In search of balance|
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|Wednesday, September 28th, 2016|
|An argument used to support mass immigration is actually the best argument against mass immigration
At this point, it seems like mass immigration has become "the new normal." So many millions of people are trying to reach the West from so many different parts of the world that even if the wars quiet down and the flow of refugees stops soon, the effects of what has already transpired will be seen for years to come. There are various opinions about this, of course; some people think it's great, some people aren't thrilled with it but don't really mind it either, and some people are outraged and demand that the process be stopped immediately. I try to remain somewhere in the middle regarding these opinions, but I never fail to find it disturbing when people are on either extreme of this scale, because people find the most senseless, unthinking justifications for both sides of the argument.
One argument which I have often seen (you've probably seen it several times too) is the tired claim that since North America has not historically been populated by "white Europeans," this means that white people in America are immigrants too. There's no shortage of people who trumpet this fact, apparently imagining themselves to be very clever for pointing out that "Most Americans are immigrants. White people are illegal immigrants in the United States." They're right, of course, although the question of how long a particular people need to be locally present to be considered "indigenous" is questionable, since human migration happens on such a large scale that if you go back enough thousands of years, most (if not all) people inhabit areas which were not originally populated by people of their heritage.
But that's not really the point here. The point is that many people think they can prove how inescapable immigration is by pointing out that most "American" people today are of non-American heritage, and that the vibrancy and prosperity of the United States shows that immigration can be a good thing for a country. The great irony of this is that the example they're using, the mass-migration of Europeans to the United States, is precisely the best example anti-immigration activists could possibly use to demonstrate what happens when foreign immigrant cultures overwhelm and displace indigenous cultures. You think that the current state of the United States proves that immigration is a good thing? Okay, let's talk about what a good thing the white people's treatment of Native Americans was. The United States was an undeveloped region until the arrival of Europeans; it was only after European settlers arrived and displaced the Native Americans that America became what it is today. So according to the theory, this mass colonization and "civilization" of America was the best thing that could happen to those Native Americans, right? Oh, you want to walk back the example now and claim that actually, the arrival of settlers in America which you were citing as a positive example is actually something bad? No, let's continue with this theme so you can explain to us how the formation of America proves that concerns about foreign immigrant cultures displacing long-standing local cultures are a delusional spectre invented by white supremacists. Tell us how the history of the United States proves that countries don't have to worry about losing their heritage and their way of life when mass immigration occurs. Go on, we're waiting.
If you hold up the United States today as a model of multiculturalism and diversity, you're actually endorsing a model of cultural hegemony, as the multiculturalization process in America did not start happening until immigrant cultures displaced the indigenous inhabitants of what is now the United States. You can never have a society as diverse as the United States without having some amount of cultural genocide, because the indigenous culture will have to die out in order for a multicultural society to develop. On the other hand, if you think that the European settlers' treatment of Native Americans was cruel and horrible, then you must admit that this is the consequence of mass migration. You can't have it both ways. You can't have something like the United States magically appear without conflict and a "stronger" culture eventually obliterating the "weaker" ones.
You might ask me which side I'm on. I would say that I don't hold up America as a model of anything positive. It's clear that the settlers' treatment of Native Americans was barbaric, insane, and cruel. It would have been better for the Europeans to stay at home where they belonged instead of intruding on other people's nations. All of this colonization business--not only in the Americas but also in Africa and South Asia--was a detriment to both Europe and the places Europe colonized. This colonization was driven by greed, the desire to exploit weak people for money, the same thing which still drives globalization in our present day. It is better for people to stay in the country which is their home, the country where they share a culture, and not try to migrate somewhere for economic reasons. America was a mistake; it is clear today that a country which once seemed so full of promise was built on a shaky foundation. There was nothing inherently special about the United States; it just happened to be a very large piece of arable land which could be cultivated for farms and mined for natural resources. When you look at the desperately tattered economic, social, and cultural state of the United States today, it becomes clear that this whole multicultural melting-pot idea didn't work out in practice after all. People are better off staying home and not trying to turn their problems into some other country's problems. The world would have been a better place if people had abided by this advice.
|Monday, September 26th, 2016|
|The redeeming relief of a disaster
I wrote in my last post about wanting to live for something, about wanting to do something more with life than just living. I know that I'm not the only person with such thoughts; there are many people who want to take the opportunity of their life to do something with it. There are many people who want to make the world a better place, to do something meaningful and important with their lives. And most of those people lack an outlet for such desires. There are some people who do things like volunteer at hospitals or homeless shelters, or who give money to charity, or otherwise try to do their small part to help in their own way, and these people are good and well-meaning folks, but it's frustrating for them, because it never seems to get anywhere. For all of the goodwill and generosity that some people display in the world, things just seem to keep getting worse. It used to be that things were bad mostly in impoverished countries and that the "developed world" tried to do what it could to support those countries, but now even the parts of the world which we thought of as "developed" are regressing and decaying: their economies are falling apart, living standards for most people are decreasing, and levels of public health and life expectancy are actually going down after decades of steadily increasing.
People want to change this, of course. But there doesn't seem to be any way to do so. Among the developed countries, most people have the "problem" that they don't know what to do with their lives: after their basic biological needs are taken care of, most people don't really have a clear idea of what they want to do, and they spend most of their free time trying to distract themselves from this question. Meanwhile, in countries where people suffer for lack of basic means, it seems pretty clear that the problem runs deeper than what some generous public volunteering can do: volunteering alone can't generate healthy food or clean water. We want to help, and we want to make a difference in the world, but there doesn't seem to be any way for us to do so. At best, we can make small differences in the lives of individuals, but we can't address larger problems that are systematic and fundamental in nature.
That's why some people feel so redeemed when there's a disaster. If there's a fire, an earthquake, or some other catastrophe that suddenly kills or endangers a group of people, then it's clear what to do and how you can help people. Disasters happen even in the world's wealthiest and most developed countries, and they present an opportunity for the average person on the street to be a hero, rescuing a person from a situation which might have otherwise killed or seriously injured them. If you can use your own two hands to prevent someone from dying, then you feel a relief, a sense that you did something good and important and meaningful with your life. This must be why people become firefighters, after all: for the chance to be heroic.
Some years ago, I wrote that it seems like one of the things which people need in order to be happy in life is a constant supply of problems. Then people can solve those problems and feel like they did something by solving them. A person living in a utopia, in a world without problems, feels useless, redundant, unneeded, and unimportant. I'm obviously not the first person to come upon this idea, either. Iris Murdoch's novel The Black Prince
has a passage which declares: "We naturally take in the catastrophes of our friends a pleasure which genuinely does not preclude friendship. This is partly but not entirely because we enjoy being empowered as helpers. The unexpected or inappropriate catastrophe is especially piquant.
" This might seem like a radical idea, because it suggests that one important reason why we have friends is so that we can witness them go through problems so that we, in turn, can feel useful in helping support and guide them through difficult patches in life. Yet the idea makes sense; in romantic relationships, people often express that they want to feel needed. Why should not a similar principle apply in friendships?
