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Alien Nation, Part Three
Where is our humanity?

by DK Holland

Isolated primitive tribes often have no words for past or future, believing only what they experience in the “here and now.” Whereas modernists are smashed in the trash compactor of the “now.” It’s not the real “now,” it’s the digital “now.” We’re isolated, spending so much damned time in the trash compactor that we are detached from the living breathing people walking right by us, standing right up next to us, in bed with us. And we’re paralyzed by our most dreaded fear—that we won’t ever be able to get out of our technology loop again. Fred, in the tragically hip world of Portlandia, can’t turn it off. He’s at his laptop. He yells for help and his girlfriend Carrie rushes in from the kitchen offering an intervention, but it’s too late. Fred’s personal screens are beckoning him all at once: puppy photos on The Puffington Host pull at his heart strings but he must answer incoming texts on his iPhone right now, and he must record on his DVR right now, and God forbid, he has fallen behind on his Netflix queue! He’s lost in a maze of hypno-techno attraction. Carrie shoves a photo of Fred in front of his face. It’s from before all this high-technology stuff was in his life. There was a time when he was happy, she reminds him. And without asking him, she installs Mind-fi into his brain. She smiles sweetly, getting very close to him, saying, “It’s like Wi-Fi but for thoughts.” But Fred’s eyes roll up into his head as he overdoses on all the mental stimulation. A headline appears on The Puffington Host “Ten Top Mind-fi Fails.” An evil laugh. The end.4

All the clocks we had when I was a little kid were analog clocks, conjuring up the concept of the ancient sundial that reflects the position of the sun as the day passes. There were no digital clocks until the late fifties. We know now that our brain understands the analog (conceptual) clock and the digital (literal) clock very differently. The digital clock can get very specific (e.g., two thirty-four and fifteen seconds PM), whereas reading an analog clock only gives you an idea of the time: (e.g., two thirty-ish or roughly half past two). An analog clock would have limited use underground since you’d have to guess if it were day or night. My sister, historical writer Cecelia Holland, says, “The analog clock is an analog of the horizon, a little model of the world; it’s a glorified sundial. Digital clocks don’t refer to reality this way, they’re arbitrary numbers.”

Any clock lets us measure time in small units, which has been extremely valuable when people work for set amounts of time. People punch in and out on a time clock. You work on an assembly line with a break from 2:15 to 2:45, or 14:15 to 14:45 on a 24-hour clock. Your flight leaves at 16:45. The timer is set to go off in 00:20.9 seconds. Humans invented the clock and we can uninvent it, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff says: “Back in the era of analog technology, we mistook time on the clock for human time. Now in the digital day we see what time really is: it’s just this number. It doesn’t have a lot to do with who we are. Yeah, we may have to get to work by a certain time, but that clock does not define us. We’re actually living on a human temporal landscape. If we can get in touch with that we’ll feel a lot happier, less vulnerable to the constant pings from our digital simulations,” Rushkoff, who famously left Facebook because of the ‘likes’ abuses, urges. “Time is fungible. Turn off your phone.”5

And, while there is an undeniable allure—that feeling that you are escaping into another world—our technology is fracturing our ability to create flow, much less to be in the flow. In the nineteenth century, entertainment for adults consisted of sitting in an audience, listening to a three-hour oration. Teachers complain now that their students cannot follow a simple train of thought and therefore cannot think critically. They worry that new technology is creating interference patterns in the minds of our youth. Yet we live in a time of perpetual crisis during which we must apply our intelligence or perish. What to do?

Scientists can now create DNA chips from fossils. Through technology we may soon re-populate the Earth with extinct prehistoric species. Harvard professor George Church, PhD, founder of the Personal Genome Project, has called for women to volunteer to carry Neanderthal babies (the plan, which still seems far-fetched and highly unethical, would be to create a tribe of Neanderthals so they have others to relate to).6 The motivation is to learn about ourselves from them. And, having cracked the genome code, we now know that we all carry 2.5–3 percent Neanderthal DNA. Maybe they had a sense of humanity we homo sapiens lack? Doctor Church says he’s had enthusiastic response! And, along with the Neanderthal, why not bring back the wooly mammoth and the aurochs, giants that once pounded down the tundra in herds creating and preserving a rich, nutritious environment? We could really use their help now: Biologist and farmer Allan Savory says most of our uncovered land is becoming desertified because of rainwater runoff. Decaying grasslands create carbon, a main cause of climate change. By reintroducing the holistic, planned grazing of livestock, the ground absorbs their nutrients as well as moisture during rainy seasons. Grasslands regenerate. Turn back the clock. Bring back the meat eaters, heal the Earth.7 We have a fear-based view of the future: we’re asking technology to give us what we think we want, not what we know we need. And in an era when technology snafus cause Canadian tar sands’ oils to hemorrhage into communities that look a lot like Metuchen. In an age when we create products for our selfish satisfaction and no concern for our neighbors, we are watching our humanity and our planet erode. We’ve lost our balance. For example, reversing desertification is a no-tech, highly humane, intelligent solution that challenges all our assumptions and solves lots and lots of problems. We need this kind of holistic, long-term, mature thinking. We all want our Mother Earth back. So let’s get her on the line. ca

   1.    Powers of Ten, Ray and Charles Eames.
   2.    TED2013, Vinton Cerf.
   3.    Rex Jung, PhD, On Being.
   4.    Portlandia,
   5.    Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.
   6.    George Church,
PhD, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves.
   7.    Allan Savory, “How to fight desertification and reverse climate change,” TEDtalk. 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.