The Human Stops

About a week ago, or about a lifetime ago, when I was still living in Los Angeles, I was hanging out in an apartment in Echo Park. It was a gorgeous one bedroom with a stainless steel fridge, marble countertops, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking downtown LA. The place belonged to a guy named Archie, the boyfriend of a friend of a friend. The four of us listened to Alanis Morisette and the Spice Girls while we drank wine and laughed and enjoyed the air conditioning; it was midnight and 90 degrees outside. (Right now in New York, it’s midday and 50 degrees outside.)

At some point in the evening, Archie walked into his bedroom and came out with what looked like an old school pair of 3D glasses. He handed them to me, and I put them on. Where the lenses should be, there was a horizontal iPhone 6. The screen had a trippy kaleidoscopic image that changed in texture, color, and shape every time I turned my head. “This is so cool!” I said. But like the traditional kaleidoscope from childhood, it got boring after a few minutes. Archie changed the settings on the device, this time to a rollercoaster ride. “This is so cool!” I said again. “It actually feels like I’m moving!” It reminded me of the Soaring Over California ride at California Adventure. Everywhere I turned, the screen followed and the landscape changed.

The final game was the best. To compare it to another Disney attraction, it was like Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster. Set in space, the object was to shoot moving targets that looked like they were made of lava or goo. Everywhere I turned my head, a blast of laser would shoot in that direction. Meanwhile, I had to avoid being hit by blasts of laser coming at me from different directions. I was crouching, jumping, and dodging in real life to avoid getting killed in the game. I imagined I looked just like a character from the Sims wearing that virtual reality headset that made their happiness levels go through the roof.

This is going to be huge, I thought. This is the future. 

I could imagine the possibilities of something like this. A step beyond the Apple Watch and Google Glass, both of which are already examples of the merging of the cyber world with the real world. Apparently it’s become too burdensome to hold a device connecting us to the internet, we need to wear it, make it an actual part of us.

This reminded me of a short story I once read in college called “The Machine Stops.” Written by EM Forster in 1909 (!), it depicts a fictional futuristic society where everybody lives in a separate cell. With sickly pale skin and no muscle tone, they spend their whole lives sitting in an armchair with buttons to push for food, medicine, music, air conditioning, etc. They see and talk with one another through a “round plate.” Existing in an isolated environment of comfort, instant gratification, and distraction, they experience life solely through a machine. One day, the woman in the story attempts to leave the confines of her cell, but is “seized with the terrors of direct experience. She shrank back into the room, and the wall closed up again.” The people in this society actually worship the Machine, forgetting that humans in fact created it. Eventually, the Machine starts to break down, but nobody can remember how to fix it. Spoiler alert: Everybody dies.

It’s obvious why this story resonates with me; it’s a glimpse into a very possible future scenario. Like a train headed off a cliff, we’re getting closer to this reality everyday. Right now, everything we could want or need is a click away. Bored? Netflix. Hungry? GrubHub. Horny? Redtube. Any information you could ever need is accessible at all times. We really don’t need to go anywhere, ever.

(Except to pee, but that’s what water bottles are for right? JK.)

But we do go out into the world, if for no other reason than to document and share our experience with everybody else. We document everything: every friend we see, every gym we go to, every cold-pressed juice we drink. When did documenting life become more fun than experiencing it? We’ve all retweeted something along the lines of “live in the moment,” but do any of us actually know what that means?

As always, Alan Watts says it best:

We are thus breeding a type of human being incapable of living in the present—that is, of really living. For unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax. There is no point whatever in making plans for a future which you will never be able to enjoy. When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond. You will never, never be able to sit back with full contentment and say, ‘Now, I’ve arrived!’ Your entire education has deprived you of this capacity because it was preparing you for the future, instead of showing you how to be alive now.

I am not optimistic that we as a society will get better at living a more present life, less dependent on technology. Look at how we’re raising the next generation. Everywhere you look you see one year old babies playing with iPads.

Babies.

With iPads.

They’ve only been on this planet for twelve months and they’re already jaded by the stimulus of real life? I sympathize with parents; I get that they’re busy, overworked, and tired, and an iPad is an easy, convenient solution. But we have to be more conscious and find more creative, less damaging ways to entertain our kids. What happened to slinkys?

I have friends who, when I say I’m going to leave my phone in the car for a few hours while we hang out, will say, “Oh my gosh! I could never do that.” And they’re not exaggerating. They’re addicted to their phones and they don’t care. They think it’s normal– and, they’re right.  The definition of “normal” means “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected,” and today, to be plugged in 24/7 is normal, despite how unnatural it is. And it’s terrifying, because I am as addicted as anyone else–and I’m tired of it. I’m tired of my eyes hurting from staring at screens. I’m tired of trying to write a blog post and being distracted by the seven other tabs I have open. I’m tired of going to a Lady Gaga concert and not being able to see the stage because of all the selfie sticks.

Earlier today, I was mediating at the Shambhala Center. There I was, sitting on a pillow on the floor in half-lotus position, my breath slow and steady, my eyes gently gazing at the floor…and my mind wondering what to make my Facebook status. Should it be “Finally made it to the NYC Shambhala Center! Best way to kick off my Sunday”? When I realized what I was thinking, I felt grossed out and I judged myself. But that right there, catching myself mid-thought, is a victory. It’s the whole point of meditation: to be aware of your thoughts, then let them go, and be present to what is happening here and now. The idea is to experience life directly and fully, utilizing all five senses without the filter of your thoughts or judgments or opinions (aka your ego).

We don’t need to be Buddhist monks or neo-luddites to live an awakened life. We don’t need a revolution. And in this day in age where most millennials make a living working online, a revolution is not only impractical, it’s impossible. Used as a tool, the internet is overwhelmingly positive, from the spreading of information to the creation of opportunities. But we’ve reached the point where it is no longer a tool, but a crutch. We have a choice: will we use the internet, or let the internet use us? We can live a full, vibrant, present life, and use the internet as needed to our advantage, and then unplug and return to reality. Or we can make technology apart of our moment-to-moment existence, and wonder why we’re anxious, depressed, lonely, and detached. We can experience life directly and consciously, or through screens and filters, until it reaches the point where we stop being humans and become apart of the machine. And then, spoiler alert: everyone dies.

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