Co-evolution, Worms, Poop, and Computer Stuff

There's this story about John D. Rockefeller trying to tap into the U.S.'s southern labor force, which was notorious for being slow and unproductive in some parts. Prevailing wisdom was that southerners are lazy.

Rockefeller didn't buy it, so he launched a study and found that southerners were getting hookworm infections because they often went barefoot (as sensible people do) but lacked modern urban conveniences and, therefore, shat on the ground. Hence hookworms, hence anemia, hence the lack of energy.

So Rockefeller created a workforce, made a boatload of cash, and obliterated a couple of diseases by selling outhouses and educating customers to dig the waste holes six feet deep.

But he may have done something far more profound even than all of that. His outhouses may have disrupted a process of co-evolution before it could finish.

You see, people with hookworm infections don't have a problem with allergies or asthma. Those are first-world diseases caused by an overreaction of the immune system, and these particular parasites dump a bunch of wormian immuno-quaaludes (pardon the medical Latin) on the situation. It's like they put on some Barry White and give your immune system a good toe-suckin'.

The anemia is the cost, if you don't keep your iron levels up, but we and these worms were well on our way to co-evolving into a nice little arrangement: we give the worms room and board, they help us breathe easier. But then Rockefeller started selling shitters, and now I can't have a cat.

I think about this sometimes when I look at my phone.

Just over half an hour ago, my phone told me to make a smoothie for tomorrow's breakfast. Which I did.

Before that, it reminded me that I needed to make bread. Which I did.

Before that, it asked me if I wanted to clean the attic or the garage. Which I didn't.

Before that, it told me to take my thinkum pill. Which, duh.

I have a recently-deceased bracelet that told me when to wake up and when I'd been sitting too much. I've got OmniFocus for a memory, Due and Google Calendar for my own Mrs. Landingham. I take prescribed amphetamines for focus and drive.

I am building a Palace of Awesome out of all of these things, brick by brick. They improve my life in ways even I don't fully comprehend. Still, my dependence on something so fragile, with so many points of failure, is...well.

I'm not going to get all Ray Kurzweil/Robert Scoble boner slash on you, nor am I going to throw my shoes into a loom. I'm hesitant to write about this at all, as smarter people than I have covered it, but it's true and it's life now: we are in the midst of a kind of co-evolution that no species has never seen before. I have no idea what to make of it, other than its inevitability.

It's not all bad news, or else it wouldn't be symbiosis. My reliance upon data and ubiquitous computing allows me to worry less about remembering the nuts-and-bolts minutiae of my life. My children go to school fully outfitted every morning, I never forget to take a pill or clean out the coffee maker, and my mind is freed up to think about the things I want to think about. It's all good. It just feels tenuous, breakable. Also, I spend less time looking at three-dimensional surfaces.

Banana plants can't reproduce any more. They must be cloned by human farmers. They die off without us, and will eventually die off anyway when their predators evolve past them. I think about that too.

And then there's the noise. Canceling my cable subscription years ago heightened my sensitivity to TV's braying and gibbering, and likewise the Ritalin has made me more sensitive to the sheer volume of sites and services yammering for my attention online. All these man-made parasites are fighting it out just like the worms, only for mindshare instead of gutshare. It's almost as if they have their own intention and agency, and of course they do: money. Money is a hive mind.

From my medicated remove, it becomes clear that there are few places in technology for reflection. Even reading and writing have gotten louder. Writing on paper is like being in a cabin with no electricity: you can sense the stillness in the walls. You write with letters, not characters. Unadorned, flat, irregular letters.

I'm writing this in the quietest computing environment I can muster, a fullscreen iPad editor with the brightness turned down and a dark color theme and notifications turned off. I can still hear the wires hum.

Much as I love them, I think I'm becoming mildly allergic to computers. Only just mildly.

And that, dear readers, is why the long lag since the last post. When I get home, half the time the last thing I want to do is focus really hard on an editing window. I do it all day now, with objects and methods instead of nouns and verbs, properties for adjectives and scope for setting. Writing is contemplative, but writing on a computer isn't contemplative enough, not with the humming. Cutting glass, by contrast, is dead quiet and data-free.

Plus there's this. Ouch.

Write on paper, you say, and maybe I will, but my need to be heard is at least as strong as that of any blogger or tooter, and there ain't no way to publish online without the hum.

Some pointing arrows have cropped up since I started writing this. There's this great piece from James A. Pearson that invokes the idea of hum-as-parasite, and Zach Weiner artfully nails the evolution angle in a single panel.

And then there's Paul Miller's deservedly-linked-everywhere piece about spending a year offline, which I find encouraging. I can live without the 24-hour news cycle, and I go hours at a stretch without Twitter or App.Net these days, much to my own surprise. But my heart can't bear the thought of breaking all the connections I've forged with my friends around the world. My ego won't let go of the idea that I have something to say and so won't let me abandon a place to be heard. So yes, I'll embrace the idea of the Internet as "something we do with each other".

I'm hopeful that the problem of noise will work itself out. Just as the corporate internet has given rise to small, low-tech entrepreneurs, maybe we'll see the hum give rise to quiet tech too. Dedicated e-ink writers would be a nice start.

Or maybe it's just that we need to hold up our end of the co-evolution bargain and finally recognize the necessity of learning how to filter and limit inputs as a life skill. But that will be unprecedented too: Our adaptation and evolution will have to be intentional, planned.

But the interdependence of it all? The fact that it all feels like a giant game of Jenga played with lives instead of blocks? I hope it's just the usual existential dread or my natural tendency to wait for the other shoe to drop. Because if I'm honest with myself, my mind's more fragile than the Internet. My body has no failover system and a hell of a lot less than 99.9% uptime.

Besides, adapting is what we do. We didn't become a dominant and destructive species by being strong or fast or armored. We got here through sheer brains and endurance. The only species that come close have too many legs and live mostly in the dark.