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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your final point about conformity is a good one, but it seems to me that your metaphor would serve better as a counter-argument.

The reason why most get people get plastic surgery is not because it will make them happy, but because they believe that it will make other people happy. Women get their breasts enlarged because they think men will be more sexually attracted to them. They have allowed themselves to believe in the role society is pushing onto them: a provider of male sexual pleasure and potential breeding machine. The social pressure for women to be more "feminine" is a classic example of collective stupidity overriding individual intelligence.

And if sexism is the motivation for some forms of cosmetic surgery, then racism can be the motive for others. Asians don't alter their eyes to look more "beautiful": they do it to look more like white people. An actress gets a nose job to look less like a Jew. And white people go to tanning salons to look like fashionable black celebrities, safe in the knowledge that they can go back to being white again any time they choose.

The reason why we consider it impolite to mention such alterations is because we'd be admitting that such pressures still exist in the world, and we've worked so hard to convince ourselves otherwise.

6:36 AM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Angus, you've missed the entire point of the article. You've completely failed to see the core idea. You're the sheep in the story.

Let me try again, because if you've failed, then I've failed.

The point of the article is that YOU are a SOUL. Your body -- including your race, gender, genetic makeup, all the things I know nothing at all about as we interact through the internet -- they're effectively just accidents. They don't matter. So you should be able to change them.

If I'm a tall Asian woman today, and I want to be a short African man tomorrow, and it's technically feasible, then so be it: I should be permitted and even encouraged to make this change as a form of individual self-expression. And the next day, I can change it again!

Look at the title of the article. Clothes for the soul! Did it register even the tiniest bit with you? Nope.

Your thinking clearly shows that you still think of bodies as prisons. Do you see now? This is what I mean when I say that ideas take a long time to penetrate. You're holding on to notions like "race" and "gender" that may literally be meaningless words within 100 years.

11:19 AM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger mappel said...

Can't wait for genetic mods. Instant evolution. Perhaps even with heredity--cosmetics don't translate.

11:42 AM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Alex Pretzlav said...

I think one of the reasons we don't talk about cosmetic surgery the way we talk about new clothes is where the technology currently is — complementing your friend's new dress doesn't imply their old dress was bad; they can wear the old one anytime they like. Complementing a nose job though implies the old nose was worse, and the difficulty in reversing the operation means it's rude to, say, criticize someone's new butt-implants the way you would try to tell someone a new pair of pants doesn't quite fit right. Certainly some operations are reversible, but it's just not the same as going to the mall and getting a new shirt—at least for now.

12:29 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, Steve, you write so intelligently about programming and so stupidly about the real world. Do you really think that there is nothing to what Angus is saying? Do you really think she (he?) is just a mindless sheep?

You have two points:
1. Body modification is going to be more popular
2. This is a great thing

I agree with the first point. But I think the reason you are so gung-ho on the second point is because men today have zero pressure to get any kind of plastic surgery. This is because women face about 10x as much pressure to hate the way they look. Ugly successful men are celebrated but ugly successful women are national jokes (that's right Madeleine Albright, surviving the holocaust and being Secretary of State isn't enough, you should also be a sex object).

You assume that the only reason that someone would get surgury would be to express themselves and increase their happiness. I think one result of cheap plastic surgry will be yet another way for Americans to homogenize themselves. I guess I see some value in people looking differently. Haven't you seen a girl who was a little different looking and totally sexy? I guess I want a society where there is still a little of that left, and that girl doesn't get twenty pounds of silicone added to her chest in high school because she (like everyone) was insecure then and thought that that was necessary for her to get a date.

Think of it another way. Beauty is a function of scarcity. Back when everyone was short, disfigured, and ugly they still had a hierarchy of beauty, it was just that having more than half your teeth got you further up the pyramid then than it does now. The day that we figure out how to tan instantly without UV rays is the day that tans stop being a factor in beauty. I am not arguing that women shouldn't be sex objects, they should. Men should too. It just seems stupid that the bottom half of the pyramid should have to hate themselves, since that is where most of the area of the pyramid sits. Adding more plastic surgery doesn't change this dynamic one bit it just means that we devote more resources towards shifting the whole pyramid up.

And I am not one to worry about income disparity, but I guess I am not wild about making beauty a direct function of wealth. In essence the pyramid could become elongated so that the rich are really hot and the poor butt fugly. My question is will me and my hot, rich friends have to look at the ugly poor people or can we put them on an island somewhere?

Also what is the goal of bleaching your anus? Are white anuses in style now? Can I do this at home or do I need a kit?

1:29 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Jay, poor Jay, you're really having a rough time. I'm sorry this is so hard on you! Take a deep breath. Thaaaaat's better. Calm.

Pretend you're Rumplestiltskin, but instead of sleeping for 20 years, you sleep for 200. You wake up. Wow! The future is so different. Almost the first thing you notice is that some people have wings, and some have extra arms, and some have blue skin. All shapes, colors, sizes.

What's happened? Genetic mods have become so cheap and commonplace that changing the way you look is like changing your clothes. Or... maybe more like redecorating your house; something you do quarterly rather than daily. But it's easy, and cheap, and everyone does it.

There are many, many people in the world who embrace the concept that your body is yours to change. It's happening all around you. My article is suggesting that Americans are too squeamish or prudish or... well, *something*-ish to talk about some of the mods, but not others.

Not only that, lots of people still get mad at the world in general when you even bring the subject up. It's not clear who you're mad at -- me? I'm not a cosmetic surgeon, nor am I currently a patient. The closest I come is that I take diet pills, which are pseudo-taboo to talk about.

Are you mad at the surgeons? The patients? The Howard Sterns of the world who talk about the procedures people are getting? Who are you mad at?

Unfortunately, Jay, you appear to be missing the point as well. The fact is, plastic surgery is happening today, all around us, all over the world, and ordinary people are doing it because they want to. All I was suggesting is that they shouldn't have to hide it. And you're all worked up over that?

The world is changing. Plastic surgery is becoming the norm. It won't be too long before over half the population has had some sort of cosmetic surgery.

Will you be able to change with the rest of the world? It sounds like you're ready to resist tooth and nail.

That was the meta-point of the article. Ideas imply change, and that means some old ideas (such as that you ARE black or white, as opposed to HAVING black or white skin as a mutable property) have to give way to new ones.