There is, indeed, a certain type of person--perhaps not so rare a type of person--who actually feeds on the difficulties and sorrows of their friends, precisely because these give them an opportunity to be a listening ear to open up to, a comforting shoulder to learn on, a warm smile to find hope in. A nurturing personality lives for their ability to take care of others; their love and generosity is in a way selfish, because it fulfills a desire which they have, and they do not like their friends to be independent, because that would mean that they can't constantly support and encourage those friends. This type of person prefers their friends to be--indeed, needs
their friends to be--weak and dependent, so that they can continue to feel important and useful in offering support to those friends. They need friends with problems which they think they can solve, because the only redeeming relief they feel in life is that of a disaster.
One other thing I've written before--and which only seems to become more true with time--is that if you want to see real heroes, you should look at the people who work in production: the people who work on farms, food processing plants, and factories, the people who labor almost every day under grueling physical conditions for low wages so that other people can receive the food and manufactured goods they produce. Those producers are the real heroes, the ones who actually provide the people of the world with what they really need. Most people don't want to be that kind of a hero, because they want recognition and fame and praise, but I wanted it; I wanted to be one of those people. I was for a while, in fact: I used to work in that kind of a job, and I enjoyed it at first, because for a while, there was a sense that I was doing something really useful, producing something that the world really needed, not like those tie-wearing businesspeople who sit in offices all day and do nothing but produce paperwork so that their own companies can make more money. But the problem with working in that kind of a job is that things never seem to get better; you can work harder or faster, but it never seems to improve the condition of the world. The food or manufactured goods which you produce disappear into a truck which ships them off somewhere, and you never know what happens with your handiwork after that. Did they really help someone somewhere? Or did they just get bought up by people with too much money who have too much already? Factory or agricultural work is a good job to have because you really have the sense that you are producing something good and useful, but as the days go by and you keep producing the same product over and over, you start to develop a sense that it's not changing anything, that your assembly line will never end (which is true, because it won't) and that the things you produce will not actually change the world into a fundamentally better place (which is also true, because they won't do that either). And then you become discouraged and disheartened.
And then you look up and stare into the sun and pray for a meteor to fall on the Earth and end it all, because it will never get better, your life will never get better, you will never get better, humanity will never get better. As Soundgarden prayed for a black hole sun to wash away the rain, as Travis Bickle prayed for some rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk, as Giacometti thrilled with excitement while being run over by a car because something was finally happening to him, as suicide and doomsday cults around the world await the inevitable future, you too will learn to look forward to the disaster, the big bang which will finally come and end all this suffering and decay that constitutes our lives every day.
|Friday, September 23rd, 2016|
|The right to do nothing
One thing which usually bothers me is when someone describes themselves by saying something like "I don't bother anyone" as a way of citing their virtues. I've seen this several times: when people are trying to describe their personal merits, the good qualities which they hold important for themselves as a human being, they sometimes say something equivalent to "I don't make any trouble and don't disturb other people." I realize that this probably shouldn't
bother me, because it's true that this quality is a virtue; it is certainly a good thing to not bother or disturb other people, but it somehow strikes me a bit like how Chris Rock famously declared that people's boasting of "I've never been to jail" is not a personal accomplishment. As he put it: "You're not supposed
to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!" It's kind of the same for me: you're not supposed to bother other people, and if your greatest accomplishment in life is that you never created trouble or problems for someone, then I kind of feel like you might have been aiming a bit low.
I appreciate that to see things this way is probably characteristic of my own personal worldview and how I see relationships between human beings, a perspective which most people probably do not share and some people might even be (the irony here is not lost on me) disturbed by. In our "post-values" world today, most people do not seem to want to tout any particular human virtue or value as something to promote in other people. Most people seem to just want to isolate themselves into an artificial shell in which they spend most of their spare time watching television or consuming other popular media and not thinking about matters which concern the development of the world or the human race. It really seems to me like most people seem to just want to be born, live for a while, and then die without having ever done more with their life than existing as a matter of pure happenstance, as a scientific consequence of the fact that their parents copulated nine months before that process started. I describe this process mechanically and unromantically because that's precisely what it is: it is the act of going through the motions and rituals of being a living person without ever actually being alive. What people want for themselves is the right to do nothing: the right to live without having to take part in any social or cultural or otherwise significant activity, where "significant" here means relevant or meaningful to anyone other than the individual person living their own life.
To think this way is dangerous, too, because when people hold values, they start to fight over those values. Wars are started over people holding fundamentally incompatible values. You can say that peace is most easily and reliably achieved by people thinking in precisely the way I've denigrated, through people keeping to themselves and not embracing any set of values but simply living like animals do. There are no wars in the animal kingdom, because it's not worth it for animals to try to kill each other on a large scale; animals just want to hunt around for some food and then go away to sleep. They want nothing bigger or more meaningful for their lives than that. And if we did the same, we could end all war. I acknowledge this as true. And yet I can't embrace this mentality as a model for how everyone should live. I'm sorry; I just can't. It feels wrong to me, fundamentally wrong, unjust and unreasonable.
I suppose this is a fudamental value, a "first principle," meaning something which you use as a base starting point, something which you cannot simplify further because there is no explanation behind it, but which is taken as true and relevant anyway. You might call it "political" in this sense, meaning that I hold it as a value which forms the basis of a worldview even though it cannot be logically justified, something which I consider to be socially and culturally valuable even though there is no rigorous, scientific proof that it is important for anyone, similar to how "equality" is spoken of today, a value which we hold important even though there is no proof that all people are equal or should be considered so.
I thought about this idea again while reading about the recent case of the so-called "real-life Fault in Our Stars
couple." Dalton and Katie Prager met in 2009, when they were both 18, as a result of their both being cystic fibrosis patients. Their doctors warned them not to meet each other, because two cystic fibrosis patients being together is dangerous: they can transmit infections to each other which can aggravate each other's condition, and Dalton was known to have Burkholderia cepacia
, an infection which would have been particularly dangerous for Katie. They chose to disregard the doctors' warnings, and a real-life fairy-tale love story developed rapidly. Looking back not long after their fifth wedding anniversary, Katie declared that she regretted nothing: "It gave me some of the best years of my life. I'd rather have five years of being in love and just really completely happy than 20 years of not having anybody." The next day--this past Saturday--her husband Dalton passed away. Katie followed yesterday. I can't help but smile for that couple, those two people who died so young. They knew what it was all about. They chose to die happy instead of trying to prolong their lives pointlessly. To some, their decision to be together might seem foolish, audacious, even suicidal. But both chose to do something meaningful with their lives instead of living for nothing. They lived more in their short set of years than some people will live with 70 or 80. If you're going to live, you might as well have lived instead of going to your death having never really lived at all. There are more important things in life than the right to do nothing.
|Tuesday, September 13th, 2016|
|The trolls of antiquity
I must admit that I don't give too much thought to "trolling" on the Internet. I just don't seem to go to places where it occurs much. Certainly, here on this little blog of mine, I don't get a lot of trolls (or anyone else) leaving a lot of comments, probably because the posts I write are too long for anyone to bother reading unless they really have a serious interest in whatever it is I'm writing about, and someone who takes an earnest and sincere interest in something is more likely to leave a thoughtful comment than a thoughtless one. What people usuaully think of as trolling--leaving rude, abusive, or threatening comments--is the work of a person who hasn't put too much thought into what they're saying, and so trolling naturally tends to occur in places where people don't think much about what they're seeing, which, I'm happy to say, doesn't seem to include my blog.
