The Human Is Very Important Right Now

But why?

CJ Green / 5.1.19

At the soup kitchen where I accidentally volunteered for a couple of years, the following exchange happened more than once. Observing the guests at plastic fold-up tables, a volunteer would whisper what we’d all at some point wondered. “How do they afford it? Who pays for these phones?” Ostensibly low-income, possibly homeless, the guests were also listening to music or talking or texting on smartphones.

It’s not an unsolvable puzzle. While smartphones cost money, in many public spaces the Internet is free. G-mail, Facebook, and Spotify, if you can stand the ads, are also free. It is easier to procure interactive technology than a social class where people actually want to speak to your face.

As a symbol of wealth, the black mirror no longer applies, and according to tech reporter Nellie Bowles, the very opposite is now true: “Conspicuous human interaction—living without a phone for a day, quitting social networks and not answering email—has become a status symbol.”

As with all such things, the contest is as moral as it is monetary. Despite obvious inefficiencies, “conspicuous human interactions” are, most agree, superior. Communicating face-to-face, with all the clumsy “um”s and terrifying silences, means you haven’t turned inward completely or become like Mildred from Fahrenheit 451 who took a greater interest in her TV than her spouse. It signals some degree of goodness.

For her report, Bowles interviewed the CEO of the Luxury Institute (I could not figure out what that is) who amazingly said, “The human is very important right now.” What a weird thing to say, and so far as I can tell, there is no downside to it, except possibly the way it’s being framed, as a trend. I hear the voice of Esmé Squalor, the fashionable villain from A Series of Unfortunate Events, divulging that “the human is very ‘in’”; with a greedy gleam in her eyes, she scans the room for a human to associate with.

Notably, no one says, “The functional, good-looking human is very important right now,” though perhaps that is implied. To the luxury class—and all of us—what good are the ugly humans on death’s door? What good are the “bad” people, the criminals, the estranged relatives? And me? You?

No matter how we look or what we do, many of us, much of the day, don’t believe this simple idea, that the human is very important right now. It is anathema from the moment we wake up. We squint at the mirror for any trace of something to prove human value. Humming beneath the surface is the terror of not-enough. That’s why the luxury of human contact can be a headline in The New York Times in 2019: “The human is very important.” Even now, this is news.

We all know at least a few acquaintances (perhaps ourselves) who by all measurable standards have a better life than 99% of the rest of the world yet are posting frequently online all the reasons this must be so. Pervasive technology (not to mention hubris and narcissism) signals a craving for someone beyond the screen, on the other end, who might affirm our importance. Like with the Oasis in Ready Player One, the virtual world may even at times fulfill these needs more efficiently than the “real” one. Games, fantasies, an endless supply of music and information are all there. The notifications and comment threads recognize us as worth responding to.

In her Times piece, Bowles tells the true story of a 68-year-old man whose best friend is a cat named Sox, named after the Red Sox, the man’s favorite team. Also, the cat is animated. She talks to the man from a video screen; in a distant office, a team of workers monitor and control Sox’s voice, along with those of other pixelated pets throughout the country. Sox speaks a robotic English and, channeling therapeutic responses, brings her aging companion to grateful tears. This machine loves her owner like a caretaker but is, actually, better, because she is there for him when no other caretaker is.

So the distinctions between man and machine begin to…pixelate. In an interview about his new book, Machines Like Me, Ian McEwan suggests that if we can’t tell the difference between robots and humans (say an automated response or voice recording), then these robots may as well be human. They are effectively functioning as such. Cut to the bubbling anxiety/fevered excitement about artificial intelligence. AI challenges the uniqueness of the human, throws into question our singular importance, and additionally promises to do what has so far proven impossible for us.

“Remember,” McEwan says, “we know how to be good people. We have all our religions, all our philosophies, all our garden-fence gossip… But we can’t always be good people.” He wonders what would happen if we set technology with moral codes. What if we programmed vengeance and envy out of humanoid robots? Trolley problem notwithstanding, would they not obey? Would they not become a higher species? A better species? Interviewer Anne McElvoy points out this would make actual humans feel “more inferior. Wretched things are nicer than we are.” “It’s scientifically useless,” McEwan responds, to think this way. “We’re nowhere near it. But we do have our toes in this ocean, and we do need to keep asking these questions, especially when moral questions are being displaced from us to the machine.”