Open your mind!

4:33 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Maybe this post means that nuclear war will start tomorrow.

I have been exactly anxious that a woman don't fall in love with the true me (not a social construct?) because she can't fall in love with the deformed physical outer geek: that with her social expectations are not challenged.

How to get 2 people to take personal risks --- intellectual, emotional --- *together* that alone 1 does not dare to take. Does it take seduction, or one person first to try to fake normalcy or totally joke about it.

6:23 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Kaiser Leib said...

I'd say you're closer to being right than anyone seems to acknowledge, simply because young folk seem so much more willing to talk about the stuff you just mentioned than older people. Perhaps it is not at the lunch table at work, but it is perfectly acceptable to discuss modifications to whatever you have modified at the lunch table at a university. Granted, I don't hang arount the modified noses much, but they're ok with their new "selves." Older women, though, seem to be reluctant to admitting to lasik!

I'm also interested to read your next post- what's taboo or revolutionary in tech? Aren't we geeks all supposedly willing to adopt anything and everything new right away?

6:31 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger TJIC said...

If you think idly about what the distant future will be like ... 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


Logan's Run.

I know there's a joke here, but I'm not getting it.

7:13 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

I actually had " long as nobody kills you" after the Logan's Run reference, but decided it detracted from the flow. I tried thinking of another movie but got lazy... any ideas?

7:44 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger lahosken said...

In a future where changing your body is as common as buying a new shirt, I think we definitely need to maintain a taboo about talking about body modification.

I have been in conversations with people who told me about their experiences buying shirts. These were not fun conversations for me.

I would not like to have similar conversations about, say, the process of picking out juuuust the right new earlobe patterns. Argh, I can imagine these conversations, I'm imagining one right now. These people, they're telling me all of these things that they've been learning about earlobes. They're trying to impress me with their discernment, with their great judgement. No matter how much I tune them out and think about lunch, they're still talking. The only thing that's keeping this vision from being more vivid is that it keeps putting me to sleep.

This cannot be a good idea. Let these topics remain taboo. In addition, I hereby declare that conversations about shirt purchases are taboo. Please make them stop.

8:55 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Of course I'm a sheep! Baaaaa!

Take another peek at the discussion of herd mentality in the article: when I said "Happens to all of us", I meant it. That includes me. I encourage you to de-sheep me whenever you catch me in the act.

Maybe you've just had this sour taste in your mouth ever since the Perl Zombie thing. ;-)

9:22 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Ola said...

I can't wait for the new ideas of the shift in technology you have.

Other people have vindicated what you were talking about regarding being sheep and lemmings.

9:24 PM, August 20, 2006  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Aristotle: “I’m going to tell you something, and I know you’re not going to like it, because you don’t like change and you don’t want to think about it, but I’m right.”

I don't understand how you arrived at that summary. I fully expected the readers of my blog to understand all the issues and more or less agree with me. They all own computers, so they've probably played video games, and they know you can customize your character. They've read all the same books and seen all the same movies. What I'm saying isn't a big stretch here. The people who are resisting this particular change were supposed to be (I imagined) non-technical fundamentalist hicks, and so on.

It pissed me off that Angus brought in lame and inappropriate racism and sexism arguments. His theories don't explain why men get hair implants and liposuction, nor why people get tatoos and piercings, nor veneers for their teeth (what, wolfism is driving them to have huge canines?), nor why Asian people get nose jobs, and so on, and on, and on. No: he's just blindly reciting crap other angry-at-the-world people have told him, and regardless of whether it has any truth in general, he's totally misapplied it here and soiled my otherwise high-road blog, where racists and sexists aren't allowed in the door.

So as soon as they get genetic mods, I'm going to transform into a sheep and go baaaa at him to scare him a good one. And I'll be sure not to turn my sheepy back on him!

As far as your viewpoint/perspective arguments go, they're all interesting, but not concrete enough for my tastes, at least in the context of this blog entry. Perhaps next time!

10:37 AM, August 21, 2006  
Blogger K said...

I guess my own "beef" with plastic surgery would be that getting it sometimes implies that what you looked like before wasn't good enough. I wouldn't want any future kids of mine to look at my nose and then at their own noses and say "how come they don't match?" and having them think their own noses are bad because Mommy changed hers.

I see your point, though, about how American culture is often fairly prudish in regards to talking about body modification. On the one hand, I agree with you - our Puritanical culture does shun such things, generally speaking. Heck, we've got loads of people freaked out over the imagined impact some dudes marrying each other will have on their everyday lives, I'd say we've got some skewed values floating around here.

But on the other hand, I don't know as I want to see a bunch of people getting all kinds of stuff done to them and it being socially acceptable to the point of everyday boringness, because it in part reinforces the idea that advertising firms all across the globe want pounded into our brains - we're not good enough the way we are, so we have to change ourselves and consume all different kinds of (often frivolous and wasteful*) things in order to be "happy" or be "good people". I suppose I could list the reasons why I'd never get a boob job:

1. While they aren't going to win any size prizes, they get the job done
2. Not all the dudes who dig on the massive boobies are what I would consider catches anyway, so why go out of my way to please boors
3. Have you seen that dang MTV special on boob jobs? Did you not see what they did to those boobs? OH HOLY HECK THOSE POOR NIPPLES

But that's me. I guess there's an inherent falsity to plastic surgery that I don't care for, whereas with something like a piercing or a tattoo there is no real way you could claim that those were original issue, straight-out-of-the-womb kinds of things.

As for the body mods shown in futuristic movies, well, who is to say that those are the ideal, either? I dig on sci-fi a lot, but you won't find me saying I would necessarily want to live in some of those visions, either. I dunno, I'm trying to see it from your point of view, and while I do, I just can't get over the fact that a lot of the time, someone isn't getting plastic surgery for themselves, but rather for what they think other people want them to look like, or what they think they should look like, in order to conform to some imposed standard of "beauty" that isn't always the greatest thing out there. Sorry for not totally agreeing!

* Think Humvees and large plastic toys kids grow out of in about 15 minutes.

