Being human is hard, and getting harder. The decision to remain human consists of hundreds of tiny choices every day. Do I put relationships first, or is it more important to complete tasks? Am I more interested in flesh-and-blood human beings, or do I prefer to deal with abstractions?
These may all sound like nebulous questions designed for an intro philosophy course in college. But for me, I’m finding that this distinction – between being people-centered or idea-centered, relationship-focused or task-focused – lies at the core of what it means to be and remain human in my daily life.
Human nature has been under siege for centuries. In industrial societies, most new wealth was created by mechanizing the power of human labor. Humans were organized into cogs in the vast industrial gearwork. We trained our reflexes to mimic those of industrial machinery. Human bodies are tamed and domesticated to serve the needs of the machine.
In 21st-century America, the mechanization of labor-intensive work – such as in retail, restaurants, and manufacturing – is practically complete. We have learned to behave like machines, achieving high efficiency at performing repetitive tasks, and even social interactions. This benefits the bottom line, producing more goods, services, and products.
But capitalism is never satisfied. By its nature, the machine must always continue to grow. In an age where the human body has been almost completely dominated by the need for domesticated efficiency, capitalism naturally seeks new outlets for its expansion.
No longer content to control our bodies, post-industrial capitalism is now busily domesticating our minds.
Let me give you a very small, perhaps silly example. This morning as I sat down to compose this blog post, I had to make a decision about a title. I knew that certain titles would be more psychologically effective than others. There are formulae for writing titles that help ensure that articles get read. If I follow them, I can expect a greater audience for my writing.
But it doesn’t stop there. The title of an article is linked to its content. If I had chosen to title this piece, “4 Reasons You’re Already Post-Human,” I would have been required to write my whole piece as a bulleted listicle. As a matter of fact, there are formulae for how blog posts should be written, too. Even now, I have a WordPress plugin warning me that my readability “needs improvement.” Any writing that can’t be easily scanned and digested without thought, any phrasing or nuance that might slow the reader down, is likely to reduce engagement, clicks, sharing.
Thus I am cajoled and pressured to mechanize my writing, my thinking – and yours.
This is how we end up with a vapid internet, saturated with fake news, celebrity gossip, and top-ten lists. It’s this mechanization of thought that threatens to transform us into unreflective cogs in an vast intellectual machine that exists to deepen profits rather than stimulate human flourishing.
Our post-industrial society is training us to be cogs rather than creators, objects rather than subjects. I notice this tendency throughout my everyday life. I’ve chosen it, as I’ve bought into the cult of personal efficiency. I keep all my tasks in an electronic to-do list. My life is managed by Google Calendar. I regularly clear my email inbox. I get things done.
Yet, there is a growing emptiness in the midst of all this efficiency. I have become so good at controlling the details and tasks of my life – so why do I feel lost and breathless? Somehow, I’ve been convinced to program myself like a machine. I myself set the timers, checklists, and goals. But the effect is the same. Each day I find myself leaping through hoops with little thought as to why. My life becomes so full, it’s mostly just stimulus and response.
Hannah Arendt wrote that the ultimate goal of totalitarianism is to see every human being completely stripped of personal will and creativity. The ideal totalitarian society would consist of men and women who marched along through their daily routines, without spontaneity or joy – simply responding to commands from beyond themselves, drooling like Pavlov’s dog.
This description of total domination does not yet describe the world we live in. But it’s too close for my own comfort. I am astounded at how, even in the midst of a relatively free society, I have allowed myself to be conditioned to treat life as a series of tasks to perform. I’ve come to regard myself as an instrument for accomplishing things beyond me, rather than simply embracing myself as a unique creation of God, valuable and worthwhile in my own right.
The present social and political crisis in my country provides yet another temptation. It would be easy to tell myself that now, because we are in a time of emergency, I must place all my focus on accomplishing effective resistance to an evil regime. Yet it is precisely the growing danger of totalitarian government that has convinced me that I must root out the seeds of totalitarian thinking and behavior in my own life. How can I resist tyranny if I insist on being a tyrant to myself?
As odd as it may sound, even to me, now is a time for beauty. Now is a moment to acknowledge my own life’s joy and intrinsic value, fully apart from any work I might perform. With idolatrous and tyrannical movements on the rise, it has never been more important to bear witness to the fact that this whole life is a gift. We don’t make it, we don’t earn it, we can’t justify it with our labor. This unexpected divine grace is the foundation of all faith, and a stern rebuke to the ideologies and regimes that would domesticate our lives and mechanize our spirits.