Born Too Late: A Luddite Meets The Singularity
September 8, 2011
I was supposed to be born in the Middle Ages. I would have been in abbess. Yes, that’s right. An abbess like the one Heloise became after Abelard abandoned her, or a mystic visionary like Hildegard of Bingen. I would have had spectacular visions and written beautiful poetry, and I would have been happy for most of the duration of my brief but enchanted life.
I almost got my chance, standing there in the line with all the other souls. The problem was that so many of the others saw the opportunity as well, and they all jumped on it. I am convinced that the formless soul who cut me in line was the one who eventually grew up to be the real Hildegard. I’ll never know for sure.
The age that followed – for a long time called the “Renaissance” or “rebirth” until demoted to the less grandiose-sounding “early modern period” – did not appear to offer quite as much of a possibility to me. Yes, there were still mystics in monasteries – it was the age of St. Teresa, after all – but I think that my bitterness from the first lost opportunity made me lose interest in that way of life. And really, it wasn’t so much about faith anymore during this time. It was about men going out and making scientific discoveries and beautiful art while the women stayed home and made babies. Of course, this was true in many places and times, but something about this era irked me. I stood back and let others step ahead of me, deciding it was better to wait.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appeared to offer many more prospects. I could have been a hostess of one of the great Paris salons, with all the best philosophers and artists of the time coming to my door, or I could have been a pioneer woman traversing the American prairies with my family in tow. But once again, for some reason, these possibilities just weren’t appealing; I felt that I could do better somehow, and so, once again, I decided to wait.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seemed to offer much more possibility: slavery had officially ended in the West; women were getting closer to the vote. And then, to think I could have been a soup-stirring heroine of two world wars – wow. Perhaps much too foolish in my preconceptual state, I rushed at the chance, but just as I was about to fall to earth, a pair of unseen hands seized me and shoved me back into the queue. And suddenly, I got the dreadful feeling that I had waited too long, that I should have settled for an earlier possibility, because now I didn’t want to go at all. I turned this way and that, wondering if I could find a way to hide, to blend in so well with the rest of the other ethereal souls so as to never get sent out at all.
But, just as this thought was crystallizing, the strong hands grabbed me again and pushed me the way a man throws a scared dog into the water. I woke up crying in a sterile American hospital on June 4, 1983.
The first years of my life were pleasant and uneventful. The world around me was frought with problems – war, genocide, natural disasters, the first signs of environmental and economic collapse – but due to the universe’s injustices my own childhood and youth were peaceful and idyllic. Now, just over five hundred years later, I can’t help but yearn for the time when all of us were still human: when we still ate and spat and made love (rather than merely imagining we were doing so); when we still had bodies and all the limits they bring, when there was still some mystery left in the universe.
And so, even now I wish I’d made a different choice. I would have been born in a time when it was still considered acceptable and perhaps even beneficial for people to grow old and die. Of course, I still had that option for myself – I could have chosen not to receive the technological enhancements I did. But, it was hard to refuse this prospect when everyone around me – my husband, my children, my friends – all insisted on becoming machines. I yearned to return to the preconceptual ether, but I didn’t want to leave the ones I loved, no matter what decisions they chose to make.
And so I’ve stayed, and all I can say is that the brave new world we’ve created in an attempt to keep on sneering at entropy even as it continues to gently unravel us is nothing at all like what anyone thought it would be. There is no fear anymore, it may be true, but as a result there is no courage; there is no more sadness, but because of that there is no genuine joy. And, until entropy finally has its way with us, some might argue that there is no death. But all that means to me is that this slippery state we’re currently in can hardly be called life.