11:32 AM, August 21, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think it's interesting to compare the attitude toward plastic surgery to the attitude toward performance-enhancing drugs in sports. In both cases, I think the attitude stems more from america's supposed egalitarian ethos than from puritanical ethos: we're ok with people getting ahead so long as they did it with their own hard work, but not short cuts (so to speak) allowed.
As the republicans continue to work hard at making it acceptable for the wealthy to get better treatment than others (estate tax, anyone?), I expect this attitude to change.
It's hard to disentangle doing-something-because-others-will-like-it from doing-something-because-it-makes-me-feel-better. Almost by definition, if people like you better, and you're the sort of person who is willing to undergo surgery to have others like you better, you're going to feel better.

2:20 PM, August 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't get it. The point of the article is so painfully obvious, and you idiots are falling over yourselves trying to reinvent postmodernism. Go pontificate about the hegemony of western consumerism globalization and how it pertains to gender identity from a contemporary cross-culture perspective somewhere else.

Let me spell it out for you, since while Steve seems to be a nice person, I am not.

Your ideas of human are small, stupid, and wrong.

I want a nose job? Whatever. How about I get my nose removed. Why not?

How about I can move some sliders around and pick my face. People are stupid today? Better go with the square jaw. This is trivial stuff.

How about I want two bodies? Plus, I want to use them both at the same time. Why not? We do it with computers all the time. I want a beuwulf cluster of Drew. Do you have a moral objection you would like to share with me?

How about having a physical body is irrelevant. Anywhere you can map the pattern and function of your neurons, you can be there. Want to chill out on your PC? Just upload a copy of yourself. Is death totally bumming you out? Dude, just like totally run that like backup thing.

And why stop with mapping neuron function when you can extend it? Bored with the five senses? How about 500,000. Having trouble remembering the proof for NP completeness? No problem, your friend upgraded his instruction set for Q-type neurons and he wants to share. Quake 8 never ran faster.

And don't give me this shit about "oh no, what about the 'human heart'. We'll all be cold soulless machines boo hoo." No, you fucking idiot. I mean, you could be, if you wanted, but how about we'll keep the old emotions, and we'll add new ones I can't even imagine. With Emotion Pack Service Pack 2, I can mock you for 41% the smug satisfaction!

We're all just fancy dirt and information merrily computing ourselves by the laws of physics. And guess which part matters? (for the slow: not the dirt)

So yes, "big media" and "popular culture" makes you feel bad to buy shit. Congratulations, you are now qualified to be 17. Now shut up and try not to say obvious things.

So what does this have to do with computers right now? Shit, the PC just turned 25 and already people are talking about how Apple is the new Unix and Linux is the new Microsoft and Google! Why, they'll take over the world forever and that will be the end of the Internet and we can get back to regular life. Bullshit. Like this is all there is.

Anyways, so here's back to Steve. And shut the fuck up.

2:38 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger Lexx said...

Aristotle: “I’m going to tell you something, and I know you’re not going to like it, because you don’t like change and you don’t want to think about it, but I’m right.”

Steve: I don't understand how you arrived at that summary. I fully expected the readers of my blog to understand all the issues and more or less agree with me.

He didn't mean this particular article. He meant your next big-thing-nobody-accepts technical article. This post looks like a preparation for the next article. I.e. Aristotle implies that you condition the readers to be prepared and try to accept what you want to say in the next post. Not that you have done it deliberately, but it looks like it. I noticed it too.

2:39 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger brent said...

I just wanted to bring what I think is a different perspective than the ones that have been expressed already.

First, I think the dichotomy between thinking of your body as "a prison" or "decoration" is a false one. After thinking about it for a while, I think I consider my body as more of an interface. It's how I interact with the part of the world that's not me - the same way an application interacts with a database, or something. Not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.

Keep that software analogy in mind as I get to my point: the body/soul dualism that this whole discussion is predicated on doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Steve, you said something along the lines of "You are a soul." That's fine, I agree. But I don't agree that that's the whole story. I think that you're a soul AND a body. The interface part of the application, and is not exactly separable. I mean, you can distinguish it, but what's an application without an interface? Saying "you are a soul" is pretty much the same as saying "Reddit is a database." Reddit is a database, yes... but not just a database. Take away the interface, and you have something that's not exactly Reddit.

So, let me wrap this up. I am not saying that people shouldn't be allowed to change their interfaces, but let's face it, a change to the interface is a change to the person. If my friend radically modifies their body, that's fine on moral grounds (as far as I'm concerned), but I don't really know that person any more. I have to get to know them again, or part ways. Their interface has changed, and so by my definition, they have changed. I think that it's this feeling of being disconnected that makes me shy away from this kind of thing. The friend I'd known kind of exists, but kind of doesn't. We experience this same kind of thing when we run into people we'd been really good friends with 10 years ago, but haven't talked to each other since. It's uncomfortable.

Anyway, the basic disagreement here, as I said, is whether we are just souls. If we don't agree on the answer to that question, then we'll just have to agree to disagree on the rest of it.

3:31 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

"No man can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object. A chemist may tell his most precious secrets to a carpenter, and he shall be never the wiser--the secrets he would not utter to a chemist for an estate. God screens us evermore from premature ideas. Our eyes are holden that we cannot see things that stare us in the face, until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened; then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not is like a dream" Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Spiritual Laws"

Actually, we do a good job of screening ourselves from premature ideas, the way the planets keep revolving around the sun, even without angels pushing them. Emerson is an interesting read, if you can get through the archaic prose style.

Steve, if the comments annoy you, turn them off.

I'm serious. I enjoy reading your essays, and would selfishly prefer that you spend your time marinating your ideas in a nice teriyaki glaze, rather than arguing with your commenters.

OTOH, if responding to comments is part of your creative process, have a happy. Comments are the clothing of the blog ;-)


4:30 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger punzki said...

Hi Steve,

First of all, congratulations for having such a great and popular blog. Keep up the good work.

A bit off-topic, but here's some food for thought. Why do people spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on such a superfluous thing as appearance, when billions of human beings are starving to death, don't have a roof over their heads, or can't get a decent education? I think anyone who's had plastic surgery should feel ashamed of him/herself for allowing such an injustice. Regardless of whether they tell all their friends or not.

5:50 PM, August 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:04 PM, August 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Shaun. Nice quote.

Brent, you admit that people change themselves. But then you suggest that change is wrong. Why?


Steve: keep up the great work. I love this stuff.

