The Cyborg of Practical Wisdom

by Charlie Huenemann

Ex-machina-movieThe biggest struggle my fellow modern-day cyborgs and I face is to create a virtual reality that connects more wholesomely with the human part of our nature. The artificial reality we currently plug into is a Terry Gilliam nightmare. Too many characters within it are armed, dangerous, and barbaric. The bright spots within it – few and far-between – are either so childish and sugary as to seem like a parody of our hearts’ deepest needs, or so smart and ironic as to mock any nobler aims. It’s Grand Theft Auto, or Sesame Street, or South Park – take your pick.

Other virtual diversions exist for us, of course. One can find meaningful examinations of human experience, sensible and judicious overviews of economic tensions, intelligent and respectful discussions of critical issues, wonderfully rich book reviews, and so on. But one has to seek out such treasures deliberately – they seldom pop up of their own accord out of the collective net consciousness – and one must have the time, patience, and discipline to attend to them. This is a bit like trying to read Moby Dick in a strip club. And, cyborg nature being what it is, not many of us will end up spending much time with brother Ishmael.

Aristotle, a human being from twenty-five centuries ago, did his best to put together a sensible account of what makes human beings happy. By his own estimate, we are social beings who like to enjoy one another’s company, usually with some nice food and drink, some music, and a conversation that stimulates the mind. We like to exercise, and to apply our best ideas to laws and social policies. Through drama and art, we love to explore vicariously the troubles we can get into, and discover for ourselves how we would feel in other people’s tragic circumstances. We are, as one might say, multidimensional beings. The trick then, according to Aristotle, is to manage this multidimensionality with reason and experience. We need to monitor our cultural intake with the fastidiousness of a Weight Watcher, judging for ourselves how much is too much, how much too little, and when more attention needs to be directed here or there.

It’s not a bad advice for a human being: live smart by using your head and your heart to guide your mind. But if subsequent generations of unalloyed humans found it difficult to follow, we cyborgs find it nearly impossible. The tech side of us thrives on ever-increasing baud rates, a limitless acceleration of memetic flow; and that demand thrives like yeast on the richly mixed brew of fundamental human emotion: sex, rage, and slapstick. It’s like what happens when a paleolithic demand for sugar walks into Walmart. We gorge our cyberselves by harnessing (and then obeying) the basic demands of ape-nature.

Yet – one hopes – there is enough humanity left in us to recognize that we’re out of whack, philosophically speaking. We end up being anxious, fearful, and sarcastic for too much of the time. At times we might even vow to obey the stern admonition of Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo: you must change your life. But it’s easier said than done. Both humans and cyborgs alike need to connect, and the connections widely available are – well, they are the ones widely available.

What to do? It seems to me this might be a good question to crowdsource. What has worked for you in trying to achieve a human balance in your cultural consumption? How do you negotiate the demands of your twin natures? What websurfing practices have you found that nourish the human side, while not boring the cybernetic one?

I’ll offer my own, just for the sake of a start. First, I try to bookmark only those sites that seem to me to hit Aristotelian means: ones that are witty, but not buffoonish; ones that are sensible and judicious, and not rash or pedantic; sites that, more often than not, offer a tasty sample of something rich and nourishing. Second, I try to post comments (or engage with them) only when there is a promise of constructive dialogue. Third (and this will sound silly, but it works for me) I often listen to music that strikes me as “higher” or somehow ennobling while I browse; I think it ends up shaping my background emotions, which makes a difference in how I click. And, finally, I watch the clock, and try to balance time in front of a glowing screen with time in front of a printed page. It’s not a perfect system – but, for the most part, it seems to work, judging by Aristotle’s own condition for success. That is to say, I’m a happy cyborg.