Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Doll City

A frequent ominous image in film and print is the demoniacal, slightly unhinged puppetmaster jerking his helpless actor hither and yon across a posed and plastic stage. The scene is unnerving for its imposition of authority: the stringed subject, lacking the liberty of limb to step his own samba, can only dance to his master’s music. Minus the metaphors, this lack of personal control is anathema to much of western society.

Freedom is a tough concept, because both the scientific and spiritual worlds seem to fight against it. In many religions, man is subject to someone or something all-knowing: some transcendent figure (or figures) that controls the world from on high – or at least foresees all that will ever be, which many would argue is the same concept with more modern and acceptable packaging. There is frequently a path to follow, like Buddhism’s Middle Way, and eternal rules laid out for the edification of humanity.

On the other hand, some godless scientists who preach the substantial origin (or essential nonexistence) of all the things that have classically been thought uniquely human and possibly trans-corporeal – love, hope, the workings of the mind – encase the human condition in no less of a constrictive box. (And to be sure, this box is shaped like nothing except what it must be shaped like.)

The major median between these two roads is: man is not free. We are the product and possibly plaything of something greater, or the current but still mutating collection of atoms that, thanks to some fragile strings of sugars, is classified as Homo sapiens. Thinking man.

But do we only think what our biological makeup allows us to think? The Rousseauian concept of humanity as claylike, malleable, is attractive because it denies the supremacy of our substance – we can become something, rather than develop in a mold. Unfortunately for independence, Rousseau lived before we knew proteins ran the show. Being aware that happiness and depression are caused by a shifting balance of natural chemicals has tended to shunt the tabula rasa enthusiasts to the back of the classroom.

Whatever the scientific explanations, I think we tend to reassure ourselves of our freedom by observing the natural diversity around us. Whether we’re free or not, humans are obviously not all the same, and that creates at least the illusion of individual independence. But really, different behaviors equals different personalities equals just… difference. Red hair is different from black hair, but it’s all ordained by those little nitrogenous bases; an introvert is different from an extravert, and what causes that discrepancy? Something transcendent… or those same bases?

Some would say that it doesn’t really matter; that the brain, however intricately tied to nerve fibers and awash in chemicals, is the only source of innovation, of rational thought and spiritual fervor, of sensory perception and of love. The line is conveniently fuzzy, at least for the time being: we can choose to view ourselves as slaves to biology, or accept that the brain is what it is and that – actually – it is a lot. I suppose many people would feel that it is important to make a distinction between, say, chemical “love” and abstract classical love. But that wouldn’t change the feelings we have – if we’re being honest with ourselves – but only the belief about the source of those feelings.

A lot of what I wrote above is a reaction to a book I just finished, Bill McKibben’s Enough. In it, McKibben (who is the founder of, one of my favorite environmental sites) denounces upcoming (and present) technologies that threaten to dehumanize our species, from germline genetic modification to nanotechnology. McKibben’s vision of the future is distinctly dystopian, and for good reason: he puts up a strong argument against allowing unrestrained technological “progress” in certain slippery-slope areas. The book title comes from what he sees as a genuinely distinct human trait, that of intentionally pulling back, of denying ourselves some possible and seductive future, of saying “enough.” He asserts that we’re beginning to flirt with changing the essence of humanity; and at the end of that flirtation is a long, brushed-steel marriage to a world without meaning. And not just for those who ask for implanted genes, or those who use their magic nano-assemblers to create tchotchkes from stray atoms. Rather: for everyone.

Because a society of stronger, smarter, more beautiful people can’t fail to marginalize those holdouts who see something worthwhile in staying natural and unmodified. “Humanity” would become an anachronism, and with it “freedom.”

Maybe programming, genetic or otherwise, is just as legitimate a foundation for life as the chaotic blends of chemicals that provide humans with the slow, irregular growth of a mammal that has given up many of the benefits of competitive nature – quick reflexes, sharp senses – for a measure of cleverness. But that cleverness is what marks us as human. Does more of it makes us more human, or something else entirely?

Some of the technologies are clearly anti-independence. Plugging in the specs for an upcoming baby only increases the probability that she acts the way the parents wish – just like overweening parents try to ensure anyway, except in this case they could imprint it in her very genes. But even here the edge is hazy, because genetic modification can also cure horrible diseases. Arguing that easing suffering is inherently different from “improving” humanity won’t get you far with someone who sees it all as sides of the same coin.

McKibben’s book is fascinating and somewhat terrifying. The technologies he elucidates are Jovian in their scope and sheer power, and he makes a good case against allowing some of them free rein to develop. Unfortunately, he frequently must rely on emotional arguments, which would probably only appeal to the people who are already on his side. Because emotion is, after all, human.

But I didn’t actually start this post with the intention of making it a review of Enough. The puppetmaster in the opening paragraph isn’t supposed to represent a forward-thinking scientist (or a religious traditionalist, for that matter). He is a conglomerate of all the repressive groups, and forces, and societies that tell people what to do and what to think. Where to step, what to believe, who to tick on a ballot. We’re already developing the spirit of homogenizing that McKibben fears, but we’re doing it with billboards and textbooks and rallies. Have you been to Doll City?

