Is the boy who sold his kidney for an iPad, Cameron Conaway asks, a symbol for our society?
Right now I’m sitting at a table that will soon be removed and replaced with a rack of cartoon-themed smart phone covers. The familiar bright red signs of “Education” and “Fiction” and “Biography” and “Recent Releases” are gone and will soon be Apple or Sony or Samsung logos. I hear the long pull then tear of duct tape as five workers, each armed with a jumbo roll, pack up the last of the bookstore into cardboard boxes. The bookstore where I’ve written most of my Good Men Project articles. There’s a few books left on the “Travel” shelf, and there’s a couple standing there reading, another person just joined, now another. It’s as though they’re saying wait a minute, as though they’re holding their ground as readers. I want to go join, to shake their hands, but I’m too busy typing on my MacBook. Not only am I seeing the book industry and the world change as an observant writer, I’m contributing to the change just like everyone else.
It’s not unexpected, nor is it a secret, that science is crushing art, that new apps are crushing good literature. And while the benefits to science are obvious—I’m writing an article in Bangkok that will reach my Boston editor three seconds after I finish it—I wonder about the downsides. Is science making us merely passive recipients of imagination? Does it take too damn long to read a book? Do we really think we get as much from a tweet? A few weeks ago I came across this article where a teenager sold his kidney. Not because he was poor or wanted to help his family out, but because, dammit, he had to have an iPad. As one deeply committed to the arts (the ripping of duct tape won’t stop, and I feel like my heart’s being torn out with each tear), I decided to ask some legitimate science dudes what they think is going on in the world and if this organ-for-iPad thing is perhaps a microcosm of what’s to come.
Brian Zajac is a science phenom. At just 27, he’s working at the renowned Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, and this is just his most recent accomplishment. I’ve known Brian for many years, and though he’s widely known as a brilliant dude, it’s always been his honesty that stood out to me.
“I think everyone has their price,” Zajac began. “I’m sure you could find many Americans that would sell an organ if offered enough money. If my safety could be assured, I’d strongly consider giving up a kidney to pay off my student loans!”
Zajac’s humored realism caught my attention and made me reflect on myself. My gosh. I’m drowning in student loan debt…would I sell? Would I, a freakin personal trainer, sell?
“I always hear about how technology is meant to improve our lives,” I said to him, “and in many ways it does, but it seems that now we are beyond life-improvement and just using it be lazier. It’s…dehumanizing us.”
“In most areas, the entire purpose of technology is to replace human interaction,” he said. “Consider GPS navigation, ATM machines, and robotic assembly lines. These technologies are cheaper, faster, and more accurate than human alternatives. This is what drove their development in the first place. There are very few technologies that are humanizing. The most obvious are the Internet and telecommunications. I can video chat with my grandparents and share photos with my friends. However, these technologies have their drawbacks. They make it easy to connect with people, but not all connections are meaningful. You can have 1,000 friends on Facebook but only speak to 10 of them face-to-face. With how many do you share something deeper than your favorite movie?”
The language of social media can trick us a bit. “Social” and “friends” are rooted in our minds as one thing, yet the Internet has added layers to those meanings, as Zajac points out, even possibly degraded their original meaningfulness. In the business world, men are always told they’ve got to “get out there and sell themselves.” This doesn’t mean make meaningful emotional connections, it means “do what you gotta do to make the deal.” But as the global population grows and job openings become even more fiercely competitive, how is selling yourself beneficial when everyone else is doing the same? Is even the meaning of “selling yourself” changing?
“To me, ‘selling yourself’ means abandoning your core values or beliefs to achieve something—often money or success,” Zajac said. “I think young people may have an easier time with this because so much of who they are is digital and temporary. It is easy to fill your YouTube video with advertisements or Tweet a product endorsement when you can create a new username and online identity in seconds.”
“The video is obviously an extreme example,” I said. “But do you think ‘selling yourself’ and the rise of tech-craze is making it easier to devalue the wonders of our own bodies as well?”
“Technology and the media makes it easy to devalue your body,” he said. “There are plenty of diet pills, miracle exercise machines, and surgeries to keep you looking good. Headline news stories talk about curing cancer, repairing severed spinal cords, and reversing aging. With reports like these, it is easy to assume modern medicine can cure any disease or problem you might develop down the line. It’s almost like…why bother exercising or eating right?”
