We are not machines...
When I got the word that I landed the job as a manager of communications for Consolidated Edison, the electric utility that serves New York City and its immediate suburbs, the first person I told was my father. It was 1994 and I was a 28-year-old single mother with two children, ages 5 and 6. The average tenure of an employee at ConEd, at the time was 34 years. “Now you’ll have a job for life,” he told me, clearly relieved that I might be getting my life on track. I’m not sure precisely what track I was meant to be on at 28, or against what standard “on track” was measured, but working for a stable company with good benefits earning a salary that covered the bills without a restaurant side-job seemed more closely calibrated to it than I’d been across my 20s.
It seems cute and rather naïve in retrospect to think that I would have remained at ConEd for 34 years. A combination of deregulation of the utility industry and the excitement surrounding the emerging tech sector made working for a software startup—and then an online learning company—and then a fully remote PR agency (in 2000)—seem much sexier than navigating steam systems and working in a nuclear power plant. It wasn’t until many years later that I could see that life at the tip of the Generation X spear frequently means having one foot in the industrial age and the other in the information age—and that the human-as-machine metaphor that emerged from the industrial revolution is an unhelpful way to think about how we view who we are and how we fit in a world where machines increasingly work with us and not for us.
The Rise and Fall of ‘Calibrate”
If you’re not familiar with the Google Books Ngram viewer, it shows a graph of how a word or phrase has been used in books over a period of time. While not an entirely reliable way to gain understanding of a phenomenon, it often provides a thought-provoking lens through which to reflect on culture, particularly in the way we use words and metaphor to make sense of the world around us.
I laughed to myself when I plugged the word ‘calibrate’ into the Ngram as I was reflecting on being on the cusp and this came up.
The word calibrate, which means standardize, adjust and measure for precision, shows up in the 1850s, peaked at the turn of the 20th century and takes a rapid dip to the present. It emerged as machines that required precise alignment to a standard emerged. In the days where the ‘industrialized world’ moved from customized and bespoke craftsmanship to mass production methods where humans were part of the machine—and began to shift back as we moved toward less tangible ways of engaging with the world—and with one another.
Metaphors of the Mind and Body
The use of machine metaphors to think about the brain and body is not new. George Zarkadakis does a fantastic job of tracing a modern history of some of the prominent metaphors humans have used to explain and describe the body and mind in his book In Our Own Image: Savior or Destroyer? The History and Future of Artificial Intelligence. In it, he describes at least six from the time of the ancient Greeks. From the view of life emerging from the mud (it’s where the word human comes from), to the view of the brain as fluid (tied to the hydraulic engineering of the 4th and 5th centuries), to our current view of the brain as a computer or our personalities being “how we are wired”, we use a variety of concrete metaphors to describe the mysteries and wonders of the mind and body.
I can’t speak for the mud metaphors (although my brain feels a little muddy as I write this), I do know that viewing myself as a machine that needs to be calibrated against standards or norms and recalibrated at points of inflection, transition and change does not resonate for me.
I am not sure what the perfect Joan would be or what her perfect life would look like. I never have. And I’m not alone in that. More and more I find that people living on the right side of that nGram calibration curve dip are less precisely calibrated about what it means to live well, to work well and to live a “successful” life. The old standards, expectations and “norms” that we created (or are created for us) in the industrial age don’t seem to fit—and new understandings metaphors that might help us make sense of ourselves have yet to emerge.
For me, this begs a number of questions. What if there is no standard ideal brain or body or life against which to measure our successes or recalibrate when we lose clarity, become disoriented or feel unmoored? What is the alternative to viewing ourselves as machines? Might we live differently if we viewed the systems of neurons in our brains were a web or a root bed instead of wires? Can we break free of the industrial view of ourselves and the systems in which we operate without embracing another equally limiting metaphor?
Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Clubhouse.