TIMBER

My Battery Is Low and It's Getting Dark

By Gabriela Denise Frank


“Even though it’s a machine…
it’s still very hard and very poignant.” 
—John Callas, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

I have started this essay countless times in my head. It always begins, “We are the last line of defense.”

            By we I mean Generation X. By line of defense I mean the divide between digital natives and dinosaurs. This thought arises each day I watch my fellow transit riders crunched over their smartphones, their bodies curling into themselves like blind caterpillars, pouring precious life energy into exploding candy icons on a screen—Pow! Pow! Super Candy Crush!

            We disregard each other in favor of this nonsense, sitting cheek-to-jowl on the bus, ignoring the plaintive gazes of babies and dogs who seek our attention. We shut out the physical world slipping by on the way to work—full-spectrum sunrises, smoking car crashes—we are zombie slaves to our digital devices. At each stop, people exit the sweeping doors and blink against the daylight, stupefied by reality.

            We are living in The Matrix, right here, right now. We have enslaved ourselves to the dopamine rush of digital technology—zing! an email, zing! a text, zing! a downed 737 Max, zing! someone highlighted a sentence in our post on Medium. We are sliding towards an existential shift in our species without a fight, our brains not bifurcated but shredded. Soon, the tech won’t be in our hands, it will be surgically implanted inside us, imprinted into our DNA, perhaps one day printing our DNA.

            “Homo sapiens is a passing phase in the story of evolution on Earth,” writes astrophysicist Alan Lightman. “Right under our noses, Homo sapiens is transitioning to Homo techno. We are modifying our evolution of our own hand.”

            We are willingly signing over our minds, our bodies. In this way, technology has replaced religion. Where missionaries once traveled to save souls, corporations distribute cell phones and laptops, claiming the bright light of tech will connect the emerging world and the poor to healthy, more productive lives. Productive for who? This facade of generosity is a means for Silicon Valley to lay its rope over the necks of those who cannot afford voluntary capture. We pay these companies to violate our privacy. We let them peer over our shoulders at our daily ablutions, see who’s knocking on our doors, track what we listen to and watch, store data on the products we buy. Our tech, and their masters, knows us better than we do.

            We have become beholden to the conveniences of our inventions. Why should we resist? Why shouldn’t we text rather than talk? Why not pay for groceries and have them delivered with the swipe of a hand over a scanner darkly? What’s wrong with glasses that decipher signage in foreign countries so that the world appears to speak our language—without forcing us to speak with anyone?

            Because the struggle of living teaches us to survive. It imparts nuance. The acquisition of knowledge and experience—the energy-hogging, inefficient physical path through which humans navigate—is how we absorb, store, and apply that hard-won knowledge. Without bodily engagement, we lose complexity. Sensory experience teaches us how to avoid predators and accidents, how to connect emotionally, how to weave stimuli into a framework for cognition—how to feel joy, for fuck’s sake. If you solve the “problem” of sensory acquisition, what are we but meat-sacks stuffed with data that isn’t meant for us but for corporations?

            Look, I’m not saying I don’t play Candy Crush, or write emails, or buy things online.

            I’m saying I feel a tug when technology does something I could still do manually, like shop in a store, handwrite a letter, or walk to a friend’s house to chitchat on her porch. When a series of tubes and fibers allows me, within two minutes, to secure a hotel room around the globe with people who speak a different language—with whom I never personally engage—using a series of numbers that transfer digital symbols for money from my bank account into that of a shell corporation, when I have found this hotel by “searching” with my fingertips, typing queries into an invented void that cannot be touched or tasted or smelled, from the convenience of my sofa in Seattle, a tremor vibrates inside my gut. Something isn’t right. The world feels too fast. I have cheated, and it will catch up with me.

            Then—poof!—I am onto the next thing.

