The high tech human: how we’ve changed living, dying and cooking

Life has gotten easier in the 21st century. Credit goes out to microwave ovens, smart phones, cars that park themselves and the FM radio toaster. We also have technology and trade that allow Pennsylvanians to eat bananas in March, farmers to extend the growing season and teachers to expand the classroom, reaching students on seven different continents. In an age with hyper-connectivity, increased accessibility to affordable technology and sophisticated means of communication, we have changed the many facets of human living.

In some ways we have gone from simple to simpler. In others, we have gone from simple to unforeseen complexity. We turned creating fire into a light switch. Simple. We turned talking to each other into waiting on phone lines, constant refreshing of email, Facebook poking. Kind of complex. In modern medicine, we have turned most infectious diseases into outpatient cases with simple pills. But the same science has also turned our experience of suffering from something human into something that we fear, heighten and prolong.

In an interview published this month in The Sun magazine, Katy Butler, journalist and author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Deathadvocates for the Slow Medicine movement and expresses her thoughts on how our medical industry and culture has altered the experience of death in modern times. In the interview, Butler says “Death used to be a spiritual ordeal; now it’s a technological flailing. We’ve taken a domestic and religious event, in which the most important factor was the dying person’s state of mind and moved it into the hospital and mechanized it, putting patients, families, doctors, and nurses at the mercy of technology.”

The interview calls to mind the story of Vivian Bearing, the central character in one of my favorite plays, W;t by Margaret Edson (the film adaptation is on YouTube). In the play, Vivian Bearing is diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer. As an English professor, she seeks comfort in the poetry of John Donne, and slowly encounters a new understanding of death, which was once a motif she studied only in the classroom. “We are discussing life and death, and not in the abstract, either; we are discussing my life and my death […]” Surrounded by medical staff focused on the outcome of her disease from a research perspective, she becomes frustrated in how unromantic, how brutal and terrifying aging has become in contrast to its sometimes beautiful portrayal in literature. She is inundated with medical jargon and unfamiliar terms for stating how rapidly she is declining. The irony here is that even an English scholar is having trouble understanding the words we use to describe medical technology and medical decisions in modern hospitals. All her life she has enjoyed language games but facing death, Bearing says “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay […] / And nothing could be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis. Erudition. Interpretation. Complication. / Now is a time for simplicity. Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness,” (p.69).

Technology has made many things simpler. Healthcare does not seem to be one of them. The complex system that has developed in many industrialized nations stands in unusual contrast to medicine in many other areas of the world. People like Vivian Bearing or Katey Butler are facing problems that seem tragic, but I wonder if such tragedies come as a cost to the luxury of having access to any medical care. There are places in our world that have not yet achieved the simple. Many regions lack healthcare and disease prevention measures we take for granted such as adequate access to vaccines, contraceptives and clean water. Can we find a balance between using medical technology to live better while also using it to die “better”? Can we distribute our medical resources and knowledge to maximize our potentials when living, while also understanding, recognizing and appreciating the fact that the beauty of living is in part due to its ephemeral quality.

We become focused on the things we have made complicated, while the things we have simplified seem to be all but forgotten. Perhaps this is what happens to all things: complexity consumes more thought by its nature and simplicity is what allows things to drift from attention.

On a happier subject, while embracing this life, the simple art of cooking is something that now simplified has often become neglected in day-to-day routines. When heat comes so easy — electric kettles, gas stoves, le four a micro-ondes — it is tempting to let it fall out of our consciousness. Michael Pollan wrote an article published earlier this month entitled “Why Cook?” And today that is a fitting question. We cook because it is a defining human activity. According to Pollan, however, the amount of time Americans spend cooking has fallen to 27 minutes a day, about half the time of what we spent in the 1960s. Pollan advocates for returning our attention into the social and artistic aspects of cooking, reminding us that “cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers.” That sounds empowering.

Technology has seeped into the gaps where humans once struggled, not always transforming our lives in a direction of simplicity or complexity, but in a direction of change. As the innovation curve accelerates and exponentially shifts the way humans behave, act and the decisions we consider, it will be an interesting journey to find the equilibrium between technology that enhances and technology that burdens. In the mean time, let’s worry about cooking more and dying less.

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