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Alien Nation, Part Three
Where is our humanity?

by DK Holland

If we took the time and effort, we could fill volumes and volumes of personalized scrapbooks, create libraries for ourselves by downloading and printing out the thousands of pages of personal information and images stored in the vapors of The Cloud. The irony is that we don’t take the time to do this yet it’s speculated that records on ancient parchment endure far longer than those stored electronically in bits and bytes.

In the late 1970s, Ray and Charles Eames created a revolutionary film about the relative size of things. In Powers of Ten, the camera focuses on the body of a man who is lying asleep on a blanket. But then the camera pulls out into space, taking us to the most remote regions of the universe at which point it whizzes back down to Earth, this time through the sleeping man’s hand, into the smallest unit of matter known at that time, a single carbon atom. “Atoms are bonded into every molecule out to the farthest galaxy.” The narrator observes. We are in a domain of universal modules. Throughout this brief but prophetic film, the narrator counts off the powers of ten and we are made aware that every-thing, in its interconnectedness, whether organic or inorganic, is made up of star dust. Literally. This is as elegantly simple a concept, as it is complex and profound.1

The Internet is made up of 400,000 interconnected (i.e., all using the same TCP/IP protocol suite) yet independent (i.e., unrelated) networks from all over Earth including, of course, the World Wide Web (i.e., a system of interlinked hypertext documents). Its growth has not been orchestrated over its 40-year history and no one understands why the Internet hasn’t crashed under its own weight or from sabotage or a cascade of calamitous errors. Vint Cerf, who co-wrote the protocols in the mid 1970s (and is now Chief Internet Evangelist at Google), may be as close as we will ever get to a creator. Cerf envisions an ever-expanding IT universe, “Now we are starting to add all our home appliances to the system. We are beginning to understand how to connect with species that are not like us, but which share the same environment. Machines talking to machines. Interplanetary systems. This will eventually tell us how to connect with aliens from other worlds. I can’t wait.” Of course, all this is designed to, through the use of technology, broaden our perception of the sentient world and help us go deeper in understanding that we are all one. For instance, an interspecies keyboard is being designed to teach dolphins how to communicate with us and vice versa.2 Interconnected indeed.

President Obama has called for scientists to “map the human brain” (just as we “mapped the genome”) in a quest to understand the brain’s “internet” functions more fully, to find its cubby holes, to conquer our inner space. As part of this effort, scientists are creating a computer simulation of the brain seeking to understand the cause-and-effect relationships we all experience. This means literally getting inside a living brain without interfering with or damaging its tissue. No small feat. Even if that can be achieved, the really big topics—how the mind works, the nature of consciousness, decision-making processes, ethical thinking—remain elusive.

We have long “done work” on our bodies to try to achieve perfection. It’s all about what we can buy: straight (not kinky), perfectly colored hair, perkier breasts, or a longer, straighter, more impressive penis. But who can forget Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing who was delightfully distinctive until her nose job made her look like every other Hollywood starlet? Is there only one acceptable body type now? One leg, one nose, mouth, eye/eyebrow combo? I glanced at a cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine the other day. I thought, “Oh it’s Keri Russell. No it’s Katie Holmes. Wow. It’s actually Drew Barrymore.” Except for Lena Dunham, who is fearless on camera in her naked shapelessness and puppy dog face, it’s getting a bit scary, don’t you think? If you have any doubts, see the Queen of Versailles, the award-winning documentary/reality film by Lauren Greenfield in which a real-life Barbie doll (AKA every plastic surgeon’s dream, Jackie Siegel) drops seven kids with her filthy rich real estate hubby and gets frantic as they go broke building a 90,000-square-foot McMansion in Orlando, Florida, inspired by, as the name implies, Versailles and, of course, greed, American-style. And they do this all on camera for the bemusement of voyeurs like us and for their own self-absorption. Do you want to “like” Jackie on Facebook? She has only 637 likes at this writing. While we might see Jackie Siegel’s excesses as horrific (her home includes a 30-car garage, 10 bathrooms, 10,000-square-foot spa), she sees her life as a rags-to-riches triumph.

We wield too much power through technology. In the extreme, we are facing a future where fabulously wealthy people may be able to control their reproduction by selecting their best-looking, most genius, disease-free progeny. They will identify their favorite fertilized egg from an array of options, each analyzed by computer. Given the option, would you leave this decision to chance or God, or destiny? Why end up with a lesser being in your care? Some parents tinker with nature by jacking up their otherwise healthy kids’ performances by giving them prescription drugs so they will test better, be smarter, get into Harvard. A significant percentage of scientists support this strategy.3 Our bodies are not made up of pure human material any more and we accept that. But aren’t science and technology running way ahead of the ethics? Can they work in tandem? For instance, we are close to finding a cure for malaria through synthetics, yet we worry about the ramifications of genetic modification. When the benefits are greater than the risks or ethical concerns, society may well become comfortable with cloning, at which point cloning could become widespread (this is estimated to happen in 50 years or less). Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.