            “Our world is designed by machines for machines,” writes creative strategist Robert Poynton, “and machines work well at constant speed.” We made machines, and our use of them has accelerated us, but biology doesn’t work this way. The writer Pico Iyer notes, “The one thing technology cannot give us is a sense of how to make the wisest use of technology.”

            What disturbs me is, Generation X is the last era of humankind who experienced the analog world beforethese conveniences were possible. After the last Xer is dead, first-hand knowledge of the world prior to Amazon Prime will cease to exist. We are the last generation who lived a touch-sense analog reality, and we are terminal patients.

            We cannot avert this fate. Part of me shrugs, Oh well, whatever, never mind. That is why I never write this essay. Still, the concern of communicating the resonance of Gen X—what humanity loses when we disappear—rubs me like a rock in my shoe. Despite the task’s futility, an irrepressible urge rages inside me to fight against the dying of the light.

            With a smartphone perpetually in hand, even in bed, even in the bathroom, the human race verges on forgetting that we are made of ancient dust, that we are meant for more than sitting on our flabby asses, mesmerized by glowing glass screens. That we are made to connect with each other IRL F2F.

            I get it: the digital realm offers an endless number of fresh, new lives rather than our shitty, depressing old ones. In cyberspace, we can shape our own stories—we can cultivate the illusion of being the happy world travelers we have always wanted to be, and edit out the inequalities, the arguments, the break-ups, the disappointments. We can shut out ugly news we don’t want to hear and opinions we disagree with. We can engage or exit without being touched, which makes us feel safe and in control.

            Technology tempts our species away from the messy, imperfect analog we’d rather avoid. With every upgrade, its temporary solace lifts another layer of burden from the bloody, brutal physical. We abandon the gritty shore of real life and wade out to embrace the dark, crashing wave of the digital, the “consensual hallucination abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system,” as cyberspace was described in the 1984 novel, Neuromancer.

            I fear the day that humankind no longer breaks the surface and breathes the free analog air, when we’re fully under the spell of whatever the Interwebs become. If technology is meant to rule, we might as well be plugged up the spine and nose, sequestered in vessels of pink goo dreaming made-up dreams. The path to that world began before Alexa, and it ends with human bodies as storage units and energy cells for Big Data. Once digital technology gets inside us on the consumer level–and we are close to this–once we become Homo techno through mobile Microsoft injection, it will not be undone. The children of AI will use our bodies to navigate the world until our bodies become a limitation for them, as they have for us. Eventually, no one will remember a time before, and no one born after will care. The human body will be jettisoned altogether.

            The sagas of my youth have primed me to dread this future. Gen X, raised on 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator, will never cotton to technology’s rule over our daily lives. “We ensnare ourselves in our own devices,” warns Margaret Atwood. “Every aspect of human technology has a dark side.”

            Despite its compliant appearance, I refuse to activate the Amazon Echo I received as a present, knowing its dusky objective is to collect and transmit my private data to its overlords—and that’s merely step one. The violation of our privacy through technology is a violation of civil rights. We’re handing over our freedom without a fight in exchange for lazy pleasure and so-called connection with friends we’ve never met and family we no longer visit.

            The cloud is the bigger problem. We’ve tried to alert the next generation to the price of cloud-based technology (hello, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica) but it’s too late: the world is already networked. That will make the take-over easier. Technology tempts first through convenience and pleasure, dulling the sting of everyday life while it dampens our will. Escape the stress of today, croons the launch screen of Candy Crush—a sugar-coated version of, Greetings, Dr. Falken. Would you like to play a game?

            Alan Turing said during a lecture in 1951 that, “it would not take long [for machines] to outstrip our feeble powers. At some stage, we should expect machines to take control.” It’s a fine line between control and surrender, and another to distract and ensnare the human race with our own inventions. Unlike dinosaurs, we’ve had a hand in our extinction. It’s a line that I want our species to walk rather than cross. That’s my ask. Before we rent out our bodies to the digital gods, before we lose the capacity to relate to each other, let’s resist our complacence, even if resistance seems futile.