In the sitcom Modern Family, Gloria confuses the cliché “dog-eat-dog world” for “doggy-dog world.” The joke insinuated that they were opposites, that a dog-eat-dog world was one of cutthroat business and the other of joyful puppies playing with rubber duckies. In reality, they are both the same, they both involve dominant packs trouncing those weaker, they both involve those outsiders looking for a place in the pack (a job), and then, once in, even that outsider eventually wants to separate from the pack. Nothing is ever good enough. See: debt crisis. See: Madoff. See: extravagant living everywhere. We’ll sell ourselves to get in, then we’ll sell ourselves to bounce out. I wrapped up the more acute discussion with Zajac and entered what selling yourself means on a larger, global perspective with Dr. Guy McPherson.
McPherson’s got quite the story. He’s spent his life as a man of science—eventually working up to becoming Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona. But he was never traditional. Throughout his science career he incorporated art into his classes as a way to spark discussion and creativity, and he even volunteered his time to help facilitate poetry lessons inside juvenile detention centers. But, in what many consider the prime of his teaching career, he left it all. He left his tenured high-paying job as the economy was collapsing and people were on television begging for any job at all. He left the desert of Tucson and moved to a place more sustainable. In short, he believed that he had spent his career as a sell-out and wanted to make up for it while he had the chance. McPherson is a passionate and dynamic speaker. The type who can talk about mustard seeds and leave you thinking two things: (1) He’s a genius and (2) Mustard seeds are f’n awesome. “Go on the soapbox,” I told him, “Do you find this video a microcosm for something larger?”
“Absolutely. Look, economic growth has become our only god. We willingly trade in non-industrial cultures, non-human species, and future generations of humanity in exchange for it. As individuals, we’ll sell a kidney or a cup of Earth’s oil for the instant gratification associated with the latest technology. As a society, we’ve sold our future as a species for the illusion of infinite growth on a finite planet. We’re willing to take Homo sapiens into the abyss in exchange for hot pizza and cold beer. Meanwhile, governments of the world continue to cover up disasters as they occur. And we, the people, are willing to let them because we can’t handle the truth.”
It poured out of him like BP oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and I listened, feeling agreement but knowing I’d need the time to reflect on it all later. He, at once, sounds like a politician in tone and commitment to his words and wholly unlike a politician in content. My mind went from thinking about the sold kidney of one boy in the entire world to the perhaps true notion that this was quite a minor sale…that the big sale is of the future of our entire species.
“Even the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the rights—but not the responsibilities—of corporations. There are no limits on campaign contributions. We’ve created the perfect votes-for-dollars political system. We have a two-party, one-ideology system of governance. The ideology? Pursuit of economic growth at all costs. And our pursuit of energy underlies it all. How far will we go to secure energy? Clearly, to the ends of the Earth. And perhaps even to the end of the (living) world. Witness ongoing disasters associated with deepwater oil drilling, the Alberta tar sands, and the world’s nuclear power plants. We’re destroying the clean air, clean water, and diverse abundance of species we need for our very survival.”
We’re selling everything around us and blind to the idea that everything around us is everything we are. I couldn’t help but think what all of this means for those too young to understand the context of it all, like the boy who sold his kidney. “Every time there’s discussion of anything remotely political,” I said, “be it climate change or ‘jump-starting’ the economy… there’s always the people who pull the future card. You know, the ‘Our grandchildren won’t have this or that.’ What’s your take on the future of children, or even the role of parents in all of this?”
“Words are no match for the sadness I feel,” McPherson said. “I can only imagine the agony of parents as they comprehend the horrors we have created for them, and especially for their children. Or perhaps this childless atheist—as I am often labeled—cares about the future of humanity more than most parents? After all, nearly every parent with whom I speak—failing to notice the dependence of the industrial economy on the environment—is far more interested in growth of the former, for their child’s sake, than with protection of the latter, for their child’s sake. Judging from their actions, most parents I know are more committed to maintaining their imperial lifestyles than in maintaining the lives of their children.”
Heavy stuff. We think we care for our children, but are we too ignorant to know what caring means? Is our caring too visceral?
After the conversation with McPherson I recalled a particular moment here in Thailand. Nearly every commercial during the Manny Pacquiao vs. Shane Mosley boxing bout was for NIVEA skin whitening creams like this, targeted at the local demographic most likely to watch: young, athletic, Thai males, who, apparently, would like to be whiter. Here we had two elite champion boxers with bodies as finely-tuned as bodies can be. They both have dark skin—Shane an African-American and Manny, who is often referred to as the “Pride of the Philippines.” What message is sent when every three minutes the action is interrupted with a commercial implying that if only you whitened your skin, you would be more attractive to women? They’re encouraging you to sell yourself so they can pad their wallets, and we fall for it, hard. Time and again. Sellers need buyers, and buyers need sellers.
The danger exists in what the receipt doesn’t show.