I've never been a fan of the way that my parents have dealt with medical issues. Anything short of an emergency and they'll wait for it to go away by itself instead of seeing a doctor. Of course, they're not alone in this. Most of India is desperate to avoid the money pit that is the medical establishment.
I'm in the early years of taking charge of my own healthcare, and I decided that I would have a different approach. I would proactively consult doctors and follow their advice. Skepticism of the medical establishment was unscientific, and I intended to be the most scientific adult alive.
A few days ago, I had a high fever. The doctor, when I met him, gave me a medicine for constipation. I had a vague feeling that I didn't need medicine for digestive issues, but I didn't mention it. If the doctor thought it right, who was I to dispute it? It ended up causing severe diarrhea on top of a high fever. I had to be hospitalized the next day.
Asleep at the wheel
When I went to the doctor, I wasn't visiting another human. I was visiting science, and science told me to take the medicine. I had a slight inkling that perhaps I didn't need it, but determined to be scientific, I stayed quiet and took it.
During my hospitalization, I had gotten better on the third day, but the doctor said he would keep me a day longer. Note that every day in the hospital was a significant amount of money. Nobody was asking, 'Can you afford, financially speaking, to stay a day longer?' Nobody had asked, 'Do you feel like you want a medicine for the constipation?'
It was as though these were their decisions to make. Being a good patient meant obeying them without raising objections. The agency I had as a consumer who was purchasing a service was, in small, interpersonal ways, repeatedly undermined.
Of course, the issue here is that doctors don't represent science, at least not exclusively. They also represent capitalism. They're given the power to decide for patients on the basis of science. They can use it just as easily to influence the flow of capital.
While I was sick and for a while after, I was addicted to Reels. I watched them for hours. When the Instagram content dried out, I opened YouTube shorts. It was an apt metaphor for the experience of hospitalization: let them make all the decisions. You just lie down and watch.
As humans, we're all too eager to let someone else decide. Doctors can dictate our health. Priests can dictate our morals. Algorithms can dictate our entertainment. Bosses can dictate our labor. Politicians can dictate the country.
I think succumbing to these people (or technologies) takes away from the essence of what it is to live. If we're not here to make our own set of terrible decisions, what are we here to do? A friend of mine likes to repeat these lines from Pygmalion: "What is life but a series of inspired follies?"
There are a lot of powerful people interested in stripping away our power to make authentic decisions, especially as we get the power to influence the world, whether through capital or our vote. That can be an algorithm that's figured out how to keep me scrolling. It can be a doctor who leads me to believe that when I get discharged is his decision.
Erosion of Agency
This isn't just about the hospital episode for me. It's about tapping into all the ways in which my agency is eroded.
In the technological context, philosopher Soshana Zuboff lays this out clearly in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. She argues that what Big Tech is trying to do is far more insidious than capturing our time: they're trying to modify our behavior to suit their ends.
“The age of surveillance capitalism is a titanic struggle between capital and each one of us. It is a direct intervention into free will, an assault on human autonomy.”
Every time I open Instagram, I think about this point. I never wanted an electric toothbrush, but now I've seen so many Perfora ads that I'm very tempted to get one. Instagram, in this case, did not connect supply and demand. By keeping me addicted to the platform and repeatedly showing me the ads, it created demand in my mind.
This is the ideal user Instagram wants; someone who is perfectly malleable and has some disposable income. They can then mold and shape my desires and sell them to the highest bidder. For Instagram, a human with a strong sense of agency is not good for business.
I'm starting to realize that like Instagram, the adult world doesn't like it much when I exercise my agency. They don't like it if I ask too many questions, go to a protest, or refuse to participate in patriarchal tradition. They'll do anything they can to convince me I can't do those things.
I wonder if this is particularly a 20s thing to experience. We're just starting out in the adult world, but most people have been around for a while. They know how things work. It is up to us to come and claim space in this world, and we're entitled to much more of it than we're led to believe.
I don't want to look back and realize that I let powerful men take control of my life. I want to ask the doctor thousands of questions. I want to spend less time on the apps. I want to go to more protests. I want to be deeply in touch with the freedom I have in this world. It's hard to live this way, and I fail to do it on a daily basis, but I want to keep wanting to.
📖 What to read this week
I've been thinking about my parents' skepticism around modern medicine. I say this cautiously, but after experiencing hospitalization twice in recent years, I have some sympathy for their approach.
We might be taught to believe in Science, but it's not always in the spirit of science to believe whatever comes up on Google over our own experience. On the surface, this piece is about Flat Earthers who refuse to believe the Earth is round, but you'll find that it's about much more than that:
Most of us are content to passively swallow the harsh truth that the fundamental laws of the universe are too complicated to grasp without a graduate education in math. We trust that somewhere along the way, scientists smarter than we are actually did the calculations and got the right answers. The evidence is right there in our GPS satellites, our smart phones, our space station. I don’t need to check their work, we think. Not outsider physicists. They insist on figuring everything out for themselves, in ways they can understand. They are driven by the sense that their “own experience must be the starting point for [their] understanding of the world,” Wertheim wrote in her remarkably generous and empathetic book. So they come up with their own ideas, sometimes even designing and performing experiments to back them up.