Life in the Body

Celebrating Embodied Life

The aspect of the trade I want to consider today is embodied life for virtual life.

Talk of ’embodied life’, in the sense I am using, would probably have been thought redundant in the extreme only a few short years ago. What other life is possible? Whether or not you believe in the existence of soul or spirit, in the case of human beings (at least) the soul still must inhabit a body, or else the body is dead! In other words, as far as most men and women of the past were concerned, there was no life but the embodied kind.

What is embodied life? Here’s a minimal set of answers:

  • It’s the life of person-to-person, face-to-face relationships. To be in the body is to be involved in interactions, short- and long-term, with other people, which have no ‘off’ switch and which are not entirely under our control.
  • It’s the life of physical matter that must be reckoned with. Life in a body means, among other things, life in this body, and not another – and this body may be ill, overweight, malnourished, short, tall, freckled, pock-marked; it may be clumsy with things, unable to pluck strings in rhythm, winded easily when running or lifting, and burned rather than tanned; it may spill the coffee, blacken the eggs, break the screen, foul the water, or be late for an interview.
  • It’s the life of dependence upon the natural world and its governing principles. Embodied life means coming to terms with gravity, entropy, magnetism, finite resources for food, energy, and shelter, the need for sleep, and the pace at which living things grow, flower and bear fruit.
  • It’s life connected to a particular place in space and time. In a body, you can be here, or there, but not both. The place where you are affects you, and you have an effect on the place – high altitude, low humidity, soil composition, cool or warm, wet or dry, mountain or plain. Not only place, but the simple fact that we are temporal – that we live in time – has an effect on the kind of creatures we are in the body and what we are capable of doing, experiencing, and loving.
  • Embodied life is, in other words, the life of limits (more on that in a later post in this series).

Now what I’ve just said is that we’re trading embodied life in exchange for virtual life. What is virtual life, and how are we ‘trading’ one for the other? Here, again, are a minimal set of categories describing what I call virtual life:

  • It’s the life of networked, on-screen, mediated relationships. Virtual friendship (via social networking sites, for example) is a superficial simulation of embodied friendship, if I can even stretch the definition that far. Virtual communication requires little accountability or responsibility (just read a forum or a page of YouTube comments); we are free to create our networks (setting ourselves up for the experiences we want), and we are equally free to disengage from those networks at a moment’s notice and create new ones. Anonymity factors into the virtual equation in a way that can not be duplicated in embodied life.
  • It’s the life of bits and voltage – mountains of data moving continuously and almost invisibly. Because everything from your voice to a feature-length film to a fast-food menu can be stored and transported as zeroes and ones, all of the music recorded in the last century could be stored in several boxes in a room of your house; we can ‘talk’ with people next door and on the other side of the earth simultaneously; we have a kind of access to the inner workings of human intestines and the far reaches of space, twenty-four hours a day, a few clicks away.
  • It’s the life of dependence upon a fragile network of technological innovations, including petroleum, plastics, electricity, electromagnetics, and fiber optics, working in tandem to produce sounds, images and experiences which are completely impossible or inaccessible in the natural world. The pace of our experience gets faster all the time while the things we experience become bolder, louder, and more fragmented. This makes the embodied world of objects, ideas and experiences seem quite slow (and often boring).
  • It’s life detached from geographic place, and in many respects, from time. We have the sense that we can be anywhere, at any time – and in many places at one time, if only through the virtual extension of our identities in browser tabs and various apps simultaneously connected to people and information from incredibly diverse places and sources.
  • Virtual life is, in other words, (theoretically) the unlimited life.

The Trade

You can probably see that there are a number of areas where embodied life and virtual life mutually exclude one another. Both are telling us a story about ourselves – where we are, what is best for us to engage in, what we are made for – but the stories are often incompatible with one another.

Each time we adopt a new device or technology into our lives these days, we surrender time to both learning it and using it; we surrender memory and brainpower to understand it; with each ‘advance’, we think less and less about how it will alter our minds, relationships, and schedules. Generally speaking, we attenuate, ignore, or give up aspects of embodied life to embrace another element of the power of virtual life.

For instance: IM and phone texting allow us to communicate with people almost anywhere at almost anytime, but in the process we lose shades of meaning, inflection, tone, nuance, and subtlety. In the process language itself degenerates, and as we use those means of communication more and more often (adopting text in favor of face-to-face), we lose the art of conversation itself and our person-to-person relations become more awkward and stifled.

And again: GPS devices are incredibly useful, but the service they provide has the effect (along with other developments like interstate highways and hotel chains) of detaching us from geographic place. When we were forced to interact with maps and give a lot more visual attention to what surrounded us in a place we had never visited, we got a much better sense of where we were, and sometimes got a better idea of how a place might historically have developed.

I don’t doubt that you can come up with a hundred more examples. Because technologies have the general effect of detaching us from embodied life, of making us more ‘independent’ (or at least giving us that illusion), they typically have a preference for the virtual baked into the cake from the beginning. As we use these gadgets and apps without reflecting on how they are transforming us, we are more rapidly transformed in mind and body into their image, and we come to prefer the virtual life to the real, or the embodied life.

I’m writing this blog to celebrate the embodied life. A primary goal of mine is to convince you (and help remind myself) that life in the body, in the real world, in space and time, face-to-face, is worth preserving, is more truly human, is what we were made for, and is where we function at our highest levels of possibility, responsibility, creativity, and love.

So close your browser (after you bookmark this site), go outside, take deep breaths, and begin to consider how you have traded some essential human qualities in exchange for a power that may be using you more than you are using it.

Reflect on your day-to-day experience of screens and persons, and the priority you place on interactions with both.

Finally, consider how you might be able to begin to reverse the trade in meaningful ways: time set aside for conversation uninterrupted by devices; time set aside for silence; games face-to-face with people instead of on-screen; attention to meals as you eat, where they come from, and what they taste like; quiet walks in the woods or at the seaside without earbuds in; there are thousands of other possibilities.  Think about one or two things you can do today or this week that favor embodied life over virtual.

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.

What do you do to reverse the trade?  Let us know in the comments.  Maybe you’ll give someone an idea!