Other people: Try assuming the author's thesis and then explore any new consequential ideas when you read essays. Especially when the author says so in the essay. Especially when the author says so again in the comments.

7:18 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

drew: just because people choose to look at a post from another angle doesn't mean they don't get it. it means they respect the author enough to spend some time with the idea. get a grip. Steve can defend his own thesis without your ranting.

the core of what people have been saying is that changes to one's exterior change one's interior / soul / perception of one's self. when I'm acting, the costume has a significant impact on me, and can help me get into character much faster. people who have surgery to repair a hare lip or other cosmetic defect have much greater self-confidence and can accomplish more. whether people choose to improve themselves with a nose job or by reading emerson is immaterial: they are the same thing. I hope to one day find that my soul can be separated from my body and continue on, but until then, the two are interdependent.

it is interesting that the US seems to frown-yet-wink at physical modifications, and it likely will change over time. I'm not sure such an idea merits such a long post; I'd rather Steve had spent the time working on what he's softening people up for.

8:05 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

"I'm sorry this letter is so long, but I did not have time to make it shorter." -- Blaise Pascal (and often attributed to Mark Twain)

People often claim brevity isn't my strong suit. It's true that I could do a better job of self-editing.

However, I think there's a right length for an essay, and a single page of text usually isn't enough. I think most sufficiently meaty (and hence blog-worthy) ideas need at least 3 to 10 pages. Many of the ideas I sketch out in my blog would be better served by chapters or even whole books.

The sketches are sufficient to get people thinking, though, and they're long enough to let me blow off steam. I don't usually blog about something unless I'm worked up about it.

I don't have a good explanation as to why I think the best essays are long -- about as long as one can read in a single sitting of perhaps 20 to 50 minutes. It's just a feeling I have. If you want people to absorb something for a long time, I think you have to keep coming at it from different angles until they've filled up their RAM and some of it has to be swapped to disk. :-)

11:47 PM, August 22, 2006  
Blogger brent said...

Drew -

I think you have misunderstood my post. I never said that change is wrong. In fact, I pretty clearly said the opposite. Do a word search for "moral grounds" on this page.

I think it's fairly obvious that people change all the time, and we accept that and move on. However, most of that change is relatively continuous (in the mathematical sense). I would consider almost all plastic surgery that we can do today to be continuous change, and unless you do a whole lot of it in a short period of time. However, radical, easy, frequent body modification of the type Steve is talking about is rather radical discontinous change. I think that people are uncomfortable with the prospect of that sort of discontinuous change happening to the people around them on a frequent basis. I think that's at least part of what leads people to call it wrong.

Let me repeat that I don't think that it is wrong, necessarily, but it is a radical change to the actual person, and not just a change of clothes. That's all. It's just the outgrowth of the core disagreement about what we are essentially. Steve says just a soul. I say a soul and a body. I hope that makes it more clear.

6:12 AM, August 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brent: "I think you have misunderstood my post. I never said that change is wrong. In fact, I pretty clearly said the opposite. Do a word search for "moral grounds" on this page."

Nah. I didn't say you said change is wrong. I said you suggested it was wrong. I interpretted this from your expressed discomfort about what you called "disconnect."

I didn't mean to cast you as close-minded (your post read well to me), but I did want to try and tease some more detail out of you.

But you say that when people change their bodies that they change themselves. Steve says that we're just souls. But I think he means that our bodies are free to be changed because we are free to change. I don't think that he means that they mean nothing.

Because why would you want change something that means nothing?

Our identities are inherited from ideas like gender and race. But if it's my identity, then why can't I change these things to mean what I would like them to mean for myself?

We will be assigned nothing. Not sex, not race, not genetics.

These ideas may still exist, but diminished. Like moods, maybe.

4:36 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger Nij said...

At the risk of being another mis-reading sheep, I suspect that part of the issue that some readers have is the current state of plastic surgery; it is primarily concerned with changing the existing (near) surface details of our bodies. But you are talking about the soul. That's not muscle is it? Or bone? Or even brain? It's something that we currently have difficulty quantifying, so it is perhaps difficult to imagine anything but. On the other hand, the gist of your essay does continue to imply that you think in 200 years or so, we will still have bodies! (doesn't it?)

Anyway, when I think about this from a 'still having bodies' perspective, I can think of a few reasons why what you suggest probably won't happen.

They're mostly boring reasons, unfortunately:
1) Pensions - and greying populations (and surely there won't be quite enough work for fit and healthy 156 year-olds?);
2) Land use (food production, living space etc);
3) Dave at the office has today decided to change his nose and his hair and is now two feet taller 'cos he fancied a change AND HE'S WEARING A SUIT (with trousers that are now far too short for him). In short, no-one recognises Dave.

Others have already commented on how important clothes and the 'user interface' are to our relationships. I guess we could learn to recognise different people from their eyes, or their gait (I'm told people in clean-rooms learn this). In short, we might guess, but we can not comprehend what things would have to be like, for us to like a partner who kept changing their appearance, for example. But perhaps, if you take it as read that we have learnt to relate to each other as souls, then all your points are accurate. Or, we will all realise that the book's contents are far more beautiful than the cover, and so we will all be floating balls of coloured energy, or something else we've probably seen on Star Trek.

In the interim, however, I believe that people are changing themselves towards a norm - a perceived type of 'beauty' that I do not consider to be that beautiful. Ho hum.


5:39 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger Andy said...

Excellent article. Thank you for reposting it, as I only fell upon it now. I've recently been reevaluating my reasons for certain political beliefs, and this post dovetails in very nicely. For example, I supported capitalism for the longest time simply because of the reality that centralized systems fail to work effectively. I've come to realize that even in a vacuum, capitalism would still be preferable because it is intrinsically more free than any other system. A transaction will only occur if it benefits both parties.

Similarly, until reading this essay I had a bias against body modification. No longer. All -isms aside, a person will not pursue body modification unless they feel they benefit from it in some way. Not only will individuals be more free, but they should carry society to some sort of local maxima. Moreover, viewed in this way it seems deeply wrong to stigmatize body modification in some vain attempt to prevent racism or sexism. If a person is placed in a body which is the target of discrimination, and body modification can in some way alleviate that, who are we to deny the person that modification?

6:12 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger bjkeefe said...

Dear Steve --

Great post, and I very much look forward to the provocative ideas promised for the next one.

I was going to reply at length, but reading the comments (in the interest of avoiding repetition) has worn me out, so I'll just keep it to the proverbial $0.02:

1. It's your body, and you can do what you like with it. As for mine: despite my agnosticism, I continue to hold with an idea that I read as kid, in a biography of Geronimo: the Great Spirit prefers to see the scars when the warrior moves to the next Hunting Grounds. Just my own little hang-up, I concede.

This mostly applies to the idea of cosmetic surgery, now that I think about it. I'd be okay with real improvements to failing meat.

2. I agree with lahosken: people who talk about their body modifications too much are killingly dull.

3. Longer essays are, quite often, better essays. I thank you for taking the time, Steve, in this and other of your writings. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but complex ideas don't fit on bumper stickers. And besides, I'd rather have the choice to break off on something that doesn't hold my attention than I would to be left wishing for more. One potato chip is torment.

Okay, so that was more like $0.03.

8:55 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

There's something I don't like about the idea of your post, and I'm not sure what it is.

I guess it's this: I don't believe in the Soul, but I do believe in the Self. A human being is the sum of its parts, and humanity is the sum of all the human selves. Combine that with a fairly low opinion I have of an average human: as you say, people are sheep :) I don't think if every human had freedom to change him or herself, I have a very strong feeling that in the end humanity would be worse off than in the beginning.

10:19 PM, August 23, 2006  
Blogger brent said...

Drew -

I think we are arguing past each other a little bit here... It is not my position that people should not be free to change their bodies. I think not allowing people the right to do what they want to themselves is wrong.

But I am saying that radical body change would be socially disruptive. The prospect of disruption makes people uncomfortable. When people are uncomfortable, they label the source of their discomfort in some negative way. It's not that they're closed-minded, it's that they prefer things to be not disruptive. I think that this is more understandable than some people are admitting. That was the original point I wanted to make. Some people in this discussion seem a little flabbergasted and angry about people who may not like this. I think that the reluctance is rational, understandable, and based on assumptions that are at least as reasonable as Steve's, and I don't think that people should get all bent out of shape about it if somebody says they don't like it. It doesn't help anything.

However, I've been drawn into a discussion that's more about my assumptions themselves, so maybe I should try to come at this from a different angle. Let's say in 200 years from now that radical body modification is cheap and easy and socially acceptable. I still don't think that people are going to decide what body they want to wear that day. Because bodies (or whatever type of interface you choose) are so closely tied to identity, we won't want to change them so often. We'll want to choose an identity and stick with it for awhile, maybe forever, just like we do now. How many people do you really think want to learn how to be somebody new every day, or even once a week? I don't think you could do it. You would end up with no identity at all.

This is why I object to drawing an analogy between clothes and bodies. It's much easier (psychologically) to change clothes every day than to change identities, even if they require the same amount of effort some day.

Incidentally, could you imagine how long you'd have to wait for a woman to pick out a suitable body before she went out for the evening? Egad!

Anyway, here are a few ways I see most people using this kind of technology:

1. Using it the same way they already do - to get an "improved" version of the body they already have. I use quotes because I usually think that people come out looking worse than they did before. But that's probably just a matter of improving the technology. Plus, I just don't like the feel of fake breasts. But I digress.

2. Teenagers will want to try out new bodies the same way they try out new identities now. Think Sandy in Grease.

3. Adults may want to have different bodies for different kinds of occasions. Perhaps it's seen as rude to sport a tail at a wedding, but not at a bar. So, I can see people ending up with a few bodies that they use regularly. However, I think that there has to be some sort of similarity between them, to avoid things like fragmented identities or split personalities.

I hope that is enough to banish the perception that I am in any way "against" body modification. Honestly, I don't think most people would have a problem with this if it was presented in a way that respected the body-identity connection, and treated it as though it were a semi-permanent thing. Saying that bodies will be like clothes or moods, and people will change them at the slightest whim, worries people. They feel like identities shouldn't change because of whims. And rightly so, IMO.

7:24 AM, August 24, 2006  
Blogger Faith Sampson said...

You know, I really love the way that you articulate yourself here, but I cannot feel that I completely agree with any of you. I see my body as a temple for my spirit, and as something that is intrinsically connected to it. The two together are my soul. Yes, I know that this is a religous belief, but religion is part of our American Heritage just as much as liberty and rebellion, so I hope you won't mind.

Because of this feeling, there are some changes that I percieve as 'acceptable' and others that I percieve as 'not'. Most of them seem logically based to me. I feel that a person should always have two eyes, two ears and a nose. Two arms, not four, two legs, not three, et cetera. The really bizarre changes are cut out. However, I have noting against changes; especially those made for medicinal purposes, or for the purpose of removing disfiguring birthmarks or improving eyesight or something like that.

I personally don't go in for a lot of stuff like that, but that is just me. I like my hair color, am afraid to get cancer form tanning (I am extremely white, like unto a ghost), prefer excersize and a healthy lifestyle to lyposuction, and as for breast implants or such things... eeew! I just don't like the idea of that. Likewise botox.

One more thing: The people who do these alterations to themselves often are doing no favor for themselves. Have you ever seen a woman whose face was out of style? ik. Just the other day on some beauty pagent or something, there was this woman whose face was really in style like ten years ago. She looked like the mother of the gum-chewing kid on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" or the evil development planner on "Over the Hedge" or something. You know the type. Her face is chiche. Now, that must be embarrasing. That is going to be a major effect of this stuff getting so popular; you can't just do it once or you are gonna be out of style in a few years when everyone has had their cheekbones lifted and thir noses tweaked, their lips filled and has perfected that pouty look. Beauty is, after all, valuable because of scarcity. When the critical mass is past, a certain type of beauty is not quite so desirable anymore. We value the rare. To me, that is the biggest argument for the stupidity of all of this.
I am not drop-dead gorgeous, not even on my best day. But I am unique, and I don't know anyone, family excluded who looks like me. Unless I become a famous model and everyone starts copying my look-- unlikely to the point of being laughable-- my face will never be cliche.

