Lexicon Valley

Why Do People Keep Talking and Joking About Humans?

People dressed as robots at the Halloween Carnaval on Oct. 31, 2015, in West Hollywood, California.

David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

If you have a favorite human, the latest in GIF technology now allows you to let him or her know it in no uncertain terms. The “YOU ARE MY FAVORITE HUMAN” GIF delivers an all-caps message that shimmers over a disembodied alien head in stars. Meanwhile, the Wonka expresses the same sentiment, but for candy-tycoon-weirdo fans. In the physical realm, there are “favorite human” cutoff tank tops; you can also purchase “favorite human” mugs, greeting cards, and onesies, some of which are accented with aliens, hearts, and space-traveling cats to give your feelings some pizzazz.

Such webanalia constitutes just one new use of humans among us. Nowadays, referring to a person as a human in the singular and to people as humans is spreading in popularity and into various conversational realms. I don’t have the anthropological studies to verify this phenomenon, but the cool kids around me keep wielding human as a term of endearment, in the “favorite human” sense, and they’re also using it to mimic the perspective of their pets, as in, my sweet tabby Lorenzo thinks I’m his human.

Every person who has ever uttered bleep bloop has known the pleasure of imagining themselves as a robot. Part of the fun is thinking about humans as a foreign species, one lower and weaker than your own. Poor little human. So feeble, so bogged down with emotions and technical flaws. This is classic stuff—allusive to Isaac Asimov and Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and more—and referring to a human or humans in the second- and third-person is key to the game. But with artificial intelligence finally interacting with us in the form of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, robo-homo relations have crossed a new frontier.

The internet is probably inspiring more human use than any robot, though. Some people have grown fond of calling themselves or others human to acknowledge or scorn feelings of, well, inhumanity that can plague a life online. Get offline and be a human, the smugs chide. I finally went outside today, I had to feel like a human, honest people confess. I met someone in the meatspace Monday and remembered I am actually a human—OK, I made this one up. No one has met a human in the flesh in five years.

Life online is wondrous, but it can also feel cold, remote, and yes, alien. As the internet, smartphones, and A.I. have invaded more and more human hours and days, it’s only natural that we are using human to acknowledge and reckon with people as a species apart from this rapidly ubiquitous technology, and that we’re reaching for a word that emphasizes our physicality and biology. (It’s an instinct behind the trend toward natural, organic, handmade, artisanal everything, too.) The joke nods at our simultaneous familiarity with digital life—a new thing—and estrangement from what’s elemental, a very old thing. This astonishment at biology is funny; comedian John Hodgman uses it when he discusses his “human children.” I’m 30, people around me keep procreating, and some refer to their offspring as “human babies.” This always makes me laugh; it’s either acknowledging that this little baby is a bizarre creature that may as well be a robot or a monster or an alien, or it’s self-deprecating, hinting that we’re just normal folks living digital lives, and oh right, it’s the human baby that’s earthly and uncorrupted by technology. A human, how strange.

Thinking about people specifically as humans seems less and less strange all the time, in part because popular culture now bombards us with fantastical fiction wherein human beings either become or face superhumans. Religion and myths have long familiarized people with the idea that gods or other more powerful, more intelligent beings may be out there. But for the past decade and a half, superhero films from Marvel and DC, supernatural television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Stranger Things, and transmedia fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have become uniquely pervasive. It’s a cliché to note that these stories are no longer the province of “nerds” and “geeks,” but it’s true; Americans, at least, have grown comfortable seeing themselves under threat from superhumans, or at least condescended to by them. Some Silicon Valley mutants have grown so comfortable with the idea that they’re leaning into transcending the species and trying to live forever. But it’s Hogwarts, not Silicon Valley, that’s the leader here. It’s possible that no series did more to normalize the human-superhuman divide than Harry Potter, which famously classified nonwizards as muggles. The broad cultural familiarity with muggle instilled generations of Potter fans with an idea that people are lowly humans without special powers and lesser-than, and that two appropriate responses to this hierarchy were either a Slytherian attitude of contempt or a Weasleyesque pitying admiration for all that muggles can do with their limited abilities. People don’t just have favorite humans; they have favorite muggles.

Human proliferation hasn’t only taken off because we’re more aware of our limits, though. The word has also absorbed a meaning distinct from person. A person is a complex individual, a unique intelligent thing that can be dickish or awkward or generous or some combination thereof. A person has a personality, and he or she is different from other people. A human is a more basic, simple creature. A person is a product of culture and experience, but a human is a product of biology and evolution. Maybe feeling estranged from the physical and biological worlds has led a lot of people to decide that on some level, humans have more in common than people do. In an age of charged identity politics, that deeper connection also makes human a decidedly uncontroversial and accurate descriptor. Unlike man, a historically common synonym for humanity, human is gender-neutral. Depending on your social circle, calling someone your favorite man or favorite woman could be a little uncouth, right? But wherever you stand politically, you’re a sweetie for naming your favorite human.

Whether we’re referring to our favorite humans, scorning a puny human brain, or marveling at tiny human babies, this colloquial trend conjures a human as a simple, humble thing, either praiseworthy for its purity or pathetic in its limitations. In an era when we’re constantly in touch with more flawless, consistent, and powerful machines and creatures, it’s tough to forget the fact of our biological existence. Say what you will about humans; they have an analog charm. To call one another human is to assert that, for better or worse, the meatspace is where we belong.