Implicit in McEwan’s experiment are the underlying probes: what makes us important, our intelligence? Our complex emotions? Our consciousness? If so, what happens when machines prove smarter, or people unfeeling? When we fall asleep, are we valuable then? Meanwhile, some people think plants have a consciousness. Don’t shoot the messenger.

What I am saying is, we have yet to discover a positive characteristic that is universally human. You and I are vastly different in our capacities and histories—what we look like, what we have experienced, what we will be able to experience. If there is a common denominator, it seems to be limitation, misperception, and a lifespan that is, in the grand scheme of history, comparable to a moon phase or solar eclipse.

At last week’s Mockingbird conference, there were screenings of Normie, a new documentary that encourages viewers to ask this urgent, universal question. Not merely what is normal, but what is human, and what makes humans valuable? Easy answers fall flat when posed by AnneMarie, the film’s central voice and a young woman with Down syndrome.

AnneMarie works a job but is not financially self-sufficient; she has relationships, but whether she will ever be a mother like her own, or like her TV idol Lorelai Gilmore, is doubtful. Following AnneMarie throughout the film, we begin to see that her questions are questions that we, too, should be asking. Why did God make me this way? Why do I feel lonely even when I am loved? We may be married yet alone; we may be constantly working yet purposeless; we may have four functioning limbs yet feel crippled.

When the Normie team asks a collection of random strangers what makes humans valuable, answers vary from simple to convoluted, from versions of ‘based on what you do’ to ‘how you love.’ Such answers feel cold when juxtaposed with disability and the often-unforgiving varieties of human experience. The most compelling answer comes as a statement of faith. We’re made in God’s image, says one girl plainly.

No one knows precisely what this means, but it indicates something fundamental. If humans are made in God’s image, then we resemble God, and God resembles AnneMarie, and also the elderly man with the animated cat, and also little babies of all races, men and women, affluent and homeless, and every person with some difference that might seem strange or scary in the eye of the beholder. In Seculosity David Zahl writes, “We talk casually about how we are ‘wired’ and liken the brain to a computer, our bodies to hardware, and our personalities to software. But as useful as these metaphors may sometimes be, the brain isn’t a computer… The spirit, to say nothing of the soul, is not actually code.”

The movement from what you do to who you are becomes a matter of faith, from the seen to the unseen. What we see are circles under eyes and spots on faces, gray hairs, random acts of kindness, and random acts of violence on large and small scales. And even so, “the human is very important right now.”

What is this still, small voice?

It is a CEO talking about a trend, but also, could it be more? Could it be a call from afar, a whisper from another dimension? A message in code that says, against all evidence, our rescuers are coming from beyond the smoking horizon of daily apocalypse? The human is very important right now.

To say this is to say that with all our incapacities and inefficiencies we have nevertheless some justification for being. It means that as we peer out from our underground bunkers, we know someone is there, and coming for us. We are worth the mission, no matter what we have done, can do, or will do. Right now and forever, the human is very important—in someone’s eyes.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


6 responses to “The Human Is Very Important Right Now”

  1. Ian says:

    “We are worth the mission, no matter what we have done, can do, or will do.” Praise God. Sometimes we feel like we deserve the simulacra that mimic care, and sometimes what we get from them is just enough to plow through one more day. But ultimately it has to be the Maker of all insisting we’re worth it if we’re going to make it through the long haul. Thanks, CJ!

  2. Ethan Richardson says:

    This is so freaking good, CJ. Normie was a great counter to this “trending” value, and points to something so much more valuable.

  3. Adam Morton says:

    Thanks, CJ. It is weird to see (even in academic theology) that anthropology is a hot topic, as if it could ever be otherwise.

  4. L Jones says:

    It is harrowing to imagine a future where we attempt to transcend human limitations (death, defect, physical body, etc…). It raises so many questions, as you pointed out, about what gives us inherent worth and value. I am left with the same denominator: We are made in the Image of God. So maybe these attempts at transcending humanity are the new “blasphemy”…to remove ourselves from the Image of God. And with a world that is so eager to acquire whatever competitive edge is sold, will there even be hesitation when the cost to “life as we know it” becomes incalculable?

  5. Matt K says:

    Wendell Berry has said something to the effect that, “the next great divide within the human race will be between those who are content to live as creatures and those who wish to live as machines.” I’m not fully sure what that exactly means, but it has persistently clawed at my own conscience as I try and live as a Christian in this world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *