I once had a conversation with a man I didn’t know during which he extolled the virtues of Eugenics and the idea of a master race. Because I was 13 at the time, this line of thinking was absolutely new to me. With my rudimentary understanding of how good and bad genetic traits were passed on, I considered what this man had to say. I continued this conversation for about 45 minutes, probing him to continue his persuasive exposition. I was using a new software program called Freetel back in 1996 and everything seemed to be lining up. I had connected with this man from across the United States based upon similar interests in computers. By the time I was done with the audio and text chat, my father was home from work. I spoke with him about the encounter and he was shocked (to say the least) about some of the claims that this man was making. He helped me to put a context to some of the ideas I was hearing. He gave me a history lesson, genetics lesson, and sociology less all rolled into one 15 minute speech about what I had gotten myself into. Still the man’s words had hit me in a place that got me questioning what I really believed about the nature of people. He got to me first and then my father had to reframe it. It wasn’t the other way around. I wasn’t already on the lookout for people who were trying to convert young children to the Aryan cause. I was just looking to talk to someone in the very early stages of VOIP.
Eugenics is one of those ideas that, at least on the surface, is perfectly plausible. If we have more and more healthy people mating with one another, better genetics and better people will result. This theory has been redressed in so many different outfits that it seems new to every generation that takes up the cause. From family planning to the creation of new religions, the idea that we can make the future better just by treating humans more like farm animals is so neat and tidy. And it is appealing for those who aren’t interested in telling the whole story. Somehow, it conveniently leaves out any human connection or the need for flaws in genetic pools to create disease resistance. Still it persists, even if under the surface in every discussion of societal class or race. And most people don’t have a father standing right next to them after they experience it for the first time to tell the rest of the story.
The newest version of this Eugenics conversation, though, is much more abrasive than the one I had with the man in 1996. The new Eugenics isn’t the engineering of human beings in test tubes or in the bedroom. It is the manipulation of what it means to be a person online. It is clear to me that the conversation about what should go online to represent us is being engineered to include only the best traits. We are convincing one another, as an entire society, that the only things worthy of our names and identities are the things that speak well of our past. We are supposed to put up successes and artifacts of our lives that show the generation of new people that don’t really exist.
We are supposed to tweet out what makes for a positive viewpoint and we are supposed to post pictures that are sanitized for alcoholic beverages. We are supposed to tell the stories that reveal a certain benevolence that is only possible online. In family blogs and on Facebook walls we are unethically editing who we are into these aspirational beings. We chastise one another for allowing too much information to leak out. We unfriend and unfollow those with unsavory bits to share or when swear words are too prevalent. We aren’t striving for truth in our conversations, we are striving for digital Eugenics. We are striving to let our perfected versions of ourselves reproduce online, having perfect little babies of ideas and projects. We let our offspring be devoid of the humanity that created them and then we stand back and wonder why they don’t hold up to scrutiny.
When a PR facade creates a document rather than a person, there isn’t truth in it. It is just an extension of that facade. When we can only “like” things and never “dislike” them, we are setting ourselves up for a level of dishonesty that can only be created in the pursuit of Nazi-like perfection.
I’m not advocating for the great underbelly of the internet to rise up and consume the good stories going on. I simply wish to question our purpose. Is our purpose to be ourselves in a new space or is it to be better than who we can ever hope to be in our current space. If it is the former, then let’s be honest about that. If it is the latter, then the man who I spoke with over FreeTel was much more honest about his intentions than we are currently. There is something to be said for that. At least in that case, I had the option of my father talking some sense into me. If we are trying to do Digital Eugenics, no one will be able to give us a greater context because after a while we won’t know anything else.