It was after my trip to the emergency room when my cardiologist said a word that stuck with me: “programmed”. She was not talking about software. I had been teaching a data science bootcamp at the University of Southern California when I started feeling off — my neck was hot, my legs were tingling and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I kept the students busy with activities from the lesson plan while I paced furiously outside, but the suffocating sensation did not subside. I had enough sense to turn the lesson over to the TAs and take a car to the nearest hospital. I am still surprised I did this: because of my upbringing, doctor visits were exceedingly rare and I had never until recently been to an ER, let alone for something as “trivial” as feeling a bit “off”. An EKG, however, revealed the chaos inside my chest.
“Hearts,” my cardiologist said, “are programmed to beat a certain way.” Mine, she explained, was receiving abnormal electromagnetic pulses that caused premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) — bad beats. A lot of them. When I had one of these episodes, my heart would beat 7 or more times before a good beat would land and send blood where it needed to go. My condition was worsening.
“What happens,” I asked, “if the bad rhythm keeps coming back?”
She took a moment to answer. “Eventually, if that rhythm gets repeated often enough, your heart will switch over to that rhythm, and you would die without immediate medical intervention.” When medications failed, she recommended surgery. I don’t know if I was more scared by the thought of heart surgery or by hearing in my heart’s hammerings the echos of my own fragile mortality.
This notion of programming keeps coming up for me — maybe it’s because I’ve spent my career writing code or maybe it’s due to the thundering rhetoric leading up to elections this fall. The human hardware is amazing, but our software — our programming — is sublime. Our programming dictates wether we speak one language or another. It tells us who is a hero and who is a villain. It dictates when it is appropriate to have sex and with whom. It even tells us which god (if any) we believe in.