When I do see real trolling on the Internet, I tend to ignore it. I've been subject to it a few times in chat rooms or on message boards, but when it happens, it's usually so artless and ridiculous that it's hard for me to take it seriously. It is pretty well known, I think, that most trolls are cowards, hiding behind the safety and anonymity of their computers to launch personal attacks on people. I don't like that kind of thing, of course, but I don't dislike it either; it's just the mindless babblings of someone who isn't putting much thought into what they say, and so I tend to categorize it along with people telling me about how their cousin just got married or how they found an old banana in their fridge: people making random and pointless conversation just to be saying something, and thus something which can be safely ignored.
Where I do give the subject of trolling serious thought, and where it does start to concern me, is when the line is no longer clear between what counts as "trolling" and what doesn't. Trolling doesn't always mean harassing or abusing people; sometimes it just means saying provocative or outrageous things for the sake of getting attention. And the thing is, when someone expresses an opinion that seems outrageous, you can never be sure how serious they are, because there are people who do sincerely hold unusual or radical opinions. I don't take remarks like "You should get raped" or "I'm going to kill you" very seriously, but what if someone were to write "I'm organizing a planned takedown of the federal government" or "I advocate the sterilization of people who score below a certain threshold in standardized IQ tests"? These ideas and perspectives are provocative and unusual, and they may upset some people, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them as trolling, because there really are people who think this way, and the clear expression of an opinion is not trolling, even if some people don't like that opinion. You can't dismiss the expression of every unpopular opinion as "trolling," because that would be tantamount to censorship of all but the approved, prevailing viewpoint. This is the problem that we face by being too quick to dismiss people with seemingly extreme or unpopular views as "trolls": the inadvertent censorship of opposing or alternative viewpoints because they don't agree with the mainstream idea of how people "should" think.
Perhaps I am personally sympathetic to this kind of thing because I myself have been called a troll more than once on the Internet. I will admit that I have written things which were unpopular, controversial, and even offensive, but I don't think this makes me a troll. I will admit, too, that at times I have exaggerated my real opinions and viewpoints to create a certain effect for the sake of making a point or sometimes even just for humorous intentions, but I don't say these things without a reason: behind the things I say is a point which I'm trying to make, and I'm hoping that people will be perceptive enough to read between the lines and get a sense of what I'm really trying to say. I have said exaggerated or provocative things to raise questions for debate or even to provoke people, but I have never done so (at least as far as I can remember) simply for the sake of making people feel upset, angry, afraid, or unhappy. I do want to provoke people into thinking about things, but I don't get any pleasure out of agitating people just for the sake of messing around with them. In this sense, then--the sense of saying something outrageous for the sake of provoking someone to get a reaction--I am guilty of being a troll, but I believe that there is a real and important purpose behind doing this, although it must be done fairly and judiciously, and I will admit that I may have sometimes crossed a line with such efforts.
At the risk of stating the obvious, let me add that I am certainly not the first person to do this. Socrates famously described himself as a "social gadfly," an entity who seeks to vex and provoke people for the sake of getting them to think about what they're saying. I'm sure that this technique predates Socrates, and it has persisted in written literature and spoken rhetoric since antiquity. Jonathan Swift's notorious essay A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick
was a serious piece of satire from a respected and brilliant writer in which the "modest proposal" was that people should eat children for food. The idea was outrageous, of course, but there was a point to it all, and the essay is remembered as a classic. If it had been written today, it would have been dismissed as a monstrosity written by someone who must still live in their parents' basement. Trolls didn't come into existence with the invention of the Internet; they have been a constant presence in human discourse since before recorded history. When it is done correctly, this kind of insistent, probing discourse allows us to pose difficult questions which nonetheless demand answers, challenging our assumptions and preconceived notions and bringing our attention to things which we might not have noticed. This doesn't mean that everyone will start thinking more intelligently if you start asking difficult questions; if you ask "Do you think terrorism might actually be a good thing?" or even a relatively innocent question like "Do we really
need democracy?" then you are not likely to get a sincere and well-formed answer from most people if you pose this question point-blank, but it would be unfair and short-sighted to dismiss such questions as trolling; these questions ask for a justification for some of the fundamental ideas which guide our world today, and even if our answers to such questions only reaffirm the status quo, at least doing so causes us to examine why
we think and live the way we do as opposed to some alternative. Obviously you need to be careful how you ask such questions: it doesn't do anyone any good to get in a person's face about it and start aggressively telling them why their opinions might be wrong, but if you ask them questions which encourage them to gently reconsider their opinions, you can get them thinking in ways which they wouldn't have considered without some outside perspective.
One of the risks which we face going forward, then, seems to be the reflexive reaction that any provocative or difficult questions are simply a form of trolling. Some people have gotten so used to dismissing anything which they disagree with as irrelevant that it's difficult to get them to consider any alternatives to their viewpoints, which is important for a person to do even if their viewpoints are reasonable. I don't promote the abuse or harassment of people on the Internet (or off the Internet, for that matter), but I do support people asking questions for the sake of clarification and understanding. Not every question has an answer, but even if the answer is something like "That's just the way it is" or "That's just what I personally believe in and hold as important for me," at least these answers help us to recognize first principles, ideas which are fundamentally "political" in the sense of being untested and unfounded assumptions which people nonetheless take for themselves as the foundation of their ideology, such as the idea that all people should have equal rights or that happiness is a goal worth pursuing (neither of which are premises which can be objectively proven).
So if you see someone saying something that you disagree with or that somehow upsets you, don't automatically assume that they're a troll who is just looking for attention. Can you be sure that the person is really just being offensive for offense's sake and that they don't have some underlying mentality, some sort of rationale or point which they're trying to communicate? Remember the quote attributed to Spencer W. Kimball: "Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly." The fact that a person's language is inarticulate or coarse doesn't make them a troll; it could just mean that they lack skill in expressing themselves. I've sometimes found that I can learn things even from people whom I had initially perceived as profoundly stupid or offensive; indeed, I often found that I could learn things from people even if, after getting to know them, I concluded that they really were
profoundly stupid and offensive. The world has many different types of people, but one thing I tend to find is that most people are quite bad at expressing themselves clearly and articulately, which means that if you only pay attention to the people who speak or write clearly and lucidly, you're limiting your understanding of humanity.