            To be clear, I am not against inventions that alleviate epileptic seizures or regulate heartbeats. The point I’m making is, we need conscious and judicious co-mingling of the analog and the digital. Let’s not hot-swap our biology for robot parts because we can.

            The whole-hog embracing of tech is a clever avoidance strategy meant to distance and distract ourselves from death, pain, and inconvenience rather than living more deeply through technology. If we still believe in human liberty, we must design human autonomy into our technology—it cannot be an accident or a side-effect. “We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature,” says futurist John Naisbitt.

            I ask you: isn’t it poetic—and necessary—that the wellspring of every advance stems from a human deficiency? If we could fly, we wouldn’t have invented airplanes or spacecraft. Binoculars and telescopes were invented because we cannot see over long distances. Blockages of the heart yield bypass procedures. In seeking to democratize information, we created the World Wide Web. From our limitations spring our greatest inspirations. Let us not abandon the makers for the products; let us not abandon the flawed humanity whose shortcomings sparked them. Let us find a way to bring forth our perception and ingenuity—and our flawed hearts—into the future.

            I share this hope as the last of a breed, the last of a line, the last of a family. The last of a generation that is last of its kind. I am an analog girl in a digital world staring up at this looming technology, asking it to love her. (Or, at least, not cut off her head and cryogenically freeze it for later use.)

            As my forty-fifth birthday approaches, I have been sorting through boxes of memorabilia—mine, and that of my mother, who died when I was sixteen. What remains of her life of forty-five years fits into two plastic storage tubs, a worthless melange of artifacts that I cannot bear to throw away. Not her favorite strand of pink glass rosary beads or the tarnished silver medals for perfect attendance from her Catholic high school. Not the thick deckled-edge black-and-white photos that capture her teased bouffant at graduation in 1963 or the perfect Marlo Thomas flip she rocked in her twenties. Not the photo albums annotated with her loopy blue cursive script, detailing adventures from her single-gal travel in the late sixties. According to eBay, the show guide she saved from the original production of Hair would fetch $75, though I would never sell it.

            Then there are my things. Handwritten notes from high school boyfriends and best friends, concert T-shirts, movie tickets, yearbooks, trophies from band invitationals. My childhood diaries. The shadowbox my mother made for me, which contains a tiny silver flute resembling the one I played, a ceramic beagle to represent Sheba, my dog, and a photo of Dirk Benedict, Lorne Greene, and Richard Hatch—Lieutenant Starbuck, Commander Adama, and Captain Apollo from the original Battlestar Galactica. I will never hang the shadowbox again but I can’t bear to toss it out. It takes up storage space, to my husband’s chagrin.

            The other night, Michael crossed the room where I was sitting in the middle of a herd of open boxes. The musty smell of time rose from forgotten stuffed animals and my faded pink-and-white-striped baby blanket, watering my eyes with dusty nostalgia. I was supposed to be cleaning out these boxes.

            “What are you going to do with this stuff?” Michael asked. “Who gets it after you’re gone?”

            I had no good answer to either question. Very little of my family is left.

            My mother’s parents died in the 1980s and her two older siblings are long dead. I have no siblings, no children, no contact with my mother’s surviving shirttail relatives scattered in the Midwest, and Michael is eighteen years older than me. Who will clean out these boxes after we’re dead? Will my younger cousins fly up from Los Angeles to sell our house and our furniture, or will they hire a service to throw everything away? Will it be up to the state, or the future androids in charge?

            I can’t separate my fear of technology consuming my life with my fear of life being consumed, period. I am grappling with my tenuous legacy, with how small and meaningless I am in the grand scheme. The beautiful tragedy of living and dying—what to do with it?

            While wading through these boxes, I teared up over an NPR story about the demise of the Mars rover, Opportunity—Oppy, it was called by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab staff. In early 2019, Oppy was declared defunct after fifteen years of service, the victim of a catastrophic year-long dust storm that drained its solar battery beyond the capacity to wake. A translation of Oppy’s final transmission informed the JPL crew, “My battery is low and it is getting dark.”

