Will we become machines?

Joseph Bottum reviews a slew of recent books on the coming of the machine age, and reflects on what it might mean (or not mean) for the future of humanity. It’s worth reading in whole for how well he skewers confused utopian thinking. In short, we cannot make ourselves immortal by destroying what we are: embodied and finite creatures. There’s also this, which I’m included here as something to look back upon in the years to come as a test of its skepticism:

We seem to have some weakness that lures us to think fundamental change is barreling down upon us. As it happens, the utopians and dystopians do share one thing in common: For centuries now, neither group has been much more successful at predicting the future than the gypsy lady who reads palms down on 18th Street. But still we imagine that this time, it’s going to be different. This time, the world will change.

The current futurists tend toward happy visions of the world to come, but along the way to their utopias they take our susceptibility for the new and divert it to the old, old belief that there’s something ugly and vile, something outrageous, about life in a fragile material body. Why should the new gnostics differ much from the old? Each of them longs to be an animal, a tree, a stone, an angel, a machine—anything but a human being.

What games can teach

Byron Reeves makes a contrarian point in arguing that certain video games teach people how to embrace leadership roles:

People say it’s most important to be born a leader. You get nurtured, you get selected, you’ve probably showed leadership qualities early on in school, you’ve been involved in activities that developed something that naturally existed. In the games [researchers] felt that leadership was not so much an attribute of individuals who were doing the leading, but leadership was an attribute of the environments in which the people were acting.

When players are required to take on different roles in order for their team to win (i.e.-some are warriors, some are priests, etc.), they learn that success requires not only leadership, but also followership. This is just “teamwork” in a sense, but I think it’s more helpful to think about the distinctions between leadership and followership.

John Mayer isn’t great because we all want to be him (though a lot of us do want to be him), but because we recognize his immense talent and are willing to follow him in enjoying a beautiful experience.

We each have a role to play in every scenario. If video games can teach that, it’s a redeeming thing. Real life will always be better.

Small talk

Karan Mahayana writes on My Struggle with American Small Talk:

“How’s it going?” I ask the barista. “How’s your day been?”

“Ah, not too busy. What are you up to?”

“Not much. Just reading.”

This, I have learned, is one of the key rituals of American life. It has taken me only a decade to master. …

American life is based on a reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate one another’s privacies. This makes it a land of small talk. Two people greet each other happily, with friendliness, but might know each other for years before venturing basic questions about each other’s backgrounds. The opposite is true of Indians. At least three people I’ve sat next to on planes to and from India have asked me, within minutes, how much I earn as a writer (only to turn away in disappointment when I tell them). In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.

When I spent time with someone, I want to spend real time with them. I want to speak meaningfully with them, at length. I want to hear things that make me understand or know them better, or think more richly about some subject than I did before, or simply share time in a way that isn’t the equivalent of killing time together.

This can make you seem brutal or unsentimental when you’re curt in a run of the mill commercial encounter. But if you’ve going to get wet, dive in. Count me in as an opponent of small talk.

Surveillance ≠ safety

A few years ago Penn State began spending millions installing new surveillance systems across its University Park campus. The proliferation of surveillance at Penn State, as in our society in general, changes the character of the community.

Smart, limited surveillance can make sense—but blanket surveillance is a corrosive that changes the character of communities in a damaging way. Its effect is to leave no common place free of cameras, and the effect of cameras watching every public space works to defeat the very purpose of public spaces.

Do you remember childhood? Do you remember what it was like to play when your parents and their friends were with you, hanging nearby but paying just enough attention to interject or admonish on occasion? Now do you remember as you grew up a bit and would meet friends someplace in the neighborhood—maybe a nearby woods or creek or field or dead end street? There was a place when you could truly be alone, or at least be with friends without a watchful eye. Completely different spaces—one public but regulated, and the other a genuinely free.

In the article covering Penn State’s push toward surveillance, an administrator named offers the justification that surveillance is “part of our society.” This is a strikingly unthoughtful remark. All variety of crime is “part of our society” too. What administrators like this are really saying is something like: “Don’t look to universities to do anything other than reflexively embrace the fashions of the culture.”

A community with a high degree of neighborly interaction and trust—that is, a healthy culture—is not a place that requires surveillance.

In old films you’ll notice characters sometimes hop into their cars, pull down the visor, and catch a falling set of keys for the ignition. The car doors weren’t just unlocked—the keys were kept in the car! These were communities that trusted themselves, even while knowing there was always a risk a bad actor might take advantage of that atmosphere of trust.

While networked technology makes things like mass surveillance possible, the paradox is that those networked technologies have the effect in this case of creating thousands of individualized, invisible social moats. They corrode community culture by outsourcing its most vital function, which is to know your neighbor well enough to watch his back.

We can’t create safe spaces by surveilling them in order to assign blame or solve crimes after the fact. What we need are policies that fosters trust and personal relationships. This means towns where you can leave your car open. Campuses where you can trust your dormmates to care enough about you to keep their eyes open for you.

It’s true that surveillance is “part of our society,” but universities especially should know that it doesn’t have to be, and that the safest communities are those without surveillance.

Valuing thick relationships

Thinking lately about thin v. thick relationships.

I think most relationships we have are thin. They’re light, they’re pleasant, and they’re superficial. They work, but there’s not a great deal of thickness to them. We smile, we ask how they’re doing (Good!), we didn’t really care, and after we get whatever we needed in the first place, we move on until they appear in front of us again and we repeat the process.

There are thick relationships though. These matter.

To a careless observer, thick relationships might look thin. Thick relationships might involve everything the thin one does, except the “we didn’t really care” part.

Thick relationships don’t necessarily exist or last in the popular way. They can be sparked in an instant, in a simple but singular moment, and they can survive without contact for years (sometimes decades), and when two friends meet again, they have the ability to pick things up right where they left them. Like a cool glass of iced tea sitting on the windowsill on one of those summer afternoons that, when the day is spent well, seem to last a lifetime.

I try to make a great percentage of my relationships thick. Especially because I’m already feeling the truth in the statement that, as we get older, out social worlds narrow. Thickness for me is about doing everything I can to make sure my social world expands.


We sleep together not because it’s fiscally responsible, but because we are affectionate beings. Our minds need rest, but our minds also need camaraderie and intimacy and whispering. Anxiety and stress seem less intimidating when discussed with a partner while wearing pajamas. It’s important to talk about our days lying side by side, discuss children and household situations, gossip about neighbors and colleagues, plan for tomorrow in the confines of private chambers. We cuddle. We laugh. At the end of each day we remove the onerous cloaks we’ve donned to face the world, and we want to do this lying next to our best friends, to know we’re not in it alone. —The Atlantic, Why We Sleep Together

Fascinating piece delving into the changing uses, attitudes, and customs of sleep and shared lives.