If someone makes some sort of effort to communicate with me, I will usually at least try to pay attention to what they have to say, even if I don't respond. I will usually try to respond to people who have taken the time to formulate a comprehensible statement which they obviously put some thought into, no matter whether I agree with them or not. I usually only ignore people when it's clear to me that they didn't put a lot of thought into what they said or wrote; there isn't much point in wasting a lot of time trying to think about something that doesn't actually contain any thought. This sort of ties in with something I've written before: in general, I find most opinions acceptable and agreeable as long as they are backed by a thoroughly considered, clearly and reasonably phrased rationale. It doesn't really matter much to me whether a person is left-right or right-wing or both or neither, whether they are promoting stronger governmental authority or arguing for the complete abolition of government, whether they are arguing for peace or war, freedom or slavery, equality or hierarchy, change and reform or continuing and maintaining the current state, as long as they can make it clear that they have thoroughly considered all the relevant sides to their position and can justify their stance in clear, rational and logical language. I realize that this is a dangerous way to think: it basically means that I can justify Hitler or any other mass murderer or generally "evil person" as long as they are smart enough to come up with a convincing argument, which probably isn't the healthiest or safest way to judge public discourse, but I also recognize that a person who has spent a lot of time examining and rationalizing their positions is probably a person who can be reasoned with, which is more than I can say for a great many people who seem
to be well-meaning and good-hearted on the surface, but lack the depth of thought to consider how far their ideologies should be carried and are thus more prone to veering into extremism even if they start with what seem like harmless and helpful principles. A person who advocates giving money to the poor might seem like a saint, but if they take this principle to its logical extreme and demand that all people with houses have their houses looted in order to provide wealth for the homeless, you can begin to see that even the most well-meaning and laudable intentions can turn ugly if people lack the perspective needed to understand the consequences of their ideas and actions.
This seems like a paradoxical, nonsensical, and absurd conclusion, does it not? Essentially, what I am suggesting is: it literally does not matter what your opinions are or what you think as long as you are willing to think things. I think there is some truth to this idea, though: as long as a person is willing to really think about their ideas and question those ideas in a spirit of sincere honesty and truth, they'll somehow get it right in the end, no matter what their ideas actually are. I might be wrong about this one, but I really think that it doesn't matter so much what
you think as how
you think. That's why I welcome the trolls: when people come out who are ready to start saying challenging things, then humanity can finally make some real progress.
|Thursday, September 8th, 2016|
|The headphones thing
I've written in the past that I don't like how many people can be seen walking around their day-to-day lives wearing headphones or earbuds. Of course, if people want to listen to music, that is something they can do, and I appreciate that they are wearing a personal audio device which allows them alone to experience the music without forcing other people to hear their music, but on a more subtle level, I tend to see headphones as something isolating, something which cuts people off from the environment around them and forces them into their own little world instead of being a part of the larger society around them. I realize, too, that many people wear headphones precisely for this reason: because they want
to isolate themselves with their music and do not wish to be a part of the people around them, but when a large portion of society isolates themselves in this way, this becomes a problem.
I'm thinking about this now largely because of the article "How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones
," which dates to October 2013 but has only recently received significant public attention for some reason. In short: people are upset about this article, insisting that if a woman is wearing headphones, that's probably a good sign that she doesn't want to be talked to, and you should respect that wish by leaving her alone. There are other people (including women, quotes from whom you can see on the article's page itself) who maintain that even if a woman is wearing headphones, she'll be glad for some pleasant company as long as you aren't too pushy and don't make her feel uncomfortable, but in a larger sense, this isn't really a question of whether a woman wearing headphones in public would appreciate being hit on or not; it's more the question of why people isolate themselves from the society around them, and whether their doing so is a problem.
Many people will immediately say: "Why should it be a problem? If they want to be alone, that is their right, and no one should tell them otherwise or try to hinder their right to privacy." Yes, I'm not suggesting that we should force
people to take off their headphones or somehow become more actively involved with their surroundings; the headphones thing is not a root problem, but rather a symptom, a symptom of a divided society in which people do not have a connection or common ground with each other. I'm not suggesting that we should make a law banning headphones; rather, I want to think about the reasons why people would want to isolate themselves from others, and what that says about us as a society, which by definition is supposed to be a group of people who socialize with each other.
First of all, let's establish some simple baselines for what a "society" or "community" is and what that implies for the people who live in such an arrangement. A society or community is a group of people who share something in common, usually some fundamental view of life and what is important in life, and thus how people should live and behave in their everyday lives. For most people, meaningful and lasting social connections are a key part of quality of life, and so a person usually cannot enjoy a high quality of life if they lack social bonds with people who share their ideas about what is important in life and what life should be like. In socially homogenous societies, where most people are similar to each other, a high degree of camaraderie, comradeship, and mutual support between people is observed within the community when people are similar to each other. Division is created when people are different from each other and have different views or opinions about what life should be like and what is important in life.
A knee-jerk reaction which many people seem to make (or assume that others will make) is to conclude that words like this imply "We must force
people within this community to act similarly to each other so that a homogenous and harmonious community is created." However, that's not what I'm suggesting; a human being should not be forced to act in a way which does not come naturally to them or which is not comfortable for them. What I am
saying is that if an individual person holds different values from a certain society or community, they should not try to integrate into that society or community, because doing so would be harmful to both that individual and that community. What is the point of trying to make friends and share company with people you don't have anything in common with? That's not helpful or enjoyable for you or for them. The point, then, is not that we should try to force anyone to conform to a certain set of social expectations, but rather to make it clear that if a person does not identify with a particular group and does not share the values of that community, then they should leave
that community, for the good of both that person and that community. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.
Some people might protest such an idea as exclusionary and divisive, but it isn't this idea
which divides people; what divides people is their own natural differences. It is sometimes thought that babies are born similar to each other, but learn to be different from each other through the process of growing up. I do not believe this is true, however; even before
babies are born, mothers already learn to recognize the symbols of how aggressive or sedate the baby is. When a baby is born, it already has a personality, a set of traits which will guide its behavior and emotions for the rest of its life, and the only reason these personality differences between babies are not more clear at birth is that babies obviously cannot talk or otherwise express their personal thoughts. Different people are different from each other, and this is neither something to celebrate nor to lament; it is simply an aspect of human nature. My point with this is to explain the rationale that human nature itself
is what divides people; people are already born with a thing that will cause them to separate themselves (or become separated) from some groups of people in adult life. The idea that people with similar values and ideas should congregate together, and people with dissimilar or incompatible values and ideas should avoid each other, is not promoted for the sake of creating divisions or animosity between people; it is simply about organizing people into the groups where they will feel at home together, and keeping them away from groups which would only create conflict with each other.
Long historical practice has shown this idea to be effective. The "old-fashioned" model of a small-town community in which everyone knows everyone else and everyone is similar to everyone else has a high success rate for creating a high quality of life for people, a quality of life sustained by strong, meaningful, and enduring social bonds between people within a community. The idea of a happy small town is not some obsolete relic from the past; it is in fact the environment for which human beings are most naturally suited.