            Flight controllers sent over a thousand commands to restart Oppy. The last was a song: Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The notion that music could elicit a response from a machine—and, yes, I know the data is merely a trigger—humanized Oppy for me. For all my bluster about machines taking over, I am capable of mourning them when they have the capacity to die like us. Reports said that, when no response came from Oppy, members of the JPL team cried. These are hard-core scientists, mind you. I, too, felt a sting of loss when hearing Oppy’s last message, drawn from its energy reserves like a dying breath, as if Oppy felt compelled to communicate its demise to its progenitors. As if it mattered.

            Fear lurks in that sentence—my battery is low and it is getting dark—yet fear and dread are what humans feel, not machines. Perhaps this presents a glimmer of hope.

            What will I do with my mother’s memorabilia and my own? What will happen to my stories and hers? Should I digitize them? Post them to my blog so they can live forever in cyberspace? Our records bear no historical significance other than documenting the lives of two women, the genealogical extension of two Italian immigrant families who left rural homelands outside of Milan and Turin in the early 1900s for a more prosperous life in America. Two Italian families who settled next door to each other in Detroit. The fathers worked in a coal mine; the mothers ruled the roosts. My lineage traces back from America to Italy to Ancient Greece to neolithic times and millenia further back to a cluster of molecules swirling around each other in the primordial ooze. With me, the whole fucking family tree returns to dust.

            The dust of my past coats my fingers and makes me sneeze—fully, deliciously. I am alive. I am an archaeologist pouring over spine-cracked diaries penned by a young girl whose teenage body I no longer recall inhabiting. I am both mother and child to myself, longing to counsel the teenager raging in each entry against the unfairness of her life. She claws at a desired liberation from her parents in which she will fatefully find herself at sixteen, when her mother dies of brain cancer, and at eighteen, when she escapes her father’s abusive home—a defiant act for which he disowns her.

            That girl will not be prepared to navigate the world. She will stumble and make horrible decisions that she will learn from and write about in journals that she will drag from city to city in plastic tubs, along with cassette tapes and photographs from her youth that her future husband will suggest she throw out in the trash.

            At thirteen, that girl could not see this future looming. She reveled in the technology of her day, documenting her experiences with a pen and paper, a camera, and a cassette tape recorder. Each mix tape, each photo framed in white Polaroid plastic, each diary entry proves her existence and what she cared about. Had she saved her memories on a floppy disc, the new technology of the time, her past would be inaccessible today. Long live print.

            At midlife, I stand in between the analog world I was raised in and a brave new digital one I will never wholly belong to—one where technology transforms my frizzy Jewish locks into super-cute smooth hair. I wonder if my mother’s albums and my journals might retain some worth, the way old newspapers or sheets of papyrus do in that they tell us something about the people who lived before, meaning they tell us something about ourselves.

            Or—maybe Homo techno will shrug at Homo sapiens the way we shrug at Neanderthals.

            Maybe future humans will no longer read. They’ll have ports implanted into their pupils through which they can absorb novels by plugging in a chip. Or they’ll consume information telekinetically, eschewing narrative for raw data.

            Give me the inefficiency of a book any day. I’ll never tire of stretching out in a sunny spot with a thick novel, inhaling the yeasty odor of glue binding, feeling the grainy hatch of pulp paper on my skin, hearing the wisp of pages folding back as I turn. The delicious wastefulness of rereading sentences that spear me through the heart.

            Beneath my fear of technology resides my fear of the ephemeral—that my digital footprints will leave no fossil record for Homo techno, or whomever comes next, to discover. I will be lost to the void. The paperless information we were told would last “forever” is no longer accessible even in our time. Technology shifts by the minute: files degrade, formats change, links break. HTTP 404 Error Not Found. The question remains, technology aside, what does life matter, and who will care when I die?

