22 – #LOVE

For the science-fiction epic Avatar, writer-director James Cameron invented the ecosystem of ‘Pandora’, a planet different from Earth, yet familiar enough to remain recognizable and sympathetic – equal parts Jurassic Park and Microcosmos. Every living thing glows a phosphorescent blue in the darkness of night (a conceit that looks stunning on screen), and all of the more complex animals come equipped with tendrils that provide a direct connection into the creature’s nervous system. The film’s hero, a human incarnated into an ‘avatar’ body, learns to ‘link’ with various animals – the Pandoran equivalents of horses and pterodactyls – in order to tame them. In the film’s central scene, the hero links with his romantic interest – a Pandoran princess – as the screen fades to black.

Cameron wrote the screenplay for Avatar in the mid-2000s, just when the mobile had become a fixed feature of life in the developed world. Science fiction frequently serves as a mirror into the present (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually about the Britain of 1948) and Cameron gave our new-found hyperconnectivity a physical basis in Pandoran physiology, making those implicit connections tangible and visible.

The climax of Avatar involves the defense of the ‘Tree of Souls’, portrayed as a vegetal nexus, bridging the gap between the ‘Na’vi’ (Pandora’s indigenous humanoids) and ‘Eywa’, the Pandoran world-soul. The Tree of Souls connects the Na’vi to their ancestors, to the Pandoran biosphere, and the divine. The resource-hungry human antagonists realize that the destruction of the Tree of Souls will reduce the Na’vi to a broken people, refugees on their own world, cut off from the greater life of Pandora, from their history, and from one another. Cameron highlighted the dread we feel when disconnected from the network, cleverly crafting a situation every hyperconnected individual could sympathize with.

Our connections are emotional. In our hearts, we feel their presence and absence. The emotional quality of our first connection – with our mothers – colours all others. That bond becomes the bridge to love, flowing unconditionally from child to mother. Every other connection carries within it the expectation of that unconditional love, and even if we never again achieve the surrender and innocence of our earliest moments, it remains our deepest wish. Adults frame these wishes against their experience of connection – complicated, fraught, often clumsy – while adolescents, closer to their origins, believe every connection will reproduce the love they learned from mother. Time teaches them to lower their expectations.

The mobile has become the visible manifestation of the emotions evoked by our connections. Although, unlike the tendrils of the Pandorans, they have not burrowed their way beneath into our biology, we carry our mobiles everywhere. We use them to link with one another, consult the spirits of the ancestors (through their writings), and, as we watch feeds and updates scroll by, tune into the whispers of the global mind. We may imagine ourselves separate, but we yearn to link with all, dissolving in a sea of love.

Tribal humanity, constantly connected across a lifetime, knew this connectivity intimately. Take a tribal human out the tribe and, stripped of the emotional presence they have always known, they lose their resilience, like toddler abandoned. The urban revolution brought the focus to smaller units of extended families, then the industrial revolution shattered that extended family into a spare, tiny nucleus. Just as this process reached its uttermost extent – with absolute individuation – the mobile created a new quality of connection. We now recover our original tribal connectivity, but at global scale.

The bond between mother and child has been touched by this hyperconnectivity. Dr. Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and Anthropologist-in-Residence, recorded an unexpected instance of this transformation in a South Korean classroom. Interviewing students whose parents had given them mobiles with GPS-tracking features – so parents could know precisely where those children are, every moment of the day – Dr. Bell asked these children if they felt comfortable under the steady gaze of constant parental surveillance. One child pointed toward another child in the room, saying, “She doesn’t have one of these phones. Her parents don’t love her enough to care where she is.” The child instinctively located the emotional relationship within the device.

Dr. Sherry Turkle, who has studied the relation of children and computing for a generation, has noted that children no longer differentiate from their parents as quickly or completely as before, and points to the mobile as the cause. When a child heads off to university, they now call the parent every day (sometimes several times a day) seeking information, advice, or just a sympathetic ear. The hard boundaries which previously marked entry into adulthood have grown fuzzy, because mobile omnipresence places the parent everywhere the child has a need.

Although Turkle believes this most recent phenomenon might represent a retardation of the processes of adulthood and individuation, it actually marks a return to the prelapsarian state before the utter individuation of late urbanization. Until quite recently – perhaps a hundred years ago – parents rarely separated from their children. Everyone remained within the same village – often within the same household – throughout an entire lifetime. This relation has been suddenly recovered, a reversal of a century of cultural patterns which created the knife-edge of instant adulthood. Children and parents now reside in a connection mediated by the mobile, omnipresent and continuous.