By contrast, the modern trend of a large city with a "diverse" set of inhabitants is a source of constant conflict and disagreement between people. In general, what we call modern society has become a grouping of people who are called a "society" primarily because they live in geographic proximity to each other, but otherwise have little or no social or cultural similarity or interaction with each other. This does not really fit the definition of what human society is supposed to signify and the benefits it is supposed to provide for people: being around like-minded people strengthens us and encourages us, but being around people who don't share our ideas and aren't on the same wavelength creates misunderstandings and divisions, so it's understandable that people would want to isolate themselves from each other in such a society in order to prevent conflicts from taking place. Here we see the utility of headphones in avoiding conflict between dissimilar people, and this is why I say that headphones are a symptom rather than a root problem: of course headphones themselves are not a problem, but when an entire city of millions of people chooses to cut themselves off from everyone else through the prop of a portable music player, this suggests that there is more than just playing music going on; there seems to be a deliberate effort by the populace to shut themselves off from one another, because this avoids the problem of having to meet someone whom you are not similar to. It doesn't matter if the person next to you is an ideological opponent as long as neither of you discuss your ideas with each other; if you don't know who that person is or what they're like, you can't fight with them, and this is the foundation of how modern society functions: modern society is built on the avoidance of personal interaction between people. Conflict is created when people try to get to know each other and connect their lives together. A large city can only function when people build walls between each other.
The larger such a society becomes (which happens inevitably as a city grows larger), the more likely it is that people will be different from each other. Cities of millions of residents contain people who will never meet each other, and every time you walk down the street or ride public transit in such a city, you walk past or stand with people whom, in all likelihood, you will never again see in your life. This creates alienation: the whole of society becomes the psychological "Other," an external and somewhat mysterious force which we are detached and disconnected from rather than integrated with and connected to. When this happens, society has failed. In a mixed, "diverse," "multicultural" society, those headphones you see aren't just a harmless electronic gadget, they're a sign that we've created a more divided world, that even as people come closer together, human nature is also driving them apart.
|Monday, September 5th, 2016|
|They did it to themselves, that's what really hurts
Canadian punk-rock band NoMeansNo had an album (which is, as of this writing, also their most recent album) titled All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt
. The joke of the title is a reference to the fact that exits from the German Autobahn are all marked with the word "Ausfahrt." This word actually means "Exit," and so is not any more unusual than freeway exits which are similarly marked in other countries, but if you don't know what this word means, you might humorously get the impression that there is a town called Ausfahrt which all German roads lead to.
I think about this now because in examining the dynamics of how Central Europe works, it seems to me that most of the European Peninsula exists as a periphery to Germany. I've written before
about how Germany dominates European affairs, but the degree to which this is true becomes especially apparent when you stop thinking about Germany and try to find alternatives to it. Even countries like Poland--the second most populous Slavic country in the world, after Russia--and the Netherlands, which has a long history as an enormously powerful trading and economic power, exist mostly in the shadow of Germany, their far more powerful neighbor which maintains an inescapable presence in their everyday economic and cultural affairs and which they can only work together with since there is no getting away from it. Germany's presence is astonishingly far reaching, going as far as the Baltic and the Balkan countries, right up to (and, to some extent, including) Russia. The only parts of Europe which exist more or less in isolation in Germany are in that state because of geographic barriers: the Mediterranean states and the Scandinavian Peninsula, and even in those places, Germany's influence is sometimes noticed, particularly now in Greece due to its ongoing financial crisis. By and large, north of the Alps (and Pyrenees) and west of Russia, continental Europe is Germany's game, with France forming the nearest possible competitor, a competitive edge which is still diminishing as France's economy stalls while Germany's continues to inexplicably grow. Overall, in Europe, all roads really do lead to Ausfahrt: all roads lead back, one way or another, to Germany.
I say this neither to brag with glee nor to lament with regret, but simply out of cautious concern. It's no secret that I like Germany. I chose to live in that country, after all, and I've written in the past about how much I appreciate Germany's legacy of producing great culture while acting as a more sober and modest contrast to the relatively extravagant and flamboyant Mediterranean European states. Germany did the impossible: it broke the historical record of "enlightened," "developed" countries falling apart into disorder and disunion. Have you ever noticed how the most strongly unified countries also tend to be the least economically, technologically, and culturally developed? Countries which are fiercely proud of their nationality tend to be culturally backwards, and some people might say that these two go hand in hand, that for a country to be nationalistic, it must necessarily be culturally backward since nationalism is ignorant and stupid. On the other hand, is the alternative preferable? Countries which pursued greater cultural awareness and autonomy for its people almost inevitably fell into internal division as people began aligning themselves with different ideologies and different movements; some might say that these kinds of divisions are inevitable. And yet there stood Germany in the middle of it all, achieving the impossible: Germany managed to be not only a world-class leader in every major field of art and culture, producing innumerable brilliant scientists, engineers, philosophers, musical composers, writers, painters, and poets, it managed to do all this while remaining a relatively unified nation, a land of advanced, industrialized people who nonetheless still understood the value of small-town-style community bonds, remaining largely (certainly not entirely
) free of the internal divisions and revolutions which tore apart much of Western Europe during and after the Enlightenment, especially France. That is part of why Germany is so precious to me, and to the world: it did what no other country could do, namely manage the balance between becoming a big and important country and retaining its authentic, natural, and national personality.
Yet I realize that it is not healthy for one country to so thoroughly dominate a region as important as continental Europe; it's not good for Germany, and it's not good for the other countries either. It begins to resemble a relationship much like the one characterising international relations with the United States: the USA being so large and powerful, other countries can only reluctantly obey it and work with it since there is simply no getting away from its economic, political, and cultural influence. The last thing the world needs is another country which other countries resent for being so big and powerful.
And yet, what else can be done? It's not like Germany is just going to disappear. And this state of affairs is nothing new; if you look at a map of Europe around the year 1900, Europe looks, if anything, even more
skewed toward Germans than it is now: central Europe consisted almost entirely of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and these countries owned everything right up to the border with Russia. The current "buffer zone" of the so-called Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) did not exist; back then all that land was owned entirely by the three dominating states of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Indeed, the very idea of "Mitteleuropa" (a German term for "Central Europe" now usually avoided because of somewhat nationalistic implications) was a wholly German invention, a blueprint which was born from a political hegemony which allowed Germany to more or less single-handedly define and draw the map of Central Europe at the time. Before I began studying Europe, I had assumed (as many people probably do) that the subtle but implicit belief that Germany is
central Europe was arrogance and snobbery on the part of the Germans, but when I got to know Germany and the rest of Europe, I realized that not only does Germany have some justification for thinking this way, but in fact, you can't really see it any other way, because there is literally no country in the region which has even a chance of paralleling Germany.
