I once spent a summer as an apprentice to an auto mechanic because I wanted to know how cars worked. Harvey was a high-school dropout and a delight to work with, a curly-bearded and effervescent guide to what I’d seen as the mysteries of mechanics. He was under no illusion that a car was anything but an assembly of component parts, or that it had any resemblance at all to a human being. He worked on autos; he didn’t identify with them. And he saw nothing hard about the jumble of multi-colored wires snaking throughout the engine compartment and the chassis. “Just follow the spaghetti,” he said, and he was right: it was usually just a matter of a loose connection.
Yet the idea of humans as being “hard-wired” persists. A headline in today’s Huffington Post reads “Experts say liberal and conservative brains are wired differently.” It could have said “think differently,” but then of course we’d see that it was merely stating the obvious. In fact a dismaying amount of psychological research appears to do just that, “proving” what we already know. So to make it feel “new” and “modern,” the HuffPo editors fell back on the “wired” meme, as though human minds were merely a network of automatic connections. Flip the switch, and off they go.
But what’s so new or modern about the wired meme? It’s downright odd that one of the leading tech magazines in this wireless age is still called Wired. Can they not come up with a better name?
As linguist George Lakoff pointed out in his book Metaphors We Live By, metaphors aren’t just for poets: they’re built into the language we use daily, and thus shape the way we think. So if you think of humans as wired, you’re more likely to assume that we’re just a bunch of reflexes. Press a certain point on the knee, and presto: it jerks.
The knee-jerk reflex works on many levels, but especially that of jerk. The “hard-wired” argument has been used by sociobiologists to explain a lot about men in particular, from sleeping around (“spreading their genes”) to fighting to “protect” their genes in the form of women and children. This argument, made by men, apparently sees men as Iron-Age remnants. Presumably those who then murder women and children, let alone other men, simply have faulty wiring, which goes no way at all to understanding the astounding nihilism of terrorists (uppermost in my mind today in the wake of the Brussels attacks). And besides, what does all this make women? Soft-wired?
It’s an easy fallacy (most fallacies are, which is why they’re so common). Think of humans as matters of cause and effect, and you imagine you can indeed just follow the spaghetti of wiring in order to fix whatever’s wrong. Such reductive materialism takes no account of the complex of personal, educational, social, economic, and political experiences that enable some people to tolerate uncertainty and doubt (or, like me, to revel in it), while others flee into the steely arms of certainty and conviction.
I’m certainly no fan of Jeffrey Goldberg (okay, I think he’s a pompous ass), but once you get past his inflated sense of self-importance, his long profile of Obama in the April issue of The Atlantic reveals a presidential mind wary of seemingly easy solutions, and fully conscious of the complexities of unintended consequences and of the limitations of brute power. Whoever the next president will be, I will miss Obama’s subtlety. One way or another, I’m afraid we all will.
Because as Harvey taught me, there’s nothing subtle about wiring.