Because it is now possible, continuous emotional engagement has become an option in all our relations. We are seeking to recover the undifferentiated acceptance of our relation to our mothers, looking to every contact as a path back to this unity. Inevitably, we will be frustrated. From that frustration we are learning how to modulate our emotional boundaries on a global scale.

16 – #LISTEN

Once upon a time, a man and a woman met and fell in love.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:

Few couples had a more perfect match, aligned in their minds, bodies, emotions and spirits. Enjoying the same things. Practicing the same hobbies. Sharing the same dreams for the future, built around a common love of fire-spinning. The ancient Maori art of poi, practiced for centuries by the Polynesian settlers of New Zealand, became the central focus of their relationship. Expert fire-spinners themselves, they traveled around, teaching others how to do it (safety first!), bringing their love of poi to people across America. They moved within an intense and close bubble of love: for one another, for their life together, and for poi.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

“Then he bought a BlackBerry. We’d be together – traveling somewhere, maybe on the train, or a bus, or even in a car. And we’d be talking. But the whole time he’d be looking down, into the Blackberry. Reading or typing. Typing and reading. And every so often he’d look up and say, ‘I’m listening’.”

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor any man ever loved.

You only say ‘I’m listening’ when it’s obvious you’ve tuned out, after you’ve turned away from the object of your affection, and toward something else. Homer Simpson once pronounced television, “Teacher, mother, secret lover,” but television has been supplanted – overrun – by another. The temping devil in the palm.

“We traveled together, but it wasn’t the same. We were close, physically, but he was somewhere else. Always looking down. Always listening to other voices.”

Each of them now had to contend with the demands of another. He divided his attention between the real, immediate and embodied presence of his love and the alluring, seductive pleasures of connection. She had to fight back feelings of rejection, that she had been cast aside for a new – and more interesting – relationship.

“We flew to Peru to teach fire-spinning. We got off the plane, and there was no mobile service. Anywhere. For a whole week. It was like getting him back again. All of him. It was wonderful.”

Beyond the reach of the signal, old connections can reassert themselves. Where the chorus of voices ceases, it becomes possible to listen to the softer sounds of hearts. In the silence, older voices can be heard, just as demanding, and far more important.

A few years ago, I walked down the street, heading off to lunch with friends. I pulled my mobile out, and typed a text message, without really giving a thought to the fact that I was at that moment walking into an intersection, and across a street. Not until I heard the rumble of car wheels (over the music playing through my earbuds) did I look up and see a taxi, with a somewhat vexed-looking driver behind the wheel, waiting for me to make it to the opposite curb. I had walked into an intersection, across the street, in front of a taxi, all without thinking. Too bound up in the task at hand (literally) to notice the danger I had put myself in.

Many of us have done something this stupid, either on the street, or behind the wheel. Something about the mobile has burrowed its way past all of our rational self-defenses, the things we learned when very small (look both ways when you cross the street, pay attention when others are talking to you), leading us to act like idiots, or children who have not heeded any of our lessons on how to behave. We have abandoned social nicety – and self-preservation – because our mobiles demand it.

Another time, I saw a mother with a toddler in a stroller. They waited on the opposite corner of an intersection as we all waited for the crossing signal. Once that signal came, this mother rolled the stroller off the curb – and nearly dumped her child into the street. If that child hadn’t been strapped into the stroller, it would have hit the pavement, hard. Undeterred, the mother reversed direction, backed her stroller onto the curb, and attempted the maneuver again – with precisely the same results.

At no time during these abortive efforts did this mother ever take her mobile away from her ear. It absorbed her attention, so much so that she put her own child in peril – repeatedly – rather than simply putting the mobile aside long enough to negotiate the crossing.

The desire of a mother to protect her young is fundamental, instinctive behavior, not just in humans, but all the hominids, primates, and mammals. Mothers nurse their young, keep them safe, and defend them with their own lives, if need be. Or did, until the mobile came along, and provided the perfect interruption to two hundred million years of evolution.

Something about the mobile is so potent, attractive and demanding, that we abandon our loves, our lives and our children to it. It speaks so loudly that we have no choice but to listen, orienting ourselves around attending to its needs. It demands our attention, and in so doing, drains us away from the world within arm’s reach, for the world we hold in our hands.

