Forget about Facebook friends. You need a friend like Ardi.
Do you ever sometimes feel like you’re nothing more than a collection of numbers? How would you describe your life if you couldn’t use any numbers to do it?
I got an email yesterday pitching a $75 Bluetooth water bottle that calculates the mass of the water inside and syncs with an app so you can figure out whether or not you’re thirsty and tell you when to take a drink.
It seemed far-fetched, but really it’s not far off from all the other pieces of personal data we track. Of course, we’ve got our mailing addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, and our height. Over the last decade though, we’ve also started incessantly collecting other personal data. We can track our steps, weight, food intake, likes, comments, sleep, spending patterns, and even — thanks Grammarly — how many times we forget to use the Oxford comma each week.
And of course, whether we’re shopping, watching, listening to music, or trying to overthrow the government, we’re also providing data to all kinds of organizations who seek to profit from our choices.
My friend, who works in cybersecurity told me that if I hopped on the internet on a brand new computer and didn’t provide any personal information or log in to any websites, his company could identify me as the user in five minutes based on the websites I visit and patterns I use when clicking around them.
Could that be true? I guess I do visit a lot of Rare Breed Chicken websites, so maybe it is.
Regardless, sometimes it feels like life is less about flesh and blood and more about graphs and charts.
Take a minute to think about time
I was thinking about this the other day when I was teaching my high school biology students about evolution. I showed them a geologic timeline of the history of life on our planet. You can check it out for yourself below, but basically, it shows that life has existed on our plant for a really super incredibly long time.
Scroll through the page below to get an idea of the immensity of geologic time.
As humans, we are new to the scene. While single-celled organisms and even fish and plants have been doing their thing for millions and even billions of years, humans evolved just a couple hundred thousand years ago.
When I teach about this topic, it’s easy to go dark and feel discouraged about everything we’ve done to muck up the planet in such a relatively short period of time. Really, it’s an amazing feat. For billions of years, life ticked along, adapting and shape-shifting to survive in new circumstances. No big deal.
But then we came on the scene and upset the apple cart by dirtying up the water, messing with the atmosphere, and melting the ice. We kind of suck.
Despite all this though, I still like to think of humans as an optimistic species. We use our big brain to predict what tomorrow will bring, and most of the time it excites us enough to stick around.
So instead of teaching my students about how awful we are, I try to get them to think about what it really means to be a human.
I’m not talking about choosing an avatar or selecting a profile picture. I’m not talking about medical data or information about blood pressure, DNA, or allergies. I’m talking about deep in the very core of our beings — what is it to be a human?
Sometimes I tell them we are all just temporary custodians of our atoms. The carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that make up each of our cells used to be something else — maybe a t-rex claw or the eyeball of an ancient fish. Most likely it was the membrane of a bacteria or the skin of a worm. In the future, our atoms will be something else. Maybe a rat’s penis or the fruiting body of a fungus.
For now, though, our atoms are ours. We get to choose how we use them for this brief second of time we’re alive on this planet.
When you start to open your mind like this and think about life across these huge amounts of time, you’re ready to start thinking about Ardi.
Ardi is a fossil. She was discovered in Ethiopia in 1994. It’s worth thinking about Ardi because her bones show us that she had some traits of early chimpanzees and some traits of early humans. It’s estimated that Ardi, which is short for Ardipithecus ramidus, was alive about four and a half million years ago.
Ardi is worth thinking about because she represents the first evolutionary step away from jungle-dwelling primates towards the city-dwelling humans we are today.
While her (and our) ancestors were climbers who walked on all fours, her bowl-shaped pelvis suggests she was capable of walking on two feet.
When I think about the transition from walking on all fours to walking on two legs, all I can think about is freedom.
When you walk on two feet, your arms and hands are free to do other stuff. You can carry your babies or work with tools. When you stand upright, you can look out across the landscape to find food or see predators coming.
