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Alien Nation, Part Three
Where is our humanity?

by DK Holland

My big sister Cissie spoke directly into the mouthpiece of our big black telephone receiver, clutched awkwardly in her little hands. Its cloth-covered cord hung like a snake from the wall-mounted cradle in our kitchen. Our baby sitter was bugging this six year old. “I want my mommy!” she demanded to the switchboard operator, who replied. “Oh dear. I’ll find her.” She called our aunt Cecelia up the street. Mom rushed right home.

Back in the 1950s the telephone operator in our borough, Metuchen, New Jersey, connected us to the world—the shoe store, the corner store, the high school, the fire department and our aunts Lois, Betty, Doodle, Danny, Peggy, Mary and Cecelia. Our operator was our 911, our 411. There were no rotary dials, nor were there area codes or dial tones. Our phone number, Metuchen six 7132W, was a party (i.e., shared) line and it was quite normal to argue or trade gossip with or eavesdrop on whomever was there when you picked up the receiver. Our world was small, contained and very personal.

“Siri, I want my mommy.” I demanded to my iPhone 4. Siri’s annoyed reply was “I don’t know what you mean by ‘I want my mommy’ How about a web search for it?” Her search disappointed. She didn’t connect me to my mother (who had died in 2001 after all) only to a rare video game, a blog about parenting and a website about grief. So long, Siri, you’ve been disconnected: Google Voice is here now, with so much more to offer.

The other day I was having a “Google moment” thinking, “Who was that woman who tried to kill President Ford in the late ’70s? What was her name?” Why clog my neuron pathways to dredge up this bit of trivia? Instead I whipped out my iPhone (OK it was already out, it is, after all, like my fifth appendage). I entered the keywords ‘President Ford, murder attempt’ into Safari—and violà—not only did it inform me instantly that it was Sarah Jane Moore who tried to “off” Ford, but also that there had been two attempts to assassinate Ford by two different women at two different times and two different places, both in California, both in September of 1975. In one instance the President was saved by a bystander who grabbed the gun just before it went off (Did I ever know that? I feel I must have.) While online, I linked to a list of all the assassination attempts of all US presidents ever made public: there have been attempts on fifteen presidents (including innumerable attempts against President and Mrs. Obama, as of May 2013) and successful assassinations of four presidents. This was much more than I needed or wanted to know. But now I had no choice, I knew. And now you do too. We are relentlessly bombarded with vast amounts of extraneous information about the world these days.

Gone by the wayside are telephone books and rotary phones, alarm clocks, boxy televisions, rabbit ear antennae, as well as 35 mm film and VHS video cameras, slides and carousel trays, personal photo albums we can page through, as well as record players, 45 and 33 RPM records and 12 X 12 inch cardboard albums covered in gorgeous graphics emblematic of the era into which we’d slip vinyl records. All we need now is our iPhone from Apple, but soon all we will need will be on our nose—Google Glass. Our entertainment technology is totally miniaturized, mobilized and me-directed. We’re in The Cloud now, a name which, paradoxically, is not exactly confidence-inspiring but more like a warning: that this vast vapor-like technological collage could simply vanish into thin air, taking all our knowledge with it. With a snap of the finger.

Rest assured. Everything you’ve ever experienced or learned is stored in the three pounds of grey matter that fits snugly inside your cranium, most of which, while perhaps not accessible, is still tucked away in there—someplace. For instance, my older sister recalled her early memories of our family’s telephone. She had been holding onto that visual memory for 63 years, for just this moment.

“Mega-savants” like Kim Peek (who was the inspiration for the film Rain Man) are driven to devour phone books and catalogs to quench their thirst for memories. These rare individuals, unlike you or me, retain almost everything they read. They can pull bits of minutiae back out at will. The corpus callosum provides an information highway and a filtering system between the two separate hemispheres of the brain. Peek had none of this—he was void of the interconnections—which kept his trove of trivia from becoming a true treasure.

Much of our collective past is embedded in an elaborate, amorphous, single-hemisphered “brain”—the greatest mega-savant of them all, The Internet. The fact that details of our lives are so accessible, and yet so utterly ephemeral, is the new reality. Paradoxically, for a culture that so highly values privacy we seem more than willing to expose the inner secrets of our lives—and to make them perpetually public. Perhaps it’s the titillation of new social media that has pulled us onto the plasma screen, and into the ether, precisely because we can share our baby pictures or even more intimate moments with our loved ones instantaneously and forever (but God only knows who else). But this is especially troubling for those who might wish to reinvent themselves or remain anonymous. Alas, just as scientists place frogs in warm water and watch them boil to death unaware that there is a point at which they could jump out and save themselves, social media has turned up the heat and we humans are in a pot that’s about to bubble over. By the way, did you get your $10 from Facebook? A class-action lawsuit proved this huge corporation (valued at $141 billion) was making its one billion ‘friends’ into unwitting endorsers (i.e., if you ‘liked’ a product, you helped sell that product). Well, that claim has been resolved. Ten bucks is what you will get if you were abused in this way. But that’s just one itty-bitty example of the endless evils that we fear lurk out there in the vast badlands of the Internet, most going undetected. 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.