This morning a friend of mine shared a fantastic article in the Guardian by Andrew Postman, son of Neil Postman, author famous for his book titled, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Of all the commentary slung around on the web right now, Postman’s piece really hit home. In a nutshell, we have two legendary pieces of science fiction that have captured our imaginations for decades: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell. Since Trump’s election, most people have been focusing on 1984, it even sold out on Amazon last week. But in 1985, Neil Postman suggested that it wasn’t an Orwellian world we should fear, but rather the dystopia depicted in Brave New World.
Amusing Ourselves to Death went on to basically predict the rise of “alternative facts” and a celebrity president like Donald Trump. Ronald Regan was in charge when Postman released his book, and he saw that presidency as evidence of this trend. Not because the politicians themselves had changed, but the citizens had. Decades of being fed an image-based media diet had made us weak in the mind, needing flashy headlines and entertainment, not just from our crime TV shows, but also from our news and of course, our politicians.
I agree with Postman and we have arrived at what he predicted — yet this is only the beginning. As a software engineer and writer, I’ve been struggling to put into words a warning that has been living within me for years. Eventually I decided that the best way to express my concerns was to do what Huxley and Orwell did, write a story. Three years ago, I published eHuman Dawn, a novel in which everything, including humanity, is a device on the network. Several reviewers have compared it to Brave New World and while I’m no Aldous Huxley, I do think that the human situation in the eHuman novels could be a next step for the world Huxley described. For while Postman said we’re on the road to amusing ourselves to death, I think we’re actually now on the road to amusing ourselves BEYOND death.
In eHuman Dawn, humanity has succumbed to its desire for constant entertainment. As a result of being immersed in unlimited games, programs, information, tv shows and movies, Virtual Reality became much more desirable and in their love affair of entertainment, the population willingly leaves their physical bodies behind to live forever in machines, essentially achieving the great dream — the end to both physical and emotional suffering.
But what price do you pay for such a gift? When we give ourselves to technology, we give ourselves to the owners of that technology. Are they worthy?
While I don’t think we’ll ever figure out a way to upload our consciousness into machines, what I do think is that our attention is already more online than offline. Most people live inside of their phone, constantly checking the news, or watching a YouTube video, or commenting on the latest outrageous idea that comes from the Oval Office. Our attention is a part of our consciousness, and we seem to be placing it outside of ourselves, away from our immediate surroundings, and inside of the network, searching for connection within our minds, rather than with what’s right before us.
I realize the body is fragile. I also realized that life in the real world can be painful. We’ve longed in some way to escape it, or at least exit reality for even a moment, for all of our history. This is why we invented instruments, storytelling and of course figured out that certain mushrooms are pretty damn fantastic at out-of-body experiences. But the body is also the only thing that is truly ours. The body is the only place of true human freedom.
This is why we fight so hard for our right to make choices about our bodies. Bodily autonomy is what allows the alpha male to rule, for he’s the one who has traditionally been able to keep his body for himself. Bodily autonomy is what drives slaves to rebel, for the sale of one’s flesh to another is a crime above all others. This is why rape is illegal, for a woman only wants a man of her choice to be inside of her. Or perhaps no man at all. It’s what drives biohackers to push the boundaries and young people to tattoo their arms or dye their hair purple. Bodily autonomy extends even to your corpse.
The body is what makes us human. It puts us in the flow of life, interacting with one another. When we stop paying attention to our bodies, when we need to be entertained or high in order to find any joy in living, then we not only allow ourselves to be controlled by our media, we also set ourselves on a path to the ultimate control — technology ruling our bodies. And because we’re so busy falling in love with the virtual world, we don’t notice the laws being passed that take away our bodily autonomy, until it’s too late.
Take for example the conservative’s viewpoint that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to have an abortion. This is an obvious violation of her bodily autonomy. Because of their religious beliefs that can’t ever be questioned, even if unproven, they pass legislation that takes away a woman’s liberty. The liberals have their own agenda against bodily autonomy, also passed in good faith, their dogma being science that can’t ever be questioned. In this case, mandatory vaccinations without any public debate. On paper, both of these groups appear to be saving the lives of children by removing the right of bodily autonomy from adults. What gives the state the power to pass these laws? And why do we fall for them? Making any medical procedure mandatory isn’t much different than forcing a pregnancy. Both violate a person’s right to his or her own body.
What does this have to do with Brave New World? Simply that we have entered the age Huxley portrayed in his novel. Postman is correct. In addition, while we binge on information, our politicians pave the way for the ultimate control, not just of our minds (which they already have) but of our bodies as well, and we don’t have to wait until someone actually figures out the impossible and separates our consciousness from our bodies, allowing us to gorge on VR forever. The solution is closer than you think.
Consider an anti-aging device that you can wear behind your ear that is augmented into your body, and designed to monitor your heart rate, blood flow, platelets and certain genes in your DNA. Scientists are getting very close to understanding why exactly aging, the ultimate disease, happens. There’s some evidence that a gene flips from one state to another, causing our telomeres to begin to shrink. In order to prevent aging, the idea would be to keep that gene from flipping. The device in your ear could constantly send information about your body to your “doctors” in the cloud (most likely a software program) and take medical action if the aging gene flips.
Who wouldn’t want that? If it gave you an extra 20 years? 30? 100? This sort of innovation takes everything to the next level, and while it seems wonderful, it absolutely has the potential to completely deny us all bodily autonomy in two key ways — first your body is constantly monitored by the cloud, you can NEVER unplug, and second something like this has the potential of becoming mandatory. Think about it, if our population has no problem forcing any vaccination the state deems necessary on our children in order to save them, what sort of parent would you be if you didn’t have this device inserted into your child? Do you dare keep longevity from them? For their good, they must be plugged into the system. Oh, and while they’re logged on, let’s keep them entertained.
There are many ways this can play out, but step one has already happened. We’re totally amusing ourselves to death, and with the rapid advancement of technology, combined with legislators hell bent on convincing us that we can’t make our own decisions about our bodies, combined with an endless entertainment loop convincing us that the virtual world is better than the body anyway, it isn’t a stretch to say there’s a potential path in which we amuse ourselves beyond death — to a place where we can never unplug.