A human mind is a miraculous survival tool.
A billion idle human minds, hooked up to the internet with AI chatbots. Uh oh.
Fear not, buckle up.
“Everybody is sort of living on the edge of catastrophe in a way that wasn’t typical before. It used to be we had a little bit more wiggle room – perhaps that wiggle room was illusory – maybe we were always living on the brink of catastrophe – but people used to feel like “this is nice I can relax here”… I don’t think people are relaxing these days.”Jaron Lanier, on the Internet and Society, 2021
“Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality. And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem.“Neal Stephenson, 2019
“Technostress is a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner.”Craig Brod, Human Cost of Computer Revolution, 1984
“The claim about culture’s unsettling trajectory is dead serious. But, I believe fiercely in a wildcard — which is — the capacity of each individual human to zoom out and admire ‘us’ the way Carl Sagan did while viewing Earth from Voyager’s interstellar eyeballs.”
Our shared reality is wildly complex.
This is a one-way phenomenon, and it’s only getting more intense.
I’m optimistic, still sorting out how to exist as this unfolds… I’ll get to that. But I do think we’re in for a hell of a ride.
The symptoms of reality distortion — mass scale anxiety, distrust, and confusion — are what inflame all other conceivable problems in human existence, and stymie our ability to deal with them calmly and cooperatively.
Individually — we can stumble our way toward refuge and insight. Collectively, however, we share a world and society that is inexorably influenced by an increasingly foggy and highly-charged information space. How can we ever orient?
Understanding = Relief
This is the hardest time to be alive, in an way not previously known to humanity. Not due to physical stability, but psychological.
Our zeitgeist is immersion in information fantasia. Forget the metaverse, we are already swimming in collective techno-fueled hallucination. Sensational and alarming and contradictory semi-truths coming at us from multiple directions – generated by both human and machine. Even if we – individually – take great pains to insulate ourselves from the most overt sources – namely, social media and the media/internet complex broadly – the fantasia permeates other minds therefore our shared information space. This is our era! It’s hard to grasp how peculiar this is – because we’re living it. Spend a week in nature and check if it feels even one scintilla as harrowing… mentally. (It won’t). How is this possible? How is it, that being disconnected from the fireworks of society can lead to such a profound sense of peace and ease? Whatever Henry David Thoreau claimed to taste in 1854, when he famously exited society alongside Walden Pond, would be a million-fold more potent today. If any of us are lucky enough to experience this, even briefly, can we carry this ease with us back in “normal life”? Can we hold day-to-day life much more lightly?
Arguably, this is a fine place to end the article. Thoreau modeled the only rational choice in the face of absurdity – inner understanding and bliss. Yet, this insight has been available for centuries, and, culture rages on anyhow.
Culture Only Gets Weirder
Culture is a living organism that evolves, just like life itself. Humans come and go, every day. Hundreds of thousands of them. But culture … lives on. Culture is the cumulative ouija board of the entire human population. Everyone’s got a hand in shaping it, but no single person directing it precisely. It’s got a life of its own, and it can only ever get more vast and complex, not less. This complexity makes life MORE confusing, not less.
Claim 1 – Cultural Complexity Only Increases
This claim feels self-evident.
Culture’s complexity is a function of:
– The number of people in the world
– The amount of free-time people have
– The ability to harvest energy more efficiently
– The ability to generate, propagate, and store information
More energy, more freedom, more people, more information, more complexity. These indicators only move one way. (Short of collapse). But hey, let’s be optimistic and bracket collapse.
Claim 2 – Cultural Complexity Mutates Aimlessly
In biological evolution, mutations are random. To deem them good or bad or intentional is a mistake. The only certainty about about mutations is that they happen. Subsequently, we discover their incidental utility vs all brutal randomness occurring in the universe over millions of years. [Which begs the question – if all of life stems from the same tree – curious how this tree so savagely antagonizes itself? Is anything ever really born or killed, in that sense? I digress…]
Similarly, culture’s volcano of complexity and mutation has no intention. Similarly, we see how each mutation only incidentally supports the survival of the organism – in this case, the species and each individual human staying alive. A mutation is just as likely to precipitate demise as it is flourishing. Usefulness aside, each mutation adds complexity.
The more complex our culture, the more vast the psychological terrain we’re individually subjected to understand – to navigate, consider, adopt, reject, respond-to, ignore, and reconcile, each day. Information, entertainment, analysis, systems, traumas, contradictions, dreams, faiths, philosophies, sensory inputs and outputs and feedback loops of all kinds. A wild cacophony reaching greater and greater heights of intensity and magnitude.
This radical gravity of culture permeates each human mind more swiftly and efficaciously than any time in history, courtesy of a little screen in our pocket, which, in-turn, accelerates culture’s influence and expansion. And, while a single human mind might invariably develop its own brakes… becoming enlightened to its own causes and effects, and asserting some kind of “wisdom” over its consumption and behavior, culture remains perpetually naive, fueled by more and more baby minds, pitched forward like a top-heavy unicyclist, trying to pedal its way out of disaster. Each mind on the network pumping more and more fog into culture’s consciousness.