Like any mid-sized western metropolis, Doll City’s network of roadways is lined with modest skyscrapers, unsightly slums and modern shopping malls. People mill about the busy sidewalks, walking to work or returning home with groceries; kids play hopscotch and jacks. Doll City has its perks; maybe it has a really good municipal recycling program or beautifully planned urban parks. And of course it has its problems as well – corruption in local politics, perhaps a slightly higher crime rate than its neighbors. But to all appearances, it’s not substantially different from any other town: the buildings, the streets, the trees all look the same. And they exist. They are real. But the people of Doll City are not people at all.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at or speaking to them. They answer questions like real people; no matter how quickly you sneak a look, you’ll never catch them closing up their battery hatch.

So what are they? It’s hard to explain. You’ve seen diagrams of pig carcasses, with dashed lines indicating the different cuts of meat? On some visual level which humanity has yet to access, Doll City’s citizens have something like those dashed lines. But instead of “ham” it says “media.” And where the bacon should be, there is only a chunk marked “tradition.” Next to that is “politics.” And hovering above the head of every denizen of Doll City is an invisible label: “Society.”

These people are not real people, they’re just some kind of motley toy distilled from all the swirling eddies that we euphemistically call culture.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying culture is bad. Cultural traditions and practices can provide real meaning for a person, whether he lives in Kansas or Kinshasa. Culture can bestow a sense of place, a personal significance, and a supportive community. But culture is helpful only insofar as it urges a person to develop in line with her own beliefs, her own persona. (To be sure, culture plays a huge part in actually creating those beliefs and that persona, but it’s far from the only influence.) When it steps outside that track, and tells people “Well, maybe it would be better if you did this or became that way,” then it’s really just the gentler and subtler spiritual counterpart to genetic manipulation.

Although few Filipinos complain openly, I’ve met many who appear to be suffering under the mantle of their cultural norms. On some superficial level, I can empathize – I have worked hard to act culturally sensitive, but many small behaviors betray my foreignness (as if my entire appearance didn’t do it anyway). Things like the way I wash my dishes, the way I don’t mind walking in a light rainstorm without a payong, the way I never take a nap after lunch. These are personal things that I don’t feel like I have to change in order to operate in the Philippines, but they do stand out as unusual, and they do make people question me. (Yes, I’ve had people question the way I wash dishes – doesn’t matter to them that I have many years of experience.)

My very out-of-placeness means that I usually don’t really have to worry about these little things – the mere strangeness of my presence tends to overwhelm the importance of minor behaviors, and being set apart means that Filipinos sometimes don’t judge me as critically as they do their own – but for Filipinos who live here their entire lives, I think aberrant behaviors do draw a line between them and their fellows. I’m a curiosity at most, but Filipinos who push against certain cultural norms are walang hiya. They’re without shame. And living shamelessly is something of a disgrace, both on a local and national level.

Now, I’m completely aware that I’m a stranger in this place, and I don’t understand the culture and don’t really know what the people are thinking. When I talk about the Philippines, I’m talking about my own observations (which are of course filtered through my own cultural lens) and things I’ve gleaned from a limited time living here. It’s a tough place for me to live, but I’d never tell Filipinos they’d be better off somewhere else. How presumptuous and arrogant would that be?

Besides, my own culture (or whatever you want to call the halo-halo that is the US) has its own methods for covering up unsightly blemishes. I use this example often because it’s personal: extraversion versus introversion. The United States loves extraverts. We like loud, outwardly confident people who say what they mean, mean what they say, and frequently grace the front pages of the newspapers. Extraversion is almost inherently a good thing to be blessed with; success and happiness depend on your ability to make yourself visible and to know the right people.

Conversely, introverts are ill-adjusted, anti-social loners. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some iteration, said about myself or someone else, on this phrase: “He likes to be on his own. And that’s okay.” Absolution! It’s “okay” to be alone. Thank god. I may still be defective, but the kindly arbiters of social norms will accept me anyway.

Think about this: when was the last time you heard the word “leadership” in anything but a positive context? But leadership can frequently lead to disaster. (How many charismatic despots has the world suffered?) We all agree that some people are not born leaders, but the irresistible simplicity of duality leads us to conclude that everyone who isn’t must be a follower instead. There’s no third way.

But there is, of course. There are as many paths as there are humans on earth, but we’ve concreted them over to build just a few superhighways; some people have nice cars and ride along just fine, but the rest of us must trudge along like the legendary bundle-on-a-stick tramp, always wary of the badge of enforcement. The developed west preaches the gospel of personal autonomy, that is true, but favoritism is still a public institution.

People who are forced into roles, obliged to act in ways that are unnatural to them, are the ones who suffer. They are the “people” in Doll City, the ones whose joints are oiled with the slimy superiority of their fortunate peers and whose legs move at the call from the chosen. They are not free, and if they try to free themselves, they are marginalized. They’re unimportant. They’re only dolls.


Anonymous said...

I miss your introversion. True, if not for happenstance schedule similarities and a shared employer, I probably wouldn't have even had the opportunity to enjoy time with you, but the time I did spend with you-- primarily walking from place to place-- I truly did value. I can't count the times I've thought back on those walks with a nostalgic and somewhat lonesome smile.

I think it was BECAUSE you were a fellow introvert. We could talk-- or not talk-- and either way, it was okay. There was no pressure to entertain, to maintain a steady stream of chatter, or else be bathed in it. It was nice to have someone to be quiet with.

I know that was 95% off topic, but it needed to be said.

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