Monday, August 14, 2006

Clothes for the Soul

I un-published this for a few days because I was so bummed that almost nobody appeared to understand any of the key ideas I'm trying to get across. I've lost sleep over it. Not only did people not understand the main points -- for instance, that notions of "race" and "gender" are going to be obsolete in 100 to 200 years, hence racism and sexism will be roughly equivalent to pants-ism and shirts-ism -- but they didn't understand the meta-point, either: that our current ideas about the world and about ourselves can make it horribly hard to contemplate new ones, technical or not. But I figure, screw it. My blog is already controversial; this won't make it any worse. Don't read this entry if you're a little squeamish. And next time I promise to be both funny and on-topic technically.

There's an idea that's gradually taking root in the United States. It'll take about another generation; that's how long this kind of idea takes to permeate. It's already much further along in many other countries, including Brazil, China and Korea, and others.

The idea is simple enough: your body is no longer a prison for your soul. It's become more like a house, one that you can decorate to your tastes. In the fullness of time it may even become more like clothes for your soul, and you'll change it daily.

It's interesting that this idea is having so much trouble in the US. That's not to say, of course, that the US is particularly progressive. We're behind most of the civilized world in cell phone infrastructure, and we never did manage to adopt the metric system (unless you define "adopt" as "shoot km/h signs down with high-powered rifles", in which case: adoption successful.) And we love sports in which an actual ball is in play for under 10 minutes in a 3-hour game. But Americans are as vain as anyone else, so it's strange that we haven't warmed to the idea of customizable bodies.

If you think idly about what the distant future will be like, assuming you don't take the apocalyptic view, then you might envision everyone in the future as being healthy, beautiful, and long-lived. That's the way it is in all the sci-fi movies: take your pick, from Logan's Run to Gattaca. It's not much of a mental leap, though, since from what we know of the Middle Ages, people were comparatively unhealthy, ugly, and short-lived. (By "ugly", I mean that people were more commonly disfigured from diseases or other misfortunes.) If you extrapolate a few hundred years into the future, it's easy to predict improved health and improved looks.

So we're in a strange limbo today, because making changes to your body isn't quite yet socially acceptable, but people assume that it will be acceptable in the future.

You probably think I'm overlooking the plastic surgery craze. Well then: if a 22-year old girl gets a nose job, and she has to wear a bandage for a couple weeks, does she tell everyone she got a nose job? Nope. She fell down some stairs, or maybe had a split septum. If people speculate that she got her nose redone, then she has to deny it, or say it was an accidental by-product of the surgery.

So yeah, there's a plastic surgery craze, sort of. But most people in the US (even in Southern California) aren't comfortable admitting it or talking about it. Instead they have to lie about it.

Let's take stock: what cosmetic changes are acceptable these days?

Tatoos and piercings have gradually become acceptable to everyone except the parents of the person in question. Plus it's hard to lie about them and say you accidentally shoved a steel bolt through your lip and then sat naked on an inverted permanent-ink design.

Anyone who's not going gray is allowed to color their hair pretty much any color they want without exciting much comment. A woman can color her hair to cover up gray. It's less acceptable for a man to do this, but he can more or less still get away with it. Wigs and toupes, however, can't be talked about openly: they're taboo.

Getting a wart or a mole removed: fine. In fact people will be mildly surprised if you don't go to the trouble to remove them. Getting a scar removed or hidden: also definitely OK. In fact, any and all kinds of reconstructive surgery to help recover from injuries or disease are perfectly acceptable, and you can talk about them without shame. Little blue pills, oddly enough, have to be taken in secret.

Getting your legs extended by a doctor who saws through your bones and adds metal extenders: that's one you don't advertise. The procedure is incredibly (and increasingly) popular in China, by all accounts. Heck, in the US you can't even tell people that you wear platform shoes.

Getting your teeth bleached: fine to talk about, though most people won't advertise it. Getting your anus bleached (a popular new procedure discussed to death by such luminaries as Howard Stern and Adam Corolla): not so much. You don't send before/after pictures around to your friends, to the best of my knowledge.

How about a boob job? Unlike nose jobs, breast implants are now more or less acceptable to talk about and, yes, even brag about. Everyone's getting them, and nobody seems to think it's a big deal any more. What about butt implants, which are super popular in Brazil? I don't know anyone in the US who brags about their butt implants, so I'm guessing no, that one's still taboo here.

Cosmetic vaginal surgery is all the rage these days, in case nobody's told you yet. You're practically the last person to find out. The two most popular variants are restoring the hymen, and removing the labia. You can bet your implanted butt that neither of those procedures gets a lot of coffee-table discussion with the relatives and co-workers. I think we can safely add them to the taboo list. Same goes for penile anything, with the possible exception of reduction on account of elephantiasis.

Eyelids: it's very popular in Asia to get your eyes "cut", referring to a procedure that introduces a fold in your upper eyelid, which allegedly looks nicer, albeit at the cost of no longer being able to close your eyes fully when you're asleep. My understanding is that you're not supposed to admit to having had this surgery.

However, changing your eye color via contacts is popular and non-taboo, so presumably if there were a surgical procedure to change the color permanently, it would also not be taboo. Lids, taboo. Color, not taboo. Lash extensions, taboo. Lasik, not taboo. Got it.

Liposuction: shouldn't admit to it. Artificial tanning: fine. Hair implants: don't admit to it. Veneers for your teeth: OK, for the most part. Lip implants: keep 'em secret.

And so on. There's a vast economy around cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, but only a handful of changes are socially acceptable in the US. By "acceptable", I mean they're things you'd talk about openly at work, like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned. For most procedures, even the most popular ones, you have to pretend you didn't do it.