This is obviously a matter of concern for any European country which wants to establish its own identity independently of German influence, but as I've said, it's not good even for Germany, because it's not healthy for any one state to control everything so thoroughly. It leads to arrogance, carelessness, and greed. Germany has gotten careless; its manufacturing, while still world-class, seems to be less precise and reliable than it used to be, as evidenced by the Volkswagen scandal which shows that management incompetence and greed is negatively affecting Germany's ability to perform at its best. Germany has become greedy: it was not content with dominating Europe, and wanted to begin dominating the entire world. This was, of course, Hitler's dream, but when Europe put down its weapons and began fighting world wars financially and economically instead of militarily, Germany received the tacit approval of the rest of the world since this is precisely how global "capitalism
" functions. And so we have a Germany today which in many ways is a copy of the United States, happily ignorant of culture and insanely obsessed with GDP growth and economic trade. This forms part of the ongoing conflict within Germany: it's not just about immigrants and refugees. It's a culture war, a war between the side which wants Germany to remain the "land of poets and thinkers" (which it often self-consciously but with some justification styles itself as) and a side which holds this ideal as obsolete, something having no relevance to our modern era, something which should be replaced in favor of a nation which simply pursues global economic growth as the primary goal of the nation and its people.
Of course, it's no secret that this kind of hell-bent fixation on economic growth is neither sustainable in the long-term nor even desirable in the short-term. It doesn't produce healthy, happy, well-balanced people, and unhealthy, unhappy, unbalanced people can only produce an unhealthy, unhappy, unbalanced society. You only need to look at the United States to see the results of this madness. I don't want Europe to collapse into the same fate. And yet it seems like this fate is unavoidable, since Europe has already wholeheartedly set itself on this path.
What's very sad about all of this is that not only could it have been foreseen, it was
foreseen. The recipe for happiness is not something still waiting for humanity to discover it. It was discovered long ago; if you look at the list of the happiest countries in the world, it becomes apparent that the smaller Germanic countries--Scandinavia and the Netherlands--already figured it out, and have been living as the world's happiest countries for decades. Germany used to have that, too. Germany existed for such a long time as a living miracle, a country which had attained economic prosperity and yet avoided the tacky and destructive excesses of other wealthy countries, but it just grew too big; its expansion has all been too much and too fast. People knew the consequences of this kind of relentless expansion, and yet they did it anyway. As Radiohead sang: "You do it to yourself, and that's what really hurts. You do it to yourself, just you and no one else." It was known--has
been known for a very long time--that a simple life which focuses on the really important things is the surest path to a high quality of life. The more you try to make your life luxurious by filling it with toys and distractions, the more stressed your life and the more unhappy you'll be. A huge, globalized city with millions of people in it doesn't create a joyous, vibrant, exciting life; it creates a constantly draining, stressful, expensive, and manufactured life. And yet somehow people just can't seem to resist this nonsense. And now, not only Europe, but the whole world, is paying the price for that. What are people to do now? What could a person in Europe do if they want to get away from Germany, or more generally from the crushing weight of the insane global push toward GDP growth? There's nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. The GDP monster isn't coming to destroy us all; it's already here
, and it is already
destroying us all. How tragic that both the problem and the solution were so clear to everyone, and yet everyone ran full-on into the problem anyway, away from the solution which had been proven to work and toward a false dream which they believed in even though all the evidence was there that this dream was a lie.
|Saturday, September 3rd, 2016|
|The problem of more free time
In general, I live under the idea that one of the most serious problems which human beings face in the world today is a lack of free time. However, for me, this is a problem with the sub-problem that how I think about this problem and its manifestations and solutions is different from how most people probably think about it. I think that if you ask most people in the Western world today, they would readily agree with my assessment: yes, they have too much to do and too little time, and yes, they would certainly appreciate having more spare time. However, what people actually fill their time with, and what I imagine them ideally filling their time with, are two quite different concepts.
I was struck by this idea again recently, as I so often am, when I walked into a bookstore. There's really so much wonderful stuff that you can see in a bookstore. You can read books about history and learn about how people's ideas from hundreds of years ago contrast with people's ideas today. You can read biographies and discover all the fascinating little details of historical people's everyday lives which we never hear about in the one-paragraph summaries that their lives are always remembered by. You can read books about philosophy and learn about how people's concepts of the underlying meaning of our lives has changed through the centuries. And yet, who has the time to read all these books? One of the greatest tragedies of our modern world, one of the greatest deficiencies of fast-paced modern life, is how little time it leaves us for such learning and reflection. How can our populace ever become educated, how can the people who form our societies ever become learned and aware, if they do not have the time to avail themselves of these volumes of knowledge which are so tantalizingly piled up on the bookshelves, so near and yet so far, so close at hand and yet so outside the scope of what we have time for? I have lamented in the past that this is precisely how modern financial power ensures it continued power: it keeps people ignorant not by preventing them from having access to knowledge and information (because that would cause protests from the general public), but rather by drowning them in so much knowledge and information that they will never be able to take it all in, and keeping them so busy with their "work" that they lack the time to benefit from the information which they have access to. I too wish that I had the time to properly read all those books, but as a full-time worker myself, as just another guy who needs to pay his bills, I also have the majority of my days crushed out by the job which I must devote my time and attentions to. Surely if there were a way for us, the general public, to have more time to educate ourselves, we'd have a more aware, more wise, more socially responsible and productive civilization... right?
Well, that's one theory. But reality, as usual, seems to differ somewhat from idealized expectations. The idea of a self-educating populace seems less convincing when you observe what people actually spend their spare time on. You can get a clue to this if you take a broad look at what books are actually in most bookstores and what that implies about what people are buying. In nearly every general-purpose bookstore I've been in in my life, the focus is primarily on novels, usually written and selected for entertainment value more than for what they can inform us about. I don't wish to denigrate novels or claim that novels can't be enlightening, but most of the novels that I usually see in bookstores are clearly written for entertainment, and reviews likewise focus on how exciting or otherwise viscerally reactive the novels are rather than what they can teach us. Non-fiction books in bookstores tend to broadly focus on cooking or other aspects of food, travel, and the major fields of visual art and popular culture. These are all relevant subjects as well, but the problem is just that there's so much of it that it tends to overwhelm everything else. In our pop culture today, there is such an endless stream of media about big-budget movies, music stars, TV series, comic books, fashion, design, and similar pop entertainment that people could consume it for the rest of their lives and still never be done with it. I realize that this is the point: this pop entertainment serves a commercial and practical function, namely to entertain people in their spare time, and so people want
all of this endless deluge of entertainment to be available to them--in the same way that people never want to run out of water and always want to have it available on-tap whenever they decide to use it--so that they never have to feel bored for lack of something entertaining to stimulate themselves with, but this does make for a rather stupid and unaware populace if that's all that people ever focus on. It's well known that people hardly read books today in the first place; I think it is pretty well established that the number of people who regularly go to libraries or bookstores today is pretty low, and the problem of an ignorant public is naturally made worse when even when they do go to book establishments, they're looking for something to entertain themselves with rather than something to enlighten themselves with. People aren't actually interested in learning something or making themselves more aware; they just want to gorge themselves on the non-stop, orgiastic buffoonery that is modern pop media.