This is not to suggest that fog – outputs of individual human minds – is inherently good or bad. Heck, this article is yet another particle in the fog. Merely that there is more fog to parse.
Claim 3 – Expanding Complexity Is Psychologically Painful
If culture only gets MORE complex, and complexity creates MORE individual and collective contradiction and confusion, then, as a matter of pure inference, things are necessarily more painful today than they were yesterday.
This is the hardest time to be alive, in a unprecedented way.
(And, in this particular way, tomorrow will be more unusual).
[Feel free to exit here and send rebuttals, or, scoff while pressing the back button EXTRA hard. If you can locate a modicum of sympathy for this claim, and/or, admit difficulty in its denial, please… proceed].
First, if your bejesus is stirred, or, you are repulsed by apparent cynicism, let me catch you. There is an utterly optimistic tone at work.
Confession: I feel like I detached from culture’s (apparent) madness nearly two years ago. And, ever since doing so, I’ve uttered, “holy … fucking … fuck” to myself more times than I can count. I am delighted. Peaceful. Reflective. Deeply appreciative. Awed. Humbled. All of these things. I am permanently altered, transfigured, never to grip life quite as tightly.
The claim about culture’s unsettling trajectory is dead serious. But, I believe fiercely in a wildcard – which is – the capacity of each individual human to zoom out and admire “us” the way Carl Sagan did while viewing Earth from Voyager’s interstellar eyeballs. Sit tight.
Obsolete Survival Functions
The evolutionary thrust of mind is to support survival of a body.
The evolutionary thrust of culture is to support survival of a group.
Ok but, what happens when the essential survival game is over, already? The credits are rolling on that movie. Why do humans still have an appendix and a tailbone?
We did it – our smart monkey minds figured out – clever girl – that we can exploit millions of years of stored solar energy and stuff ourselves with food and dominate the planet.
This raises two, mega-ton questions:
What happens to a single human mind, when it transcends its original survival duty?
By extension, what happens to culture, when it transcends its original survival duty?
The Madness of A Meaningless Mind
“These minds of ours – these outrageously powerful tools that creation has given us – I’m not sure we know how to use them wisely. They are all over the place… reaching for meaning, narratives, making stuff up, tearing things down – it’s a wild place. When the abstraction death becomes obvious – when our body shuts down – that can be very painful, but then, very peaceful. Eventually you come to acceptance – and there is a really sweet valley on the other side of that mountain.”BJ Miller
If we are lucky, we’ll confront the meaningless of life with a smile, as Albert Camus once did, when he made his Sisyphean comparison. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy”, he said. We are all sentenced to a life of work and struggle with no apparent goal, but, if we can manage to simply notice this, we are free, in the deepest possible sense, to enjoy the ride.
How ridiculously fucking beautiful. Seriously.
If you are not as lucky as Mr. Camus, to consider this insight early in life, then as BJ Miller shares from a lifetime working in hospice, death will force that insight upon us, one way or another. Thank goodness!
It is an absolute miracle for a single human being to come to terms with their mortality, and ultimately, relinquish any turbulent yearning to “get” something out of life. It frees a person, literally, to notice the miracle of life as it already is.
Which brings me to…
Claim 4 – Life Is Inherently Meaningless. (Yet Enjoyable).
Here is where a potentially slippery slope emerges. While I personally know this to be true, as I’ve experienced it, and apparently thousands of others have too, across times and regions and cultures and value systems, I recognize this has always been a minority of the human species, and therefore not considered matter of fact. The claim: madness of searching for meaning and purpose subsides as soon as the search does, and makes room for unusual and sustainable joy. More on this.
The Madness of A Meaningless Culture
While it is possible for a single human to free themselves from their own torment, the same cannot be said for culture.
Although it’s helpful to think of a culture as a living organism, it is distinct in that it will exist for as long as the species – constantly fed by an ocean of naive minds, and, those naive minds will outnumber their counterparts. I use the word naive here simply to mean lived experience. Of course young minds can be wise, and old minds can be naive, but it is not controversial to say that wisdom emerges from a robust collection of challenging experiences. Therefore a culture’s collective living wisdom is always outweighed by its collective naivety in terms of headcount – at least while it expands. This is where the analogy falls apart – where a human can become wise – a culture will always be recycling and redefining what’s important. This is not inherently good or bad. But, as existential problems for a species start to accumulate, one has to wonder, will culture ever save itself? Scratch that, there is no apparent consensus on what “save” even means, nor what the problems are to be saved from. The only thing we share with certainty is anger and disorientation. Which, makes for interesting ambient music.
There is no equivalent “death epiphany” for culture. The runaway expansion of complexity has no natural governor, nor discernable aim. I posit this as a logical claim to be considered as such.