I love thinking about Ardi because her first stumbling steps out of the jungle mark the beginning of us. In the few million years since then, the forces of evolution kept working, driving our ancestors to look more and more like us through the survival of the fittest.
It wasn’t until much more recently — a couple hundred thousand years ago — that our ancestors really started to look and act like us. True, they didn’t have cell phone plans or shellac manicures, but they lived in groups, worked cooperatively, and built shelters. I have to believe they loved their families, got in arguments about stupid stuff, and sometimes spent Saturday mornings sleeping in instead of heading out for an early morning mammoth hunt.
I know early humans had some pretty rough times. I bet they were cold and hungry a lot and I bet they endured a lot of pain and suffering.
But I bet it was also pretty cool. Can you imagine erasing 95% of human innovation from the human experience? Start by erasing cell phones and the internet — many of us can remember that life from the pre-2000s. Then erase plastics. Erase electricity. Erase gas-powered machines. Erase books and paper. Now erase wool and cotton. Erase crops like corn and grain. Erase cows, sheep, and pigs. Erase plumbing and erase medicine. Erase maps and language.
In the early days as a human, your best bet was to bang some rocks together to make a sharp tool. If you were lucky, you could kindle a fire. With your fire, you could cook and stay warm.
Essentially, that’s what all of us still want at the end of the day — good food and a comfortable bed.
It’s 2021 and we have no idea what the next four million years will bring. Maybe you’ll be the fossil that ends up telling the story of all of us. What will your fossil say about us?
I wouldn’t worry about it too much — I don’t think Ardi lost any sleep worrying about what we’d think of her.
Instead, though, spend a minute thinking about the question I ask of my students:
What does it mean to be human?
Is it about having better data than anyone else? Is it about creating the perfect profile so the digital representation of you is almost the same as the real version of you? Is it about finding the perfect throw pillow to accent the new paint colors in your living room?
I certainly don’t know. But it’s still fun to think about while you’re sitting on a Zoom call waiting for someone to unmute their mic.
Yes, life is hard and life is crazy. But it’s kind of always been that way, hasn’t it? For all of our great leaps forward, we still haven’t made life feel easy. Truth be told, if it hasn’t happened in a few million years, it likely never will.
And still, we try. We try to make our lives easier by creating governments, growing crops, and fighting wars. We try to make our lives easier by inventing gadgets, taking measurements, and staring at screens.
Sometimes it works. For example, I like having Netflix to watch at night. But it also can be self-defeating. It’s fun to look at our data when it shows us getting better, faster, stronger. But when I started tracking my sleep, all it did was make me feel stressed out because I wasn’t getting enough sleep.
With this in mind, consider Ardi and her pals. Consider the human experience in its earliest, barest form. Strip away the accessories we’ve come to feel are necessities. Sure it’s scary to imagine a world without central air or Pandora, but it’s also kind of cool.
There aren’t many things we can do to really recreate Ardi’s experience on planet earth. But there are still ways to disconnect from the daily data dump we live in and feel a little bit more human. Try these:
- Take a walk. Feel your feet on the ground and notice how neatly your head, shoulder, chest, and abdomen stack on your torso. Appreciate the view.
- Look up at the stars. Forget your telescope or star finder app. Just look up. You and Ardi will never share the same time or space, but you can still share the same view.
- Go outside in bad weather. You are sturdy. You can survive being too hot, too wet, or too cold. It will suck at first but then it will make you feel alive.
- Exhaust your body with work. Your gym workout is OK, but there’s nothing like the tired you’ll feel after a day of clearing brush or moving rocks. Ardi didn’t track her heart rate or count her reps. You don’t have to either.
- Lay down on the bare ground. Find a rock or some dirt. Under the dirt is more dirt and more rocks, followed by layers of long-dead plants and animals.
If you do try some of these things, don’t ruin your experience by capturing it, tweeting about it, or recording it. Some things are better left unmeasured.