What Is it Like to Be a Human

Our enormous, epoch-defining dependence upon technology has also made us dependent upon a class of people who, to put it mildly, do not appear overly invested in the pleasures and pains of phenomenal experience.

What Is it Like to Be a Human
It's like looking into a mirror

There is a term that phenomenologists bandy about called “qualia”: the subjective experience of sensory phenomena. But what does that mean exactly? The philosopher Thomas Nagel had a famous article titled "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” which was basically an attempt to define the limits of objective descriptions of consciousness. That is, you can talk til you’re blue in the face about the objective mental and physical states of bats, but you will never actually know what it feels like to be a bat. Not even Batman does (sorry).

Well, discussions of qualia are basically trying to get at “what is it like to be a human.” Yes, we can discuss human consciousness with respect to our general ability to perceive sensory phenomena, but what does sandpaper actually feel like, besides “rough.” What does a C8 tone (frequency: 4186.01 Hz) actually sound like, besides “piercing.” And so on.

Not coincidentally, Virtual Reality (VR) researchers are pretty interested in qualia. After all, what they’re attempting is not just a matter of creating recognizable landscapes, which any video game designer could do, but of creating a reality that feels the way the world feels to us.

But the matter is—and at the risk of inducing Wittgensteinian anxiety—we don’t all feel things quite the same way. Not everyone gets goosebumps during particularly thrilling musical passages (though I find this impossible to comprehend). They might well describe, e.g., Beethoven’s Eroica or an Elvin Jones drum solo as thrilling, but it won’t feel the same way to them. For that matter not everyone can orgasm (sorry again). They might well seek out and enjoy the sexual act, but it won’t mean quite the same thing.

On the other end of the spectrum, some people can experience normal sensations to heightened degrees. Some people can tell the difference between a 50 thousand and a 100 thousand-dollar sound system; some people can pick up wine notes that barely register to others; some people (mostly women) have tetrachromacy.

Our democratic souls impel us to treat these things in terms of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but this is leveling run amok. Sommeliers at the highest level of oenology can identify specific wines by taste—just take the MW Exam. Or here is just one of Miles Davis’ blind listening tests, in which he takes the opportunity to slam (or occasionally praise) his peers after identifying them by ear alone.

Some people really can do these things, just as some people can tomahawk dunk or run the 100-meter dash in 10 seconds. These people are like Jordans of qualia.

This does not at all mean that we’re hopelessly locked in prisons of subjectivity unable to truly communicate to others what we feel in the way of human experiences. But it does mean that there’s a certain spectrum or distribution curve of normal human sensation, in which certain individuals fall on the far right-hand side.

Of course, this also means there is some number of folks on the far left-side of that same spectrum, and one gets the inescapable feeling that they are disproportionately shaping human experience for the rest of us. This might seem strange on face—after all, you couldn’t say that the world’s worst athletes are the ones determining professional sports regulations.

And yet our enormous, epoch-defining dependence upon technology has also made us dependent upon a class of people who, to put it mildly, do not appear overly invested in the pleasures and pains of phenomenal experience.

As Zadie Smith noted in her perceptive review of The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher got around the problem of the actual Mark Zuckerberg’s affective flatness by making him a Sorkin character driven by social and ethnic resentments at a haughty WASP elite (which the actual Zuckerberg has given little evidence of noticing).

Most genre novelists don’t even seem to notice this is a problem, but Neal Stephenson gets around it by making his tech geeks cooler-than-life. Snow Crash's Hiro Protagonist (get it?) is an awesome ninja, not a pasty hacker. But the reality is that the modal tech overlord is more like a Stephenson villain than a Stephenson hero.

And, like it or not, in an increasingly monopolistic age, it is their niche preferences rather than the aggregated preferences of ordinary consumers that drive market changes. The same people who are going to be pushing VR on us in the coming decades are the ones who insist that low-bitrate music files Bluetoothed into your ears via cheap plastic earbuds is an ideal listening situation, or that NFTs are really no different (and probably better) than real physical artwork. Zoom is a perfectly acceptable simulacrum of the experience of human contact; Twitter conversations can substitute for friendship. And so on ad infinitum.

For reasons that escape me, they also tend to be advocates of indefinitely prolonging human lifespans, despite the fact that they seem to get little out of the years we have now on the most basic, granular, experiential level. Their pared-down—impoverished, really—understanding of human experience, in conjunction with the instrumental logics of capitalism, is making and remaking our world. It promises to be a world of thin, colorless, washed-out qualia.

To paraphrase Liam Gallagher talking about Coldplay fans, I don’t hate them or wish they had accidents. But perhaps hate isn’t too big a word to describe the way I feel about the idea of living in a world—virtual or otherwise— that is increasingly defined and determined by people who seem to fall on the far end of diminished ability to enjoy human sensation.