Again, this would suggest:
This is the hardest time to be alive, in an unprecedented way.
(And it will only get harder)
(There are zero signs of potential relief)
Who reads from here? I suppose anyone who suspects, even faintly, there is any sort of escalation – who admits the temperature and background noise of our shared psychological world is rising, and the implications are unsettling.
In short – don’t worry. In long –
Antidote 1 – Knowledge, Wisdom
Knowing is half the battle, as they say. Culture is a one-way conveyer of escalating stimulation and vast horizons of aimless complexity – and – unfortunately – this really is as crazy as it fucking sounds. Consider all of the fragmentation and hostility in public discourse today, increasing by orders of magnitude over time.
Perhaps being startled is step one. Perhaps it anchors a person, reflexively, to simple treasures – food, shelter, connection, expression – – and less drawn to “culture” as if it were some kind of oxygen. Perhaps it attunes us to our own vulnerable judgement and behavior inside this mesmerizing funhouse, and by extension, empathy for all others in the same place.
Just by having a little bit of knowledge of culture’s ever-increasing complexity inoculates us, slightly, from its effect, and frees us to talk about it.
Can we note culture’s relentless mutation and pervasiveness?
Can we note how it fogs our individual and shared information space?
Can we exercise personal volition against it?
Do we routinely find stillness? Or even know how?
Mental life hurts more and more. Why? Are we complicit?
Can the minds of billions of “still” humans influence culture from the bottom up? Can we take the wind out of its sails?
Antidote 2 – Personal Freedom
As far as individuals go, a happy path is on the menu. One CAN enjoy life as if it were the best day perpetually unfolding. No more highs and lows (relatively speaking). Only a sweet valley. As for culture’s ominous complexity spiral? Simply put the blinders on. Go live next to Walden. Forget the hot air.
Many people get off the bus here. And this is admirable. I salute – respect – rejoice – high five – hugs – prayer hand emojis – all that – with those people. It’s as if they just escaped hell, I get it.
But what about culture?
Even in midst of personal liberation – culture affects us and the future trajectory of humanity no matter what. 9 billion people can’t flee to Walden, and Walden can’t hide from environmental collapse. I use Walden here to symbolize any refuge – physical or mental – a person might escape to for the sake of their sanity.
What is the best hope, for culture? Surely more than “ignore it”?
Antidote 3 – Collective Freedom
Dear Culture, I’m sorry, we have to take your license away. It’s no longer safe for you to be on the road. Please join the appendix and tailbone in the woodshop.
I see precisely zero way to change culture using culture. What does this mean? It means, leveraging some kind of institution – government(s), non-profit(s), belief-system(s), media, to impose anything on anyone. It’d be like extinguishing a fire using more fire. And also, violates the very premise it’s trying to share – the birthright of being alive and human, and having the opportunity to investigate who you are, who WE are – unencumbered by external faith or rules.
What does that leave, then?
Individual voluntary liberation. A critical mass of it.
This implies that, beyond investigating personal liberation, we invite other people to investigate, too. What part is invite, and what part is voluntary? The invitation is merely to consider the door of self inquiry. The rest is in the hands of the individual.
“We need enlightenment, not just individually but collectively, to save the planet. We need to awaken ourselves. We need to practice mindfulness if we want to have a future, if we want to save ourselves and the planet.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh
I am equidistant from naive and curmudgeony. I have done the things… social and material success, yadda, yadda… still plenty of life left.
What more can I possibly hope for? The answer is exactly nothing. I need less and less.
Even so, I step back, take the whole world in as best I can, and, geez… what the hell are we doing?
The shared psychological world, unfortunately, feels abysmal. I quite literally feel it as pain, and, cannot simply shut it out. (I mean, I can find stillness, and do find stillness, and it’s incredible, sincerely. But I’m speaking in the long-term, unified humanity sense). Anecdotally, speaking to friends and family and strangers, I know other people feel this too, in their own way.
We all hear this tense background music. We all suspect it might be influencing us. It’s getting louder. And we never talk about where it’s coming from or shutting it off.
The only way I see – is the way that is centuries old – locating the map in your own mind – thereby freeing you (us, collectively) to see and ignore the noise. While this might sound mystical, it is not. If anyone really looks closely enough, at causes, effects, and physics of the human mind… it’s like seeing the man behind the curtain is the Wizard of Oz. Except the “apparent” Wizard is your life.
Then, by extension, so much of culture’s absurdity becomes apparent.
Then, by extension, we can talk about guiding the music, together.
I’m publishing this as is – I will be reading, editing, revising it for a few weeks (…months … years). All comments welcome – be they critical or sympathetic. May you find stillness today!
- How will tabula rasas adapt?
- Not belittling past hardships of humanity
- Boogeyman? (Refute Steven Pinker)
- Technology will not save us
- Repugnant conclusion
- Similar conclusions/books (future shock, WTW)