8:50 AM, August 24, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

"Because of this feeling, there are some changes that I percieve as 'acceptable' and others that I percieve as 'not'. Most of them seem logically based to me. I feel that a person should always have two eyes, two ears and a nose. Two arms, not four, two legs, not three, et cetera. The really bizarre changes are cut out. However, I have noting against changes; especially those made for medicinal purposes, or for the purpose of removing disfiguring birthmarks or improving eyesight or something like that."

I'd encourage you to question why the distinction lies where it does for you, because this is likely to become a significant social issue. Would you consider it acceptable to have lazer eye surgery to enhance your vision beyond the average human capacity of 20/20? What about beyond the capacity of human possibility? Experiments have and are being done to give sight to the blind by interfacing a camera to the optic nerve. While rudamentary now, I can guarantee you that there will come a time when those thus modified have visual capability significantly beyond natural eyesight. Would you consider it 'acceptable' for a sighted person to have the procedure done?

Similar scenarios are likely for nearly any part of the human body, including the brain.

I imagine that there are many with similar opinions and mores, but I also predict that each successive generation will have an increasingly accepting view of the body modifications, and indeed personal modifications, that are possible as they grow up.

I've written a longer response to this post on my blog:

11:27 AM, August 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think most of the commenters would better understand Steve's point if they were familiar with Ghost in the Shell. Read it or watch it, read some commentary on it on the web, and then reread Steve's post and I think you will have a better understanding of what he is (trying) to say.

7:48 AM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger Elliot said...


Yeah, most people don't get it. That doesn't mean you've failed. If any people do get the issue, who didn't before, that is a great thing. Parochialism -- mistaking a feature of one's own life for something universal -- is a very difficult error to correct, and must be present in all of us to some degree.

You say you thought people would get it because they use computers, are familiar with similar books and movies, and so on. However, people are all different. They only act the same when some powerful force causes it (memes, conformity, logic of situation, etc). The rest of the time, their differences come out. Getting a new idea across the differences between people is not simple. Underestimating that difficulty can make what is rightly a victory appear as a defeat. Don't despair, Steve. You write well and it does help people.

8:28 AM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger Sean said...

I think I will keep it short.

Methinks someone has read too much Plato (Analogy of the divided line, Metaphor of the sun, Allegory of the cave).

Abstraction run amok.

8:44 AM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger brent said...

Ach, the arrogance!

I am not convinced that anybody that has posted in this thread "doesn't get it", even the ones that Steve is upset with. If people disagree, does that mean they don't understand? I think we have to leave room for legitimate differences of opinion without maligning others' comprehension.

Let's take Angus, for example, whom Steve seemed fairly upset with. He was accused of not understanding the point of the article at all. I don't think this is the case. Steve says himself, that his "main points" were that gender and race will become obsolete. Angus objects that this would be an odd thing to happen, since many body modifications are predicated on things like sexism and racism. And Steve says he didn't understand? What, exactly, did he fail to comprehend? I think the problem is that he didn't agree.

Many people are acting like these ideas are new. They are not anything of the sort! Worldviews based on a mind/body dualism have existed for thousands and thousands of years. I happen to think they are wrong. Does that mean I don't understand them? Absolutely not.

Please, please try to distinguish between legitimate disagreement and failure to understand.

11:34 AM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger brent said...

Just to be clear, I am unsure about Angus' claim that sexism and racism are motivators for cosmetic surgery. But, that has nothing to do with his understanding of the article.

11:40 AM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger Carlos said...

I think of it this way:

In every other aspect of life, we say "you can be so much more than what you were born into!" That should be extended to the body, as well.

11:32 PM, August 25, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve, I apologise if my original comment caused any distress, that was not my intention. At no point did I in any way suggest that people should necessarily be forbidden from doing whatever they want to their bodies. I was just making the point that people are born unique, and don't need to change anything to be themselves.

Now it appears that you aren't talking about cosmetic surgery as it exists now, but have instead developed some science fiction utopia - no doubt on the cusp of a Vingean singularity - in which people can change their bodies whenever they want, without consequence. This is such a popular idea in contempory SF that's it's fast becoming a cliche, but I can accept its explanatory power.

Well, hey, guess what? If such a thing were possible then of course we'd change our bodies all the time! And it would be sheepish of me to oppose it. But it aint so, mate. Cosmetic surgery is not without consequence, it can be dangerous. Surgery of any kind is not something to enter into lightly, and I think it was reasonable of me to point out that the motivations people have for pursuing these modifications aren't always in their own best interests.

For example: it's legal to smoke tobacco - and I did so for many years - but that doesn't mean it's a sensible thing to do. In fact it was downright stupid of me and I suspect my lungs will never fully recover from the damage I did to them. I still think people should be allowed to smoke, but I also think I have the right to call them idiots for doing it, too.

Permitting a general class of activity does not mean that we should be afraid to criticise specific instances of that activity. This is called skepticism, and I believe it is the kind of attitude you were asking us to adopt.

12:07 PM, August 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The attitude that is setting people off, I think, is when people re-frame the discussion from

"how do diff how should people understand change"


some emotionally charged popular contemporary issue.

Like plastic surgery. Some people want to debate plastic surgery today. Others want to debate why some individuals want change but societies do not.

Narrowing the discussion inward to the contemporary is frustrating because the answers have more to do with immediate cultural problems than philosophic ones.

For instance, if I wanted to discuss the future of computers, it would be frustrating to me if people expounded the virtues of Linux. I would rather discuss issues like "what would a better file system look like? Why do I need both a database and a FS?" or "when multiprocessors are the rule rather than the exception, how will this change the home PC OS? How will this change how applications are written? Processes scheduled?" etc.

Narrowing the discussion to pet issues suggests that the poster does not want to discuss the larger, philosophic issue. Because they choose to ignore it? Because they do not understand it? Because they think it's trivial? I don't know. But I do know that it's frustrating to me.

Brent: Good call on the disruption idea.

Tinjaw: YES! I was hoping somebody not me would mention GitS!

2:16 PM, August 26, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Monsieur Yegge,

Once more, an awesome and thought-provoking post. I'm glad I could finally read it! I got about half-way through it one night before deciding that I couldn't retain any sentence I just read. Much to my disappointment, it was gone by morning.

(Now seems like the opportune time for some nice blanket statements which I'll make regardless of only having made it through about 1/3 of the comments!)