Add this to the reality that most people seem to do a lot of things in their spare time which they are convinced they have to do, but don't really have to do. People are convinced that they have to go to the gym regularly, but this is actually not a requirement, and it takes away more of their scarce time and money. People with children or pets burn up an enormous amount of time and money on taking care of these dependents, and I'm not denigrating the idea of having a pet or a child, but it's kind of a given that doing so will leave you with much less free time since you have to spend a lot of time looking after both. And then there's then insane amount of time which most people spend simply "socializing" in mentally unconstructive ways, lounging around in bars or restaurants or other hangouts and just talking to other people about unintelligent subjects. And they do this because, of all things, they don't like the feeling of having too much spare time and nothing to fill it with. While millions of people around the world work in hard-labor conditions just to earn pennies a day and are thus so overworked that they have no hope of ever getting out of their economic prison, there are also millions of people who do very little with their lives but go to work and then go home to wait for the next workday to start. This is a possibility which our modern capitalism has brought us: the possibility of full-time workers who still have several hours of free time in the evenings to use however they want, and yet there are so many people who dislike this time because they feel like there isn't anything to do with it, and so they try to distract themselves by watching television or playing video games. These people could be taking that time to educate themselves and make themselves more consummate citizens. Instead, they're trying to distract themselves from that spare time as much as possible.
All of this being the case, then, it becomes apparent that what's needed isn't just more free time for people. More free time would be great, in a way, but it can be seen that most people wouldn't use it wisely. What's really needed is not just more spare time for people, but for people to want
to educate themselves, to want
to become consummate citizens of an intellectually vibrant nation, to willingly spend their time reading books that will actually fill their heads with a classical liberal education instead of just consuming endless amounts of glossy entertainment. And this leads me back to the question of how to change what people want, which is a question I've repeatedly answered by simply saying: you can't. You can't control what people want. The problem of more free time is that people wouldn't use it well. Perhaps our need to spend most of our lives working exists as a check to balance out people's natural hedonism, a way to force people to remain grounded instead of descending even deeper into their spirals of manufactured pop culture. The people who really want to educate themselves will find a way to do so; they will find the time and resources to do so, even if it causes them struggle. The rest of the people will continue to live exactly as the world does now.
|Saturday, August 27th, 2016|
|The old Germans: A land after its history
In the recent book Die neuen Deutschen: Ein Land vor seiner Zukunft
(The new Germans: A land before its future), authors Herfried Münkler and Marina Münkler lay out what they call "fünf Merkmale des Deutschseins" (five characteristics of being German). The book is in German, so I've taken the liberty of translating these five points into English as well as I can for readers who may be interested:
1. A German is convinced that through work (or, if possible, also through wealth), one can independently provide for oneself and their own family.
2. A German has reason to believe that a person can win themselves praise, recognition, and social status through their own personal effort, and thereby trust that in personal emergencies, a person with such social standing will have other members of their community come to their aid.
3. Religious belief, and how it is expressed and practiced, is a private matter which plays a reduced role in social life and has no relevance to professional or business life.
4. A person's choice of their own lifestyle and their own life partner is a matter of personal discretion and not to be decided by anyone else.
5. The fifth and deciding identity marker of the German should and must be the recognition of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: a constitution which was established to prevent the terrible German crime from ever happening again.
Does anything strike you when reading these five points? I don't know about you folks, but when I read these, my first reaction was: "Wait, weren't these supposed to be the defining hallmarks of American
And indeed, although I have read and re-read these points several times since then, they still strike me as something wholly, thoroughly American, nothing to do with the concept of "Germany" or what anyone--whether Germans themselves or the rest of the world--considers German people to be like. The idea of religious freedom was a founding principle of the United States; indeed, it was one of the primary reasons why the English fled Britain and moved across the ocean: because they wanted to be able to practice their versions of Christianity which were not approved by the British authorities. Likewise, this idea that "My life is my life, and it's none of your business" is a thoroughly American value, and it is in fact quite the opposite of what most people consider to be fundamental "German" social values.
And what's with that part at the beginning about providing for oneself through work? Wasn't that precisely the "American Dream," the idea that if you work hard enough, you can make it independently and become a self-made person through your own dedication and persistence? Yes, this was another of the founding principles of the United States, a point which was meant to distinguish America from Europe, where old-fashioned values like human society still held importance and where you were not expected to antisocially pursue your own self-interest without considering the interest of other members in your community.
And then, as if to put the final touch on all this non-Germanness, there's that point at the end, the usual German-guilting which places the blame fully on Germany for the worst crime ever committed in all of history, a belief that Germany is solely responsible for the worst evils in the world and that none of these things would have happened if only Germany had not committed its terrible crime against humanity. How conveniently this thinking ignores the fact that the United States is primarily responsible for the current unrest in the world's most chaotic places: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Sorry folks, but none of these ideas have anything to do with Germany; every one of the points listed by the Münklers is actually a defining characteristic of Americans, not Germans, and what's kind of funny is that these ideas are about 200 years out of date: even Americans don't believe in these ideas today. Even Americans realize that the whole dream of success through hard work is a sham, a ruse, a lie that people are fed in order to motivate them to work harder with the promise that they'll somehow be rewarded for it later. This whole idea of living just for your work, and of working not for the greater good of your community but for your own personal wealth and status, is a mark of a psychotic anti-social, not a model to be imitated by any decent people, and the idea that such a lifestyle will actually pay off in the end is a fairy tale which any American can tell you has been debunked long ago through long practice in the United States. The idea that these characteristics are identifying features of German people is so absurd that I can't tell if this list is meant to be a joke. If the list is actually serious, then not only are the Münklers dead wrong, they are actually the worst kinds of traitors to the German nation one could ever imagine, because they are trying to redefine Germany from start to finish as a copy of the United States, throwing away centuries of German history for the sake of a decade that is only remembered as "the great German crime."
Of course, it would be difficult to write an entire book without including at least some true information in it. It's clear that the book was written with full awareness of the implications of the current refugee crisis, and an apparent agenda to make Germans more welcoming toward the millions of refugees coming to Europe, especially to Germany. The Münklers have one thing right: immigration to Germany is a long-standing aspect of German life which has been carried on for centuries, with countless people making the trek to Germany, especially from Poland, but also from many other lands. This is nothing new, but the sheer scale
of migration which is taking place right now is unprecedented. A few stray migrants from Poland or Italy is almost tradition, but millions upon millions of migrants from Africa and Muslim countries is something that's never happened before, and if it continues, it will fundamentally change the shape of European society forever.
The Münklers declare that the idea of German-ness as being defined by one's genetics, by one's ethnicity, cannot be maintained because this would mean that people are unfairly born with or without special rights, that ethnically "German" people imagine themselves as having rights just for having the luck of being born within a certain genetic group, and that such thinking does not allow for any sort of competition among society. There is some truth to this, but let me pose a question: why is "competition" necessary for society? I would prefer a society not in which people fight or compete against each other, but rather a cooperative society in which people work together for the greater good. This idea of "competition" being a fundamental part of everyday life is, again, a thoroughly American value which has no place in Germany. This does not mean, however, that all ethnic Germans are born with the fundamental right to something, or that people who are not born German are somehow fundamentally excluded from anything, and so the Münklers do make a valid point when they declare that defining Germany or German people purely along ethnic divisons would be a mistake. Being "German" is not just in your DNA, it's also about who you are as a person, meaning your beliefs and values.