That handheld world encompasses all of the rest of us. Against this totality, nothing could hope to complete. Instead, we find ourselves drawn apart from those closest to us. We’re listening to other voices. We feel guilty about this, but find ourselves helpless to resist.

11- #WORD

In the beginning is the word.

Impossible to conceive of a time before language, because to conceive thoughts requires the articulation of language, we can not project ourselves backward into the minds of forbears before speech. Even where we can not talk, every gesture we make and every grunt we sound has been shaped by a mind that thinks in words.

Creatures of language, we both master and become captive to the flow of ideas that spring forth from our mouths. The fish swims, the bird flies, and the human speaks. We do not know how this happened, nor when, though perhaps we now know where — on the plains of southern Africa. We have never asked why we speak. The answer has always been obvious.

The pressures of survival drive all living things to explore the full range of their innate capabilities. For human beings, survival has always been a social skill, thriving by working together. Across tens of millions of years we watched one another closely, and used that observation to get into each other’s heads. That was powerful – because we were smart. As we grew more social, we learned to wage war and raise children far more effectively.

We had always grunted, signaling with our voices – just as all primates do. Within the depths of our minds, already hypertrophied from managing our social relationships, we expanded this repertoire, modulating and clarifying these sounds. Each refinement made it possible to share our own mental state more concisely and completely than ever before. The drive to speech is its own reward: the more clearly you can make yourself understood, the more closely you can work together, and the more successful you will be as a group. Even a little bit of speech improves things so much that the advantages of a fully-developed language follow along immediately.

Ontogeny recapitulates philology.” The transition from simple words – perhaps something close to ‘baby talk’ – into the full, and infinitely flexible creative tool we use as our principal means of communication, likely took less than a billion seconds.

Within a few generations we had become inseparable from our linguistic skills. Speech had become synonymous with being human, because it conferred upon us far greater depth in our social relations, now populated not just with feelings and actions, but with the thoughts of others. Speech allows us to know the minds of those around us; though we don’t equate speech with telepathy, those very first linguistic humans wouldn’t have recognized any difference. Speech is the first technology of connection, bringing minds together, and improving the performance of both the individual and the tribe.

With language comes the capability for a distributed coordination: “Go there and do that.” Working together no longer necessitates working in close quarters. There is safety in numbers, but there is another kind of strength in the distributed intelligence of a tribe verbally coordinating their activities in pursuit of a specific goal. Much of that strategic capability would have been applied to martial pursuits, crafting a battle plan wrought in words. The endless chatter of women, seemingly so casual and frivolous, serves to continuously reinforce the web of social relationships, and thereby ensuring that these women and their children will have resources to draw upon.

It is impossible to imagine a wordless myth. Chimpanzees may dance about in a thunderstorm, but without words, this act remains a reflection of the present, and can never be a frame around the past, nor a presentiment of the future. Words are the vehicles for myth. “In the beginning was the word.” As soon as we learned to speak, we began to tell stories of origin, of great deeds, of the eventual and the eternal. We learned these stories, passing them down the generations.

Most of these stories contained within them some information which helped those who heard the story to understand their world. This useful bit of knowledge made life somewhat easier for those who knew these stories, each story distilling hard-won human experience into a digestible and memorable form. Those who knew many stories had more experience to draw upon, and act upon. “All doing is knowing, all knowing and doing.”

The stories we tell ourselves act as encyclopedias, telling us everything about how the world works. Those who know more will do better and will be more successful, on the whole. Language increases capability, and stories – memorized language – further amplifies those capabilities. Just as we are driven to speak, so we are driven to learn and tell stories.

From the Paleolithic through to the present, every culture comes with its own set of stories, carefully conserved and passed down through the generations, inviolable and immutable because the words themselves hold the culture together. The ‘dreamings’ – mythologies – of Australian aboriginals have been preserved, coherently and without significant change, for fifty thousand years. These stories present a specific, cultural map of the known world, an encyclopedia of facts framing a landscape that did not change in any significant way until the arrival of British settlers in 1788.

Stories alter the people who hear them, changing behaviour, forming expectations, and setting limits. Just as language has become both a liberation and a prison, stories release and constrain us. As the generations pass, these stories accrue, usually quite slowly, reflecting a mostly-unchanging world. In times of threat or disaster, these stories might grow by leaps and bounds, as traumatic events faded into a past of mythological dimensions. At other times the stories themselves might even transform the storytellers, taking them outside of themselves, and into a different world.