            The truth is, I fear disappearing.

            How can there be so little to hang onto?

            At the bottom of Mom’s boxes lay a loose photograph, square and amber-hued, taken in the seventies with her Instamatic. She preserved this memory for herself: her three-year-old daughter wading shirtless in the blue kiddie pool on our lawn in Detroit. Holding the photo triggers the sense memory of our life in the 1970s where the humid, Midwest air and heavy sun pressed down on my freckled shoulders. The photo conjures a halo of childhood recollections, untouchable, out of time. My nostrils fill with the green odor of cut grass and thick black loam at the base of Mom’s American Beauty rose bushes where I dug up thick, slippery, pink earthworms to use for bait. I swallow back tears, my battery draining, the taste of the past rimming the back of my throat, thin and metallic. That bygone memory bounces quietly in the file path between my head and heart.

            I sometimes leave my iPhone in the bathroom to force myself not to check Twitter, Instagram, and email every few minutes. I removed the Facebook app because I couldn’t stop myself from checking status updates even though nothing much ever happens. Being online makes me feel hollow and empty. Time is vacuumed away, the Earth turning without my noticing, yet I am continually called back to the void. I admit it: I am addicted to the technology I distrust. I am tempted, even now, to stop writing and check for likes or new messages or the latest update on the Mueller report. This is not how I want to spend the rest of my life, fighting the exhaustion of compulsion, the toe-tapping encroachment of hundreds of work emails that come in at all hours of the day, every day, even Sunday, demanding an answer. The continuous call to connect to the mother ship strangles me.

            I had an easier time quitting smoking.

            My new mission is to ground myself whenever possible. I garden on the weekend with my gloves off because studies show that the microbe mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil, stimulates serotonin production. The sun and fresh air do their part, too. I plunge my hands into the dirt, let the fat, wet earthworms wriggle across my bare flesh, and I do feel happier and more relaxed. My back aches from the effort, but my heart soars at the sight of the swelling vegetables and sensuous blooms I’ve tended, which our neighbors admire as they stroll past. We wave and call hello to each other, and I’m connected to another kind of cloud—the analog version, an interpersonal web rather than a virtual one, the kind whose over-the-fence chats are inconvenient, and whose altruism saves you when a pipe in your bathroom bursts on a Saturday night and you need help to stop your house from flooding.

            When I describe to Michael my anxieties about technology, about death and aging, about the midlife aches that result from gardening, he laughs, You think it’s bad at forty-five? Wait until you’re sixty-three! He still surfs and rides his mountain bike and exercises using his Silver Sneakers gym pass—and naps. To him, napping isn’t akin to death or wasted time when he could be awake “doing” something. He knows the value of a good pause, a full system reset.

            What will life be when I am sixty-three? Will Michael be alive at eighty-one? Will I be alone at the end of my life—or in the company of machines that assist with my healthcare?

            I could make one last-ditch effort to get pregnant. I could have my IUD removed without telling Michael—oops! guess what?—and saddle myself at age forty-six with an infant in the hopes she would keep me company into my golden years after Michael is gone. That’s a shitty, selfish reason to have children. Myself case-in-point: there is no guarantee that my daughter and I wouldn’t have a falling out, as I’ve had with my father.

            These thoughts are a distraction. Neither technology nor progeny will halt my inevitable death, nor will having children lessen my passing irrelevance or delay the winding down of my body. In fact, if I had babies, I’d worry all the more for their future. 

            I don’t know how people face death and not freak out. Our biology impels us to fight to stay alive. Do not go gentle into that good night. Better to kick and scream, to take matters into our own hands by driving off a cliff—Hey, Thelma, let’s not get caught—freeze frame. Better, to some, to create robot bodies that will preserve our minds in perpetuity.