However, while reading the comments I could see why you took it down. Too many people spouting stuff about how they're against plastic surgery because it's anti-women or something. So it turns out that they entirely miss the point and resort to a shallow example that was provided -- common stuff today, like breast and nose jobs. I found this particular quote of yours quite enlightening, so I'm TOTALLY keeping it:

"Ideas imply change, and that means some old ideas (such as that you ARE black or white, as opposed to HAVING black or white skin as a mutable property) have to give way to new ones."

Yet AFTER this comment people keep saying things that make it painfully clear that they don't see the forest for the, trees. Rather, they see the words "plastic surgery" strung together and start harping in whatever speech has been embedded into their brains as their opinion without realizing it's just a social fashion. In the grand flow of things, body image, trends, scientific viewpoints, essentially everything comes and goes; what seems an atrocity now can become a norm and vice versa. Profoundly and interestingly, by holding this viewpoint (well, ANY view for that matter) I am also conforming to some mindset or other. I've been saying this for years, but the people who've sat through my rants still reply to it with brain damaging words such as: "and on that note, what's the deal with Dr. Phil? Always telling kids and parents to TALK! Parents should just leave us alone!" Though I suppose that's what I get for trying to be philosophical on a discussion forum comprised mostly of teenagers (the internet is a marvelous place that can seem filled disproportionately with idiocy; I still seem to give it the benefit of the doubt).

In my mind there are also tie-ins to George Orwell's remarkable essay . Though that's more to do with language instead of bodies. Go figure. I am painfully reminded of this essay whenever I write and use some common expressions, even when they seem mundane or perfectly acceptable. But I digress; I still have one more boring thing to get to on this downward journey through my writing. Without further ado:

To sound overly...lame and anticlimactic...reading the comments also reminded me of a Men In Black quote.

"1500 years ago, everybody 'knew' that the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody 'knew' that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you 'knew' that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll 'know' tomorrow."

Segues and well-rounded conclusions aside...I doubt anything in this comment has added much to the discussion, but at least it didn't turn out as overly pointless/redundant/whatever as I had feared. It still may be any of those, just not to the great extent I anticipated. Just thought I'd point out how much I liked the post and the depth to it. With my luck I'm sure I'll probably have missed the point completely, but that's my own sheep mentality for you I guess.

Have a good day (no fuck that - have a good LIFE),


2:49 PM, August 26, 2006  
Blogger Scott Hanselman said...

Steve, you ever read Altered Carbon? The concept of "sleeves" fits directly into your point. Do check it out.

12:36 PM, August 27, 2006  
Blogger Agathe said...

Random thoughts:

1. The human brain is tuned to make fast decisions. Not good or objective or error-free decisions, but fast ones. I would suspect this is why beautiful people get a better treatement in our societies. This holds under several cascading and ruling assumptions that: a. people HAVE to interact physically with other people, and b. there are NEEDS (if only for reproduction purposes) to evaluate, assess the quality of another person, and c. physical appearances are good metrics of the genetic quality of individuals.

How could we design a society where physical embodiements do not matter? Stevey's vision is a good answer to that. Everybody can freely change his body: what you see is not what you got genetically, which is a problem for a healthy society. Other answers could also be that you do not have to interact with people, at least not physically, or that you can project to people anykind of body you want, maybe different ones for different identities. But still then, how do we make our opinion about a person?

2. Stevey: Don't get pissed at people who do not get your non-technical, provoking ideas. Talking about social trends, or just human things in general is no science. There is no right answer. History is the best example of it. Contrary to maybe computers or math, there are no universal truths about anything in social sciences. It's your right to be arrogant at people when they don't get a mathematical demonstration. It's a symptom of fanatism shutting people off when they don't get your theories on life. Have you ever been to a social science conference? For the speakers, every word counts and greatly matters. That's why they do not talk from the top of their head, but prepare carefully their talk, to avoid what you may have experienced here with the commenters. Write a book, it may be an easier way to get your idea through without having to be that careful. Plus, whereas maybe not everybody can have an opinion about a hack or a math theory, anybody can have an opinion about human or life theories, because it's much easier - we are all witnesses of our times.

3. Keep going :-D

3:41 PM, August 27, 2006  
Blogger Joseph said...

Maybe we can turn this around and think of clothes (or property in general) as part of one's body. That makes the common distinction between "property rights" and "human rights" meaningless.

10:34 AM, August 30, 2006  
Blogger Fabien said...

my (darwiniwan) guess about tabooness of improvement surgery:

we're attracted by beautiful people because they seem to be better genitors; bragging about the artificiality of your beauty would be admitting that your genes are not as good as it seems. That would be defeating the main purpose of looking attractive.

Body improvements become more acceptible with time, as we get confident that they'll be safely available to your descendants as well. For instance, a couple of centuries ago, being short sighted was certainly considered as something serious, and people probably sought twice before breeding with a short-sighted mate. Today it's not a problem, because we know we're likely to get short-sighted children, but we're confident that children's short-sightedness will be easily fixed.

We're not [yet] confident enough that our children will be able to fix an ugly nose or a flat butt, whereas it seems that US people are now confident about boobjob feasability.

2:11 AM, September 01, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Steve your post was interesting especially because of the reactions it precipitated. As I can see, this issue of body modification as taboo and the penetration of new ideas in general will always be with us. The frontiers will just shift with time. It wasn't so long ago that some people were squeamish about organ transplant. Now plastic surgery is becoming widespread and as techniques improve mankind will succumb to our its need for complete to control over its environment and its own body.

These ideas seem radical now but in 200 years they will be passe.
I'm not saying I'm completely comfortable with all of these developments, but I am able to take a step back acknowledge that this is all just a continuation of a process man has been driving since we first stood erect.

Keep posting yours ideas and thoughts. Even if some disagree with your sentiments, at least they are thought provoking and well thought out.

6:52 PM, September 02, 2006  
Blogger Andreas Krey said...

Interesting world where hardware is (or should be) patchable, and software isn't (or shouldn't).

Steve, what makes you think that the soul is any less arbitrary than the body?

4:28 PM, September 04, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Stevey,
I enjoy your work. On this last one, I think it's possible you've missed something -- at a minimum the good reasons people might have for disagreeing.

I like sci-fi (SF) as much (okay more) than the next, and agree, at some point (I think probably further off than 100 years) bodies will be much more modifiable, maybe even swappable etc. Fine and super. Minds too.