In case you hadn't figured it out, I think the whole taboo-ness of cosmetic changes is pretty lame. I think the girl shouldn't have to say she fell down the stairs. People should be able to complement her on her pretty new nose the way you complement someone on a new haircut. Same goes for all the other procedures I've mentioned, although I confess even I might have trouble complimenting someone on their newly-bleached anus.

Generally speaking, though, I think it's pretty obvious to most rational people that the trend is towards having control over how you look, and there's nothing wrong with making yourself look better. If a change makes you happier, then it will almost certainly make the people around you happier too.

And for that matter, changes can make you healthier -- you can already get your eyesight upgraded and your teeth upgraded, so in some sense our bodies are becoming like so much hardware. What if you could get a new set of synthetic lungs, or a new heart, to put you in better shape and increase your life expectancy? It's an open question, since organ replacements aren't readily accessible, and they have to come from other people. But if you could grow them in vats, then would it be socially acceptable to purchase them for yourself? I sure hope so.

But futuristic upgrades aside, the fact remains: most permanent cosmetic modifications still too embarrassing to talk about openly. Why is that? And why is the US in particular so far behind many other countries in how open we are about discussing them?

I don't know. Maybe there isn't a simple answer. But my suspicion is that it's a byproduct of our puritanical heritage in the US. Cosmetic surgery is closely tied to vanity and pride, which are proscribed by any number of popular religions, presumably on the dubious grounds that if God made you ugly, then it was just "meant to be" and you have to live with it.

I'm not sure how many people actually think that way today in the US, in those exact terms -- probably no more than one percent of the population: a few million. But it was likely the majority opinion 100 to 200 years ago, and it takes a long time for a culture to shake off the often ridiculous ideas passed down from our forebears.

However, I also think that cosmetic surgery has the evolutionary advantage: beautiful people get better treatment in the world, whether the world is conscious of it or not. So being beautiful gets you, on average, better jobs, better pay, and a better lifestyle. It pays to be good looking. It seems like this is going to drive cosmetic surgery towards becoming more or less completely acceptable, up to and including changing your apparent race, roughly as fast as these things become technically feasible. Economics will drive it.

In the meantime, feel free to treat yourself. You deserve it. Don't let stupid, old-fashioned social mores (the same ones that keep the mall from being open late on Sunday, the one day when you actually have time to go shop) hold you back. And if you ask me, you shouldn't have to lie if someone asks you about your hair or your nose or your love handles or whatever you changed. Your body is your very own, and it's just clothes for your soul, nothing more. Decorate it however you please, and be proud of your decor.

Why did I write about this?

Believe it or not, today's rant was inspired by technical problems, which is why it's here in this mostly-technical blog. The technical problems (and I won't bore you with details) are the direct result of cultural problems related to the dissemination of ideas.

When you put two people together, they're smarter than one person. Ideas bounce around and settle in faster. A group of two acting in concert can learn faster and respond faster than a single person can: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But a group of three or four is back to being about as smart as a single person. A group of ten to twenty people acts about as smart as a lost child, and a group of fifty is only about as smart as a dog. It takes a while to teach a group of fifty people any new tricks. A group of a hundred people? A sheep, of course. A thousand or more? Lemmings. When we're in big groups, we just follow what everyone around us is doing. The bigger the group, the dumber we get.

Unfortunately, this means that getting radical new ideas across can be tricky. Imagine sitting in front of a sheep, trying to explain to it that new ideas have a hard time penetrating big groups of people, especially if they fly in the face of so-called conventional wisdom. I can tell you this much: the sheep will be unimpressed.

One of the many techno-cultural problems I've encountered is going to be the subject of my next blog. A lot of people are going to react very negatively to the ideas I present in this upcoming blog, and oddly enough, their reactions aren't really coming from them as individuals. The strongly negative reactions stem from membership in a group that thinks very differently about this technical subject than I do. But when you're in a group, even a virtual group comprised of people who subscribe to some technical belief, you're only as smart as a sheep. Happens to all of us.

I have various technical ideas in the oven that aren't ready to serve yet. They're in all stages of preparation, from still-mooing to raw to nearly ready to eat. In each case I'm looking for a way to break it to you easy, to explain it in just the right way.

That can be hard, because ideas embody change, and someone is always profiting from the status quo. The profiting isn't always money -- sometimes people simply have their self-image tied up in the status quo. If your idea threatens to change it, they feel you're threatening them directly.

Sometimes the time is just ripe for an idea, and everyone seems to have it at the same time. Other times, it's pretty clear where we're headed, but even so, people aren't willing to let go of some of their cherished old ideas that conflict with the new ones. That's where we're at (in the US, anyway) with plastic surgery. And sometimes an idea is so different and revolutionary that people either don't get it at all, or they're naturally inclined to misunderstand and criticize it. When that happens, you have to attack it from different angles, and try to use tricks like metaphor or analogy to help people make the connections you want them to make.

I think the plastic-surgery problem is well-positioned as a educational tool: it seems pretty obvious (to me, anyway) that a twenty-something girl with a bright future who's unhappy with her nose should be able to get the surgery without having to lie to everyone about falling down the stairs. You'd think everyone would be full of complements about her wonderful new nose, but instead we treat it like the Emperor's clothes. It's sad. And the situation won't change, not quickly enough at any rate, unless some sort of social miracle happens, in which trend-setters with charisma to spare start bragging about their new noses and lips and buttocks... who knows! Stranger things have happened.

Hopefully I've planted a seed with this non-technical article, one that will take root, grow, and flourish into a beautiful tree, which I can then yank a branch from and whack people over the heads with when they choose to resist ideas simply because they fear change.

If that doesn't work, and people still want to lynch me, well, I can always disguise myself with a fake moustache.