Is the First Technological Question the Question of Nipples?

What kind of a machine is found by smell, in the dark? What kind of a machine turns blood into food? What kind of a machine works better unwashed? What kind of a machine gets darker when ready? What kind of a machine tingles, grows, consumes itself? What kind of a machine may be repaired with cold cabbage leaves or beer? What kind of a machine runs briefly while dead? What kind of a machine may start when a stranger cries? What kind of a machine do you suckle? What kind of a machine can’t be replicated? What kind of a machine seems sexual but mostly isn’t? What kind of sexual is food? What kind of a machine is a couple? What kind of a machine confounds the clock of capitalism but is itself a highly specific clock? What kind of a clock is a woman? What kind of a bleeding clock? 

What is a body? Is a body a project, a problem, a husk, a suit, a gift, an inheritance, an ecosystem, a performance, a house, a temple, an occasion, an equation, meat, a machine? Do bodies have knowledge? Why do poor people’s bodies look older than rich people’s bodies? Why do we think of bodies as singular? Why do once-birthing mothers remain biologically plural? Is female blood unsanitary, private? Is male blood heroic, public? What are breasts? What kinds of breasts are used to sell things and what do they sell? Are things better if they’ve been bought? Can money add value to any thing? Where are the nursemaids in the United States of America? Why are there gestational surrogates, but not nursemaids? Why is it better to get milk from a milk bank than from a nursemaid? Why do more workplaces accommodate pumping one’s milk with a branded machine than nursing one’s baby with a breast? 

What is work? Is alchemy work? Is care work? Can machines work? Why is typing while facing a screen in the context of an office seen, categorically, these days, as work? Why is ignoring a human to type while facing a screen seen, often, as being busy, with work? What is payment? What is worth? Why does payment with money denote worth? Why does payment with immaterial money, moved without touch, denote greater worth? Why do small children admire the work of “garbage men” so much? Why do they admire roofers and firefighters? Why do no small children want to grow up to be emailers? Why do so many small children grow up to be emailers? Why do we email each other on the same floor in the same building, where no one’s breasts are listed on a CV or at work?  

What do we live in (air, God, capitalism, nothing, our ancestors, a nation-state, the internet, a city), and is it physical? What is the physical? In what ways does technology mediate the physical? In what ways does technology promise escape from the physical? What is the relationship between generic public spaces and increased use of portals out of the physical? What is the relationship between generic design and particular branding? Is place passé, are bodies? Why did my college students seem to take the physical fact of weather personally? Why did the elementary school students so often describe the objects I collected for a nature table (pinecone, honeycomb, dried grass) as “dirty” and does that have to do with dirt? Why do we prefer to eat nature that’s been wrapped in plastic describing that nature? Why do we like to know quantifiable data (grams, percentages) about the nature we take into our bodies? 

What sort of touch would you experience as a peasant in the year 900 in the Kingdom of Burgundy on a windy day in June? What about any other peasant in any other pre-industrial place and year? How much more often did those humans pull, haul, squat, walk, sweat? Which senses did they use, when? Why do we rely chiefly on our eyes? What kind of touch is most common in 2021 in the United States of America? What do we touch most and is it alive? When the SARS-CoV-2 plague arrived, transmitted through air like other respiratory viruses, why did we so readily abandon shared surfaces and touch and pass out latex gloves? Why did my daughter’s oximeter go up in the NICU when I touched her? Why do sick babies get healthier when they’re stripped naked and placed skin-to-skin on a naked human, and why is this treatment named after animals? How much of nursing is touching (mouth, hands, legs, cheeks, feet, bottom, brow)? Why does the substance of nursing (milk) work better in the context of constant touch? Why does the baby want to put her fingers in my mouth while she nurses? Why does she want to put her hand in my armpit all the time? Why did I like to pick at her sister’s cradle cap? Why is it easier for me to close my eyes and trim her fingernails with my teeth while nursing than to cut them with my eyes open and a tool? How atavistic is this? Is there a relationship between a lack of touch and repeatedly touching portals to find moving images of naked people touching? 

Which of our actions in the year 2021 would be recognizable to an average troglodyte in a year that wasn’t counted like so? Eating, drinking, sex, excretion, reverence, song, birth, death? Why is breastfeeding, an activity that would make sense in a painted cave in the Cumberland Plateau, still performed by human bodies? Is that a market failure? Is that a failure of tech? Where are the pregnancy corporations, the body bodies? Can mother’s milk get outside of capitalism? 

What is milk? If fire is a technology (something that exists but, like horses, is harnessed), is milk one too? May milk go on the list of practical applications of knowledge before the first stone tool? Is milk a product, medicine, food, drink, metaphor, conversation, substance, sacrament, love potion, painkiller, liquid, commodity, gift, stimulant, relaxant, pollutant, rest, intelligence, thing? Why is formula (our imitation) called formula? What is the word for a substance that replies? Why does the milk a mother’s body makes in the morning promote alertness? Why does evening milk cause sleep? Why is the milk a mother produces for children of one sex different from that of another? Why is it different during acute or prolonged duress? Why are there antibodies in it? How does the baby’s suckle change the milk? Can this flux be made static? 

If our rain and milk have plastic in them, are they natural? What is the natural? Why is it sane to adhere to some ideas of the natural (food in season, birth at home), but seemingly insane to try to adhere to all of them? Why is nearness to nature, formerly the purview of the poor, now a thing to pay for, if rich? What do images of nature on screensavers do for us? Why are you more likely to heal in a hospital if you can see a tree, some sky? If a woman gave birth alone, outside of a hospital, without any other women, and the baby was healthy, would the birthing mother know to nurse the baby? Would the baby show the mother? And why would this happen, almost surely, at night? 

What is hunger? Why is it bad to eat dirt while pregnant, but good to eat iron supplements that you bought at a natural food store? What would happen if you brought dirt to the board meeting with a spoon and some La Croix? How much of the history of tech is the history of selling things? What is the relationship between the invention of pediatrics and the regulation of mothers’ milk? Between nurses and nursing?

Our bodies are full of pulleys and levers, pumps and valves; does that make us machines? How have literal understandings of humans as machines hindered medicine? What is the role for the primitive in medicine? Field surgery, maggots, mushrooms? Has any woman’s labor ever precisely followed the labor clock? Why was I told to clean my first baby’s umbilical stump, but with the last baby I was told to let it be? Why did the doctor want me to time and chart the first baby’s feedings, while switching a reminder bracelet from one wrist to the other, but with the last it was acceptable to say I feed her when she’s hungry and stop when she’s full? Why did the nurse prescribe breastmilk for my last baby’s rash? 

Why does no one have a PhD in Babies? What does it feel like when your head folds? What is it like to change atmospheres? How does one come into the knowledge of limbs, light, gravity, attachment, speech? What makes babies think the world is nippled? Is the first technological question the question of nipples? When you get a PhD in computer science do you begin with the scholarship of pacifiers? Why do nursing babies swat away phones? Why are they not buying it: the very idea of trash? Why are they so smitten with that broken ball, the moon? 

Babies are born with scraps of placenta and the cosmos in their hair. Why do the new doctors say: leave it?

Mary Margaret Alvarado is the author of American Weather, forthcoming from NewLights Press, and Hey Folly (Dos Madres, 2013). Her last essay for The Georgia Review, “Is the First Technological Question the Question of Nipples?,” was shortlisted for 2022’s Best American Essays. Other work has been published by The Boston Review, VQR, Outside, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Poetry Foundation, Cagibi, and elsewhere. Alvarado lives in Colorado with her family.