I would assert, however, that that has very little to do with plastic surgery today. There are a number of things I don't like about cosmetic plastic surgery. A big problem is the non-trivial risk is down-played, both in the operation and in terms of side effects. But for me a bigger one is that it essentially opens up a beauty arms race, where now people require money and significant risk-taking in order to keep up. I also think it is an obvious avenue of manipulation. Will it really be a good thing if your child has to get an operation, rather buy the latest 'in' brand, to avoid being a social outcast? There's a nasty interplay between fashion and beauty.

I've watched in the last few years how companies have incredibly successfully targeted men to spend money on beauty items. Twenty years ago hair gel for men would have been mocked, now shaving everywhere is being pushed, make-up is probably coming too. I, personally, think it's a bad thing -- I don't want to have to spend my time and money just to keep up -- I don't want to be pulled into such an arms race.

I think mockery and disdain are legitimate weapons to fight back against it (because you're right, biology is pushing it, and that's a tough one to argue with!) Presumably this mockery and disdain adds to the taboo. (And in fact, I would posit it's more embarassment than taboo.)

I have to admit I'm sometimes torn. If someone has tried and tried to get the shape they want, and they don't succeed, and they get liposuction, and that makes them happy, I'm happy for them. On the other, augmentation seems to sometimes run wild, like a dysfunctional peacock's tail.

Perhaps when changes are trivial to obtain, and thus widespread, a new equilibrium will set in, where quirk and style will be more valued than how tan/large breasted/cut you are. (Kinda like if they gave away designer clothes to everyone...) But it's the transition time, which we're in, which is questionable and ugly.

One final note -- I think some of the disdain can come from a feeling of misplaced priorities. By getting, say, a boob-job, the person is saying how important their appearance is to them. Compared to other things they spend their time and money on, you get an idea of what is important for them. And you judge them by it.

7:46 AM, September 05, 2006  
Blogger Rich said...

"Clothes for the Soul" has some interesting parallels to Paul Graham's What you can't say

9:06 PM, September 05, 2006  
Blogger Chris said...

I really liked the post, mostly because it was personal, and was surprised when it went down, but I hadn't read the comments.

On another note, something on your blog makes only the 10 or 12 most recent posts come up on your "Previous Posts" section in the right column on all pages. This means there is no link to posts before this time, since there doesn't seem to be a good archive section.

Other blogger blogs display the posts preceding the one being viewed. Could you re-enable this feature? There are a couple of posts between when you started the blog and the most recent visible post that I would like to (re)read.

9:47 PM, September 05, 2006  
Blogger Ryan said...


12:06 AM, September 08, 2006  
Blogger Derek said...

Sorry, I didn't read all the posts, so I might be repeating what others have said.

Maybe, in the far future when modifications are trivial, people who avoid any modifications altogether will be seen as hardy non-conformists. Maybe they will be admired for their uniqueness and fortitude.

9:19 AM, September 27, 2006  
Blogger Clayton said...

[late comment, probably won't get read, etc. etc.]

There's an interesting corollary, I think, which is that as more aspects of appearance become subject to choice, it becomes more valid to make judgements based on them. To reduce to the most obvious case: if we all have to wear a uniform, I can't claim that you have bad fashion sense; if you chose your clothes, I can infer something about you from that choice.

So while sexism and racism reduce to something like pants-ism, they also gain a degree of validity! If, in our hypothetical future, I could chose any racial appearance I want, then being, e.g., white would reflect something about my personality. White versus Black (inasmuch as such categories would be visible in a more varied future) becomes something more like punks versus mods.

3:34 PM, September 27, 2006  
Blogger standgale said...

To start my comment, I shall point out that I am a woman. Good. And what would I do if the body was fully customisable? Sometimes I would want bigger boobs, like to make my clothes look better or cos I want to look sexy. Then I might want smaller ones once that got annoying and I wanted to do lots of sport or be inconspicuous. I can never decide which is best. Sometimes I would want dark skin, because I see so many gorgeous black skinned people that are the most beautiful women I've seen. Other times I would rather go for the pale skin Irish look - like I have a bit of but more so. Sometimes I want more freckles, like tonnes, that would be cool. Redder hair, or black hair might be good. Definitely thicker and longer hair - that's what I would change and never go back (although then I could cut it like normal too - awesome). The most radical change I could make would be that I reckon blue skin and blue hair would be awesome. Go SF movies.

So, with regards to some comments made here, I think people are wrong when they say: changes would/are only made to impress others, that they are only made by women who want to be sexier, that wanting to be sexier is bad, that all changes would/are purely fashion based. I would say it is true however that my desired changes are based on what I see around me, they definitely are - otherwise how would I know what I want?

The body would be just like clothes, as you say, and I guess that some people (most people?) would either ignore the opportunities or stress over the fashions, but for other people it would be so much fun!! Just like with clothes. Nothing would have actually changed in fact.

The only reason I wouldn't get plastic surgery now, is that the cost and inconvenience doesn't seem worth it when I will either not care about it 2 days later, being interested in something else by then, and I will no doubt keep changing my mind back and forth as my mood changes. So I can easily see the body being the clothes of the future.

After Note: Maybe we could all become shape shifters and the amount of body changebility would be dependent on skill - that might even up the economic disparities a bit.

1:22 PM, October 05, 2006  
Blogger kaldrenon said...

Once again I enter the comment field of a Stevey post many months behind the game. But I'll add my thoughts to the thread so that future readers will know that some whacko college Freshman was here and thought about stuff.

A bunch of people have reacted negatively to your entry on the grounds that personal physical alteration should be regarded as less than admirable because changing one's body implies that one is unhappy with how one looks.

I'm absolutely certain that a large number of the modification people pay for these days ARE for that reason, and I think that's a depressing fact and I agree with their disdain for it. But I suspect that they miss your point. Let me see if I've caught on.

What you suggest here is that technology can (and will) reach a point at which physical alteration is a mundane, inexpensive, everyday process, much like wardrobe changes today. When that point is reached, people won't need important reasons to change their appearance, such as "I hate how I look," or "This will make more guys like me." A person's physical appearance won't have the significance it does today, by direct result of no longer having the permanence it does today.

Does that come close to the point you were making?

2:22 PM, July 16, 2007  

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