Magazine November 2, 2015, Issue

Not in Our Stars but in Ourselves

Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray (http://wwno.org)
Of Peeple and people

Gather around the campfire, friends, while I tell the latest fearsome tale of the wilds of Silicon Valley. It’s the story of two youngish, bright-eyed women — Julia Cordray, a “bubbly, no-holds-barred ‘trendy lady,’” as the Washington Post called her, and Nicole McCullough, a beaming mother of two — with ambition seeping through their pores.

They may look innocent, these two — cheerfully filming themselves as they weave through painful-looking “tech entrepreneur” cocktail events, earnestly self-promoting on various websites, gamely handing out business cards to shady characters who loiter on the streets of San Jose — but lo, they leave a trail of destruction in their wake.

Well, at least they did for one brief, shining moment, when the news of their forthcoming app, Peeple, hit the press. Peeple, as Cordray told the Washington Post, was basically Yelp for human beings. If you’re not familiar with Yelp, it’s a service that allows users to rank businesses on a scale of one to five stars and post snarky critiques to boot.

On Yelp, there are even reviews of national parks. Here’s a two-star review of the Grand Canyon: “As amazing as the views are it is really kind of boring. Every 500 ft a new vantage point of the same thing: A really big hole in the ground.” Yellowstone National Park: “Once you’ve seen one [geyser], you’ve seen them all.” Yosemite National Park, where the rocky face of El Capitan surges above a verdant valley like a ladder to God: “One time, at Yosemite, I had to go to the bathroom, and it was gross.” And another on Yosemite: “How about you cut down the surrounding burned trees and make another parking lot or five.”

Now imagine this service applied to you, a living being with a heart, a soul, occasional bad hair days, a few embarrassing driving moments, maybe a case of pinkeye — and don’t forget that time you had one too many margaritas at an office party and knocked over a twelve-foot potted palm and a bunch of those corporate Lucite trophies.

As the news of Peeple scuttled, lightning-quick, through the tubes of the Internet, the world drew back united in horror. Peeple was “terrifying,” noted the Washington Post. The San Jose Mercury News called it a “bullying-facilitation” app. “If you have been waiting for the one invention that would make hating the 21st century seem the only reasonable position,” David Rutter wrote at the Chicago Tribune, “we have found it.”

Faced with the wrath of the tech community and pretty much everyone else on earth, Cordray and McCullough — who claim to have raised half a million dollars in startup funds — scrubbed their website. They ducked from the press. Peeple had always been about “positivity” only, Cordray insisted, perhaps forgetting about Peeple’s own promotional videos, in which she is the star. “Do they lie all the time? Are they narcissistic?” she asks the camera, referring to all the dreadful people in the world you can now carefully avoid, thanks to her app. “I wouldn’t want this app to just be positive. We don’t live in a fairy-tale land.”

In short, Cordray was publicly shamed for her app that promoted public shaming. As a result, Peeple, despite its sordid past, will now reportedly be purely “positive.” Our short national nightmare is over.

The global flurry of Peeple opprobrium did not, of course, stop Cordray from uttering what might be the most “Silicon Valley” remark ever uttered: “With any new concept there is naturally fear,” she told the tech website Motherboard. “When the people found out that the Earth was round instead of flat and that we revolved around the Sun instead of the Sun revolving around us, naturally people were upset and confused and they pushed back with all that they had.”

Yes, that must be it: People are simply afraid of the next great turning point for humanity. Thousands of years of human civilization, driven forward by man’s relentless drive — the Sumerians and the wheel; Genghis Khan and his savage conquests; the industrial revolution; the splitting of the atom; the first space flight — all leading to an app on a glowing iPhone that allows you, finally, to tell the whole town (no, the whole world!) that Margot and Becky just ate all your tortilla chips at Chi Chi’s. One star.

But, analogies to Copernicus aside, perhaps Cordray was on to something. The alarm and loathing surrounding Peeple can’t just have been about the five-star rating system and public comments. After all, similar things already exist: “Likes” on personal Instagram accounts, Facebook photos of parties to which you weren’t invited, crazed comments from anonymous strangers on Twitter.

The true dark side of Peeple, in fact, might come from its brazen, forward embrace of an uncomfortable truth: More and more, in modern society, people are treated as commodities. “People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions,” Cordray told the press. “Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?” We all “deserve,” she argued, “to be around the best of the best.”

There you have it: people as product. Begone, divine spark! The commodification of people, obviously, is nothing new. Genghis Khan, the aforementioned free-spirited conqueror, had a father who literally kidnapped his mother. The world has known slavery for thousands of years. Marxist theorists, meanwhile, could have a field day with Peeple: Marx often discussed the commodification of social relations, ideas, and beliefs, but at the hands of a craven capitalist superstructure, not our sometimes strange, sometimes endearing compulsion to post artsy photos of Taco Tuesday on the Internet. This makes it all the more ironic, perhaps, that these days, at least in the West, most of our human-commodification efforts seem to originate from the home of many Marxist sympathizers — that is, the cultural Left.

You can see it in family structure: Last month, the Internet went abuzz with the story of a five-person family in the Netherlands eagerly awaiting their first baby. In an interview, each of the “parents” talks about what’s in it for him or her — traveling convenience, parental leave, “equal rights” of access to the child. The child, meanwhile, floats quietly between the lines, like a new toy or a product with no needs. In the U.S., California passed a law in 2013 allowing for multiple-parent families; several other states allow for three-parent families. Let the baby-shopping begin.

But not too much baby-shopping, please. Those who worry about global warming for a living are busy hectoring the public to limit their procreation. In this view, people are a product that consumes far too much — a sentient gas-guzzler with self-replicating DNA. One professor, S. Matthew Liao, director of the Bioethics Program at New York University, recently went beyond the tired, 1970s-style warning that couples should have only one child. He got creative: Rather than try to shrink the number of people on Earth, we should just try to shrink people through genetic engineering. Hey, car companies do it to meet government fuel-efficiency standards. Why can’t people do it, too?

The answer should be obvious: Human beings aren’t just bodies, and we are not products or commodities. We’re spiritual beings with inherent value, regardless of our earthly shell. Many believe that we’re also the beloved children of God. But as history has shown, we’re also a pretty kooky bunch, and we fall repeatedly for the same old bad ideas. The commodification of other people — and, these days, even ourselves — is just one of them. Be sure to add that to your review of humanity on Peeple, please. Three point five stars!

– Heather Wilhelm is a senior contributor to the Federalist and a weekly columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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