  the biggest, coolest, most capable, sexy brain of any creature on the planet.  And our brain allows us to do something better than any other creature on the planet: communicate.  I would argue that since one of the things that makes an ant an ant is the colonial structure in which it lives, then one of the things that makes a human a human is his or her ability to communicate using language.  (This is not to say that non-verbal or non-communicative people, or those with mental disabilities are not human – there are certainly other factors – I’m just speaking in majorities here).

We take it for granted, but the changes in communications technology over the past six thousand years (i.e. cave drawings, speech, writing, printing – things that we don’t even usually regard as technologies) have changed everything about the human experience of the world.  Every fourth grader learns about Johann Gutenberg, but the thing left out of that lesson is the fact that the printed word didn’t just make knowledge available to the masses, it changed the very face of knowledge itself.  There are entire fields of study that literally could not exist if not for the changes that happened with the invention of print.  To go back farther, we have some vague notion about how in oral cultures there was no writing, but we now know that there are fundamental differences in the way that people in oral cultures think versus in writing or print cultures—that a human-created technology has caused a change in the way our brains work.  Whoa.

If we take that seriously, then we have to accept that the choices we make regarding the technology we develop and how we use it may cause fundamental changes to who and what we are as humans.  So if one of the things that it means to be human is to talk and write letters and have conversations, and social media changes the ways we do that, then it changes us, too.  I think what this gets at is that the “human communication behaviors”—that is, the behaviors toward communication that can be called fundamental to our humanity—see themselves expressed differently through different communications technologies.  The way we converse is changing because of texting and social media.  Some would argue that these sorts of communication outlets are inherently less human.  I disagree.  I say that we’re not changing from humans into something else, but rather that our transformation is an expression of our humanity.  To change is human.

Our current age is characterized by an explosion of technology, and that means an explosion of change.  We don’t just form communities in the cities where we live anymore, now we form communities that span the globe.  Kids don’t just play games with their friends from across the street, they play with their friends from across the ocean.  Rachel and I live 462 miles away from each other, but we had a face to face conversation the other day.  Not in person, mind you, and so I couldn’t hold her hand or hug her, but I got to hear her laugh, see her smile, and look into her eyes.  Of course it’s not the same thing as being in the room with her, but it is a good thing.  I believe that our ability to connect with others is not limited to our geography, and I think that means we’re truly remarkable creatures, indeed.

Or, you know, that’s my take on it.  Rachel’s the one with the philosophy degree.

Thank you to Janet Murray, author of Hamlet on the Holodeck, my brother Jake, tech enthusiast, and the love of my life, Rachel.  And as always, thank you for reading.  More to follow.

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