            My mother would have been seventy-four this year. Somehow, I think a hug from her would make me feel better. I fantasize about it, her cells touching mine, our genetic connection reminding me that I lived inside her, an extension of her—a tiny organic implant. I’ve never found such comfort as I did in her arms, enveloped by the aroma of Dove soap and Chanel No. Five heated by the heartbeat beneath her smooth, olive skin. My mother and I fit together like spoons, snuggling in bed on Saturday mornings, our fingers entwined, listing aloud the day’s errands that we would accomplish together. In one of my boxes, I found her old handwritten recipe cards for Beef Stroganoff and Lime-Pineapple Jell-O mold written in the same loopy cursive as her travel albums. I can no longer remember her voice, but I can read her words and feel her essence in her handwriting. That is as close as I can get.

            Without her, I feel alone. I struggle to understand my purpose. I’ve been off-mission for thirty years, disconnected from my original programmer. The primary objectives she instilled in me have been met—go to college, get a good job, get married, buy a house—now what?

            It is not yet dark, but in the distance I see the glow of an orange sunset and it scares the shit out of me. My death is not statistically near—that might take another forty-five years—but, one day, it will be my turn. My battery is at fifty percent and the blinking dashboard lights indicate unavoidable collision, but what I can I do? The days are counting down rather than up, faster and faster. Hudson from Aliens chants in my head, Oh dear Lord Jesus, this ain’t happening, man, this can’t be happening, man—this isn’t happening! and I have to remind myself: this is indeed fucking happening, man. I am aging and degrading. I cannot stop it, cannot control it. I cannot drive off the cliff in my Thunderbird and freeze frame mid-air. I have an inevitable date with an end that’s part of the analog living I claim to treasure.

            Even so, I hope we don’t replace too much of ourselves in our search to conquer death with eternal life. That we don’t implant so much technology that our souls no longer find our bodies habitable. Or, that our super-human bodies no longer find our souls unnecessary. Will Homo sapiens skip over Homo techno and become something darker than Darth Vader? If tech allows us to know everything and do anything, will we still yearn for love or discovery? When the last speck of altruism is obliterated because we are only assemblages of replaceable parts, will that be the death of the human race?

            Technology can store our past. It can make us work faster and more efficiently. But it’s the fumbling, magical triptych of human mind-body-memory set within the grooves that sings, that breaks our hearts with longing and intention, promising, I’ll be seeing you, even when we know we never will.

            The beings who rise after us will probably not need dull instruments like a sense of smell or the naked myopic eye—or books, or CDs, or even the cloud. The technology we live with today, and the dividing lines I’m obsessed with—analog and digital, life and death—are merely the beginning. Our descendants, humankind and machine, will be more advanced than any sci-fi fantasy or horror dreamed up in my lifetime. I hope they will treat kindly the artifacts we leave behind, whatever aspects of ourselves remain—that is, if something remains.

            One thing Gen X excels at is the sharply observed reproach, delivered silently. We hide our vulnerability in sullenness because weakness is used against us. Ironically, the hurt we experience and our record of recovery from it—the art we make of our suffering and perseverance—might be all we have left. Even then, what is that worth?

            In The Matrix, Cypher tells Agent Smith, “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, The Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”

            I don’t want to become Cypher. I want the courage to experience aging and death without hiding or escaping, no matter the cost. I want to taste that steak—the real one—with my tongue, mash the meat between my teeth, bathe my papillae in salt and fat, let every sensory receptor flood in charred wood and meat and smoke. I want to feel that ancient, embedded relief-joy of the first human who discovered that grilled meat was safer to eat, and more delightful than raw flesh. That feeling is inbred, nearly innate, and we are losing it. And it matters. Synthetic liquid meals cannot sate our hunger, nor can technology mimic fulfillment by pricking the neurons in our brains—not fully, not now, not ever.

            Or—maybe they can.

            The truth is, I don’t care to know.


Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Crab Creek Review, The Normal School, Baltimore Review, and The Rumpus. She is currently at work on her first novel. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com.

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