10 – #WOMB

Enter the world of women, who have been here, all along, gathering food, giving birth and raising children, and mourning the dead lost to wars. As women have done for millions of years. Somewhere in the past two million years, something changed for women, as the perfectly natural became utterly dangerous. All because of our drive to socialize.

Human birth is a singular thing in the animal world. Among the primates, human babies are the only ones born facing downward and away from the mother. They’re also the only ones who seriously threaten the lives of their mothers as they come down the birth canal. That’s because our heads are big. Very big. Freakishly big. One of the very recent evolutionary adaptations in Homo Sapiens is a pelvic gap in women that creates a larger birth canal, at the expense of a woman’s ability to walk. Women walk differently from men – much less efficiently – because they give birth to such large-headed children.

There’s two notable side-effects of this big-headed-ness. The first is well-known: women used to die in childbirth, regularly. Until the first decade of the 20th century, about one in one hundred pregnancies ended with the death of the mother. That’s an extraordinarily high rate, particularly given that a women might give birth to ten children over their lifetime. Now that we have survivable caesarian sections and all sorts of other medical interventions, death in childbirth is a hundred times rarer – perhaps 1 in 10,000 births. Nowhere else among the mammals can you find this kind of danger surrounding the delivery of offspring. This is the real high price we pay for being big-brained: we very nearly kill our mothers.

The second side-effect is less well-known, but so pervasive we simply accept it as a part of reality: humans need other humans to assist in childbirth. This isn’t true for any other mammal species – or any other species, period. But there are very few examples of cultures where women give childbirth by themselves (even in these cultures, solitary childbirth is considered aspirational). Until the 20th-century medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth, this was ‘women’s work’, and a thriving culture of midwives managed the hard work of delivery. (The image of the chain-smoking father, waiting nervously outside the maternity ward for news of his newborn child, is far older than the 20th century.)

For at least a few hundred thousand years – and probably a great deal longer than that – the act of childbirth has been intensely social. Women come together to help their sisters, cousins, and daughters pass through the dangers of labor and into motherhood. If you can’t rally your sisters together when you need them, childbirth will be a lonely and possibly lethal experience. This is what it means to be human: we entered the world because of the social capabilities of our mothers. Women who had strong social capabilities, women who could bring her sisters to her aid, would have an easier time in childbirth, and would be more likely to live through the experience, as would their children.

After the child has been born, mothers need even more help from their female peers; in the first few hours, when the mother is weak, other women must provide food and shelter. As that child grows, the mother will periodically need help with childcare, particularly if she’s just delivered another child. Mothers who can use their social capabilities to deliver these resources will thrive. Their children will thrive. This means that these capabilities tended to be passed down, through the generations. Just as men had their social skills honed by generations upon generations of resource warfare, women had their social skills sharpened by generations upon generations of childbirth and child raising.

All of this sounds very much as though it’s Not Politically Correct. Today, men raise children while women go to war. But our liberation from our biologically determined sex roles is a very recent thing. Yet behind this lies hundreds of thousands of generations of our ancestors who did use their skills along gender-specific lines. That’s left a mark; men tend to favor coordination in groups – whether that’s a war or a football match – while women tend to concentrate on building and maintaining a closely-linked web of social connections. Women seem to have a far greater sensitivity to these social connections than men do, but men can work together in a team – to slaughter the opponent (on the battlefield or the playing field).

The prefrontal cortex, that part of our brain sitting immediately behind our foreheads, and freakishly large in human beings when compared to chimpanzees, seems to be where this magic happens, where we keep these models of one another. Socialization has limits, because our brains can’t effectively grow much bigger. Big brains already nearly kill our mothers. Big brains consume about 25% of the energy in the food we eat, and our big brains aren’t even done growing until five years after we’re born – leaving us defenseless and helpless far longer than any other mammals. That’s another price we pay for being so social.

But we’re maxed out. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. If our heads get any bigger, there won’t be any mothers left living to raise us. So here we are, caught between war and womb, power and affection, coordination and affiliation. Ten thousand years ago, human tribes covered the planet, with each tribe circumscribed within population boundaries determined by the limits of our minds to know the minds of those around us. Caged by our capacity, it might have seemed as though humanity had reached a steady-state. The generations passed, but the social order never changed.

Then someone built a city.