I recently read (and recommend) “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine” by Alan Lightman, a theoretical astrophysicist. His book is a meditation on religion and science, impermanence and the effects of technology on human existence. He posits that, within a few generations, the species homo sapiens is destined to be replaced by homo techno, a hybrid of human tissue and integrated technology.
Essentially, humans will become cyborgs in order to improve our weak bodies. As homo techno, we will have ocular implants to improve our vision, rather than glasses or contacts, and cochlear implants to correct hearing loss. Nanotechnology embedded in our hearts and brains will diffuse strokes, attacks, disease and seizures (some of these are happening already.) Technology will help us run faster or reduce the need to move at all. Embedded electronics will stimulate our muscles so that we need not exercise in order to stay fit. Ostensibly, technology will extend our lives, our ease and enhance every aspect of our physical bodies. At a minimum, these modifications would shift our perception of the world. Technology would become the lens for the intake of all physical sensations and experience.
As someone who has worn corrective lenses since she was eight, thus benefitting from advances in medical science, maybe it’s hypocritical that my first response to this is—NO! I am glad that I’ll be long dead before this is an option.
Maybe this marks me as regressive, an inflexible dinosaur, the same way that I feel befuddled at the end of a long week of text messages, emails, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I often place my phone in another room so that I don’t have the Pavlovian urge to check it every time it buzzes with a message. Technology doesn’t always make things more clear. Sometimes, it’s an illusion. A pointless distraction. A junk drug.
Those of us who remember a time before smartphones are more severely impacted, I think. Our human anatomy is quickly overwhelmed with too much technological stimulation. This is not to say that Gens Y and Z don’t feel the fatigue of over-connectedness, but they are natives on the other side of the line. My generation, and those before me, knew what life was like before the noise of technology hovered in our living rooms, listening for our next command, whereas the iGens have always lived with it, to some degree.
When I imagine what homo techno might look like, I conjure hybrid images of Arnold Schwartzenegger’s Terminator blended with the people next to me on mass transit: bent over their smart phones, earbuds in, obsessively poking at their screens, slaves to the master of techno. At moments like these, when my train car is eerily silent and everyone is plugged into their devices, I wonder if The Matrix doesn’t already have us. No one pauses to look up at Mount Rainier on a clear morning, or at their fellow transit riders, unless someone drops their phone with a noisy clunk. As a species, we are slipping out of conscious existence into imaginary digital realms; are infrared cyborg eye implants really so unbelievable?
There is, of course, a counter-movement that bridges the worlds of spiritual observation, mind training and physical exercise. Today, people of all ages seek retreats and classes designed to (re)connect our bodies and minds outside of technology. This is not new. As long as humans have lived, technology has pulled our minds and bodies apart, even as it has aided our struggle to survive. They didn’t have smartphones during the Stone Age or the American Revolution, but it’s not to say that people weren’t bombarded or dissected by the inventions of the time, which were supposed to make life easier and wars winnable. For most, technology is impossible to escape, though we try.
I am reminded of our ancient human need to unplug when I show up to yoga each Saturday. Every lesson is nuanced, but all are rooted in the same essential goals, unchanging through millennia: clear the channels, embody the body, calm the mind. It seems obvious, yet we must be reminded of the pathway back to ourselves every week, every day, every hour. Smartphones only amplify the distraction; our homo sapiens brains are susceptible to the guise of entertainment, problem-solving, quizzes and games. The difference between Gen-X and Gens Y and Z is that the iGens discover peace when their mind-body connection is freed of smartphone technology, whereas my generation remembers and longs for the time before it. There will be a day soon when, like the T. Rex, people of the generation “before” will be no more.
For the past month, the theme of my teacher’s yoga classes has been strength versus strain, tone versus tension. How much effort is needed to achieve a pose, and what happens when we back off just a few degrees? Must the dial always go to 11, as it does in our work-a-day lives? In moving through a sequence of asanas, Ellen has asked us to compare and contrast the feeling of forcing versus extending the core of our bodies, which requires sensation and restraint. Strain and tension feel ragged and rigorous; the power is either ON or OFF. In comparison, strength and tone are nuanced. They are shades of gray. In strength it is possible to sink deeper; in tone, we quiver, right up to the edge, without going over. The words simmer and sweet come to mind—and spicy.
I don’t want a computer or a sensor to feel or interpret these things for me. I don’t want a chip in my brain to deliver pleasure on a hermetically clean plate, or a nanotransmitter to translate experiences into the digital equivalent of pain or joy. Yes, we age and decline, but technology cannot “solve” the human condition. There will always be poses I cannot do, thanks to my body’s architecture or injury, but the answer, at least for me, is not to hand over my practice to a machine to make it perfect. Perfection has a way of scrubbing things senseless.
No matter the cause of our creation, I believe that the purpose of a human life is the physical experience of being embodied, in all its imperfection. What we do with that knowledge—whether we ascend to higher realms or damn ourselves into repeating the same choices over and over—is up to us. I want to be the one who, for better or worse, decides what to do with the time and the body I have.
This also applies to writing. I have just finished the fifth chapter of my novel, which I approached through strain and tension these past two months. It was ugly and painful most of the time; each morning, I had to force myself to do it. It was not my best or my most imaginative work. But I have found that simply rebuilding my writing practice—showing up to write each day, no matter what—was an application of strength and tone. The practice itself, rather than the proof or analysis of the result, is what allows me to begin writing the sixth.