Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast

There’s a difference between awe and excitement. These days, we mostly get the latter.

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Once we dispense with shame, we are liberated to experience the full, sacred, unlikely wackiness of being human. We are confident enough to leave the safety of the private computer simulation and jump into the wet chaos of social intimacy. Instead of marveling at the granularity of a VR world or the realism of a robot’s facial expression, we open our senses to the taste of the breeze or the touch of a lover.

We exchange the vertigo of the uncanny valley for the exhilaration of awe.

The state of awe may be the pinnacle of human experience. It’s what lies beyond the paradox. If humans’ unique job in nature is to be conscious, what more human thing can we do than blow our observing minds? Beholding the panoramic view from a mountaintop, witnessing the birth of a child, staring into a starry sky, or standing with thousands of others in a march or celebration, all dissolve the sense of self as separate and distinct. We experience ourselves as both the observing eye and the whole of which we are a part. It’s an impossible concept, yet an undeniable experience of power and passivity, awareness and acceptance. …

If America is going to recover from its Trump addiction, it’s going to need to embrace monotony

Donald Trump is seen speaking through a camera at a press conference.
Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Admit it. Twitter isn’t quite as sensational without its leading troll, President Donald Trump. Online disinformation — perhaps the most compelling content available on social networks — is down 73% since he was banned. Not even the response to an armed attack on the Capitol or the fake news about antifa and Black Lives Matter having instigated it as a false flag event have been enough to stir up the social media landscape to previous frenzied levels of activity. …

Social stigmas are used to keep us from finding our collective power

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After delivering a lecture at Berkeley, a 1960s counterculture psychologist took questions from the audience. A young woman stood up to explain that she understood the deep connection between people and our collective responsibility for the world, but she didn’t know what to do next. The psychologist answered, “Find the others.”

Find the others. Restore the social connections that make us fully functioning humans, and oppose all conventions, institutions, technologies, and mindsets that keep us apart. Challenging the overt methods of separation is straightforward: reject the hate speech of racists, the zero-sum economics of oppression, and the warmongering of both tyrants and neoliberal hawks. Our internalized obstacles to connection, however, are more embedded and pernicious. …

How anomalous behavior defeats the systems of social control

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The easiest way to break free of simulation is to recognize the charade and stop following the rules of the game.

No, cheating doesn’t count. Illegal insider trades and performance-enhancing drugs simply prove how far people are willing to go to win. If anything, cheating reinforces the stakes and reality of the game.

Transcending the game altogether means becoming a spoilsport — someone who refuses to acknowledge the playing field, the rules of engagement, or the value of winning. (Why win, anyway, if it’s only going to end the game?) In certain non-Western cultures, the spoilsport is the shaman, who lives apart from the tribe in order to see the larger patterns and connections. In a world where a person’s success is measured by career achievements, the spoilsport is the one willing to sacrifice commercial reward for social good. In a middle school where social media likes are the metric of popularity, the spoilsport is the kid who deletes the app or chooses not to own a phone at all. …

Our bodies recognize the dangers of simulation, and we should too

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While humans are drawn to and empowered by paradox, our market-driven technologies and entertainment appear to be fixed on creating perfectly seamless simulations.

We can pinpoint the year movies or video games were released based on the quality of their graphics: the year they figured out steam, the year they learned to reflect light, or the year they made fur ripple in the wind. Robot progress is similarly measured by the milestones of speech, grasping objects, gazing into our eyes, or wearing artificial flesh. …

Real masterpieces don’t have conclusive answers, but new sorts of questions

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The rise of digital media and video games has encouraged the makers of commercial entertainment to mimic some of the qualities of post-narrative work, but without actually subjecting their audiences to any real ambiguity.

Movies and prestige television, for example, play with the timeline as a way of introducing some temporary confusion into their stories. At first, we aren’t told that we’re watching a sequence out of order, or in multiple timelines. It’s just puzzling. Fans of ongoing series go online to read recaps and test theories with one another about what is “really” going on. But by the end of the series, we find out the solution. There is a valid timeline within an indisputable reality; we just had to put it together. …

We live in a world where uncertainty is equated with anxiety instead of with life

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Pro-human art and culture question the value of pat narratives. They produce open-ended stories, without clear victors or well-defined conflicts. Everyone is right; everyone is wrong. The works don’t answer questions; they raise them.

These are the “problem plays” of Shakespeare, which defy easy plot analysis, as characters take apparently unmotivated actions. They’re the abstract paintings of Kandinsky or Delaunay, which maintain distance from real-world visual references. These images may represent figures, but only sort of. The observing human mind is the real subject of the work, as it tries and fails to identify objects that correspond perfectly with the images. And this process itself mirrors the way the human brain identifies things in the “real” world by perceiving and assembling fragmented details. Instead of giving us clear representation — this is an apple! …

Society has become obsessed with climax and resolution

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Art, at its best, mines the paradoxes that make humans human. It celebrates our ability to embrace ambiguity, and to experience this sustained, unresolved state as pleasurable, or at least significant.

Commercial entertainment, by contrast, has the opposite purpose. The word entertain — from the Latin for “to hold within” — literally means “maintain,” or “continue in a certain condition.” Its goal is to validate the status quo values by which we already live, reinforce consumerism, and — most of all — reassure us that there is certainty in this world. Not only do we find out whodunnit, but we get to experience a story in which there are definitive answers to big questions, villains to blame when things go wrong, and a method for administering justice. These plots depict a character we like (usually a young man), put him in danger, raise the stakes until we can’t take it anymore, and then give him the solution he needs to vanquish his enemy and win the day, at which point we can all breathe a sigh of relief. …

We would be mistaken to emulate the certainty of our computers

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You know that moment when a dog sees something he doesn’t quite understand? When he tilts his head a little bit to one side, as if viewing the perplexing phenomenon from another angle will help? That state of confusion, that huh?, may be a problem for the dog, but it’s awfully cute to us. That’s because for humans, a state of momentary confusion offers not just frustration but an opening.

Team Human has the ability to tolerate and even embrace ambiguity. The stuff that makes our thinking and behavior messy, confusing, or anomalous is both our greatest strength and our greatest defense against the deadening certainty of machine logic. …

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