The Münklers are also right when they note that seaside lands have tended to achieve their prosperity through trade, since it is easy to establish foreign trade with seaside ports. As a result, countries which exist mainly by the sea (such as France, Italy, and especially the Netherlands) have developed attitudes which are much more tolerant, even welcoming of foreign people. In such countries, what is important is not where you come from, but how much money you can bring. Countries with relatively little or no ocean coastline, on the other hand (such as Switzerland, most of the Slavic lands, and, yes, Germany), have tended to remain more self-sufficient, avoiding international trade or migration and defending their land against foreigners. Again, however, I ask: why should this be a bad thing? Why is it bad for a country to be self-sufficient instead of trading with other countries? For a country to be economically sound, it must
be self-sufficient, because then it is not affected when other countries experience a financial crisis. In general, foreign trade is to be avoided, except in cases where a country simply does not have the natural resources to produce what its people need. That is just common sense. This idea that a country somehow needs
trade is not even a traditional American value, since the United States was founded as a largely self-sufficient country as well; this idea seems to be something thoroughly new and modern, a globalist idea rather than an idea attached to any one country. This emphasis on foreign trade as being one of the most important characteristics of a nation is actually a defining characteristic of commercial thinking (which tends to be fundamentally globalist in nature), the thinking which says "Wait a minute, why are we wasting our time making our own things when we can exploit foreign countries who make it for cheaper? Forget about the nation, let's let in some of that money!" This is certainly not a German value.
You might ask me, then: what are
German values? It might seem, at first, like hubris for me to even consider answering such a question. After all, I am not a German: I am not ethnically German, I was not born in Germany, and I did not grow up in Germany or even speaking the German language. For a person like me to imagine that I can define the foundation of German values after living in Germany for just a few years seems ridiculous. And yet, if the Münklers are right about something, if they are right that immigration is central to German values and that foreigners not only form a defining part of Germany but should
form a defining part of Germany, then allow me, my friends, to define what Germany means to me, the fundamental values that I treasure in Germany and which formed the reasons why I ended up moving to Germany in the first place:
1. Philosophy as a way of life, not just as a field of formal study. Philosophy is not just something you study in university for a few years before forgetting about it and moving on to other things. Philosophy is your whole way of thinking, which in turn becomes your whole way of life, and any thinking person must consider their life carefully and conscientiously throughout their entire lifetime. A thinking person does not just live for no reason; a thinking person would consider it better to die than to live what Socrates described as "the unexamined life." A German does not live for no reason, or just because they happened to be born; an animal might live for such a reason, but a German aspires to be more than an unthinking animal. Rather, the German aspires to be a creature which thinks usefully and carefully. This defines a "living philosophy," not just words written in a book by some bearded dead guy, but an entire society which ponders itself and its role in the universe, and acts thoughtfully, as appropriately befits such a thinking society.
2. Anything which is worth doing is worth doing well, and anything which is produced should be produced to the highest quality possible. Germany is an industrial land which manufactures a lot of stuff, and it has become world-renowned for the quality of its manufactured goods. Germany is also a land of scientific research, and this scientific research serves two main ends: first, to contribute to the awareness and enlightenment of humanity, a service which serves the above point about philosophy and careful thinking. Secondly, science serves engineering, which in turn leads to better-made products and better-running systems. Cheaply-made, mass-produced stuff which breaks easily and is made to be disposable is foreign to Germany. This applies not only to manufactured products made in a factory, but also any food products which are grown or prepared, as well as art and cultural works, and even things like policies and procedures, whether governmental or otherwise. German people want themselves and their products to be of the highest quality, and they strive to maintain quality in all these matters, always.
3. Money is a means to subsistence, not a path to luxury or material wealth. Although it may be difficult to live without money, one should never live for
money, because then one is not living at all. Money is a sometimes-useful tool which can be used to serve the above two points, because it can allow people to supply themselves with the food, scientific research, and high-quality manufactured goods which aid the process of living healthfully and philosophically. Money is never, ever
to be seen as an end in itself, and people are never to try to pursue more money after they already have enough to serve the above two points, because having a surplus of money ruins culture by causing people to seek after stupid, philosophy-destroying entertainment with their spare money. Wealth does not exist in money, GDP, or trade.
4. National homogeny and unity rather than diversity or variation. It is more important for Germans that they are similar to each other, and thus can get along with each other, than that they can tolerate people who are "different." If people do not like how things are in Germany and do not accept fundamental German values, they are more than welcome to find another country which better serves their needs.
5. Rural and small-town life. A German is most at home in a dark, quiet forest, or on a farm, whether in the fields or in their small farmhouse which they share with their family, or else in a village where most people work as handworkers, craftspeople and artisans. Large, fast-moving, loud cities are something foreign and alien to Germany, the German people, German culture, and the German way of life.
Of course people like the Münklers will say that these values are old-fashioned and obsolete. Of course they will say that these values are idealized fantasies of how we imagine much older times to be. Of course they will say that such ideas have no relevance or significance for a modern, developed, educated, progressive country. And that is why ideas like the Münklers are already obsolete: they were obsolete the moment they were formed, while the ideas which I listed are timeless and endure forever.
|Thursday, August 25th, 2016|
|The techie who refused to grow up
It occurs to me that in many ways, I seem to exhibit signs of Peter Pan Syndrome. Not in the sense of that very awkward website
, nor in the more general sense of a "big boy" who just wants to have fun and refuses to take on any adult responsibilities, but there are certain things which are expected of me as an adult which I've never had much interest in and never made plans for. Although my life has been blessed with a marriage, I have no children, nor have I ever given any serious thought to becoming a father. I honestly think that I could live the rest of my life happily childless. One thing I can't live without, however, is a job, and as I get older, I'm beginning to realize that certain important choices need to be made regarding one's career for anyone who remains dependent on their job for a living as they approach middle age.
In a few months, I will turn 35 years old. This is not old in the sense that I should be getting ready to retire, but it's true that my life already has a fair amount of history behind it. I've been working pretty consistently full-time in the field of information technology for about 10 years now. That is a fairly long time to be working in any industry. Considering that a typical person's career only has about 40 years or so of productive employment, I've already expended about a quarter of my career time. This means I'm approaching a point (if I haven't reached it already) where people would apparently consider me a "mid-career professional," not someone in a position where they should be learning the ropes and being given instructions, but rather the opposite, someone who is in a position where they should be making some decisions about what others should be doing and displaying some leadership and guidance. Most people seem to think of me as a "senior" in my field; whenever I go trying to find something out, I end up with more questions than answers as people expect me
to know how everything works, even when I have no idea how something works.
I never had any interest in being a manager. I didn't see myself as someone who was eager to climb the corporate ladder to reach some high-ranking position. I always just wanted to be a techie, a quiet, anonymous employee who remained out of the way and made everything work in the background. And yet it seems I'm at a point where this is no longer expected of me or offered to me. People are giving me projects to guide to completion. People are telling me to write documents that will become internal standards which define how other employees perform tasks. People are telling me to design training that will inform other employees. And yet I never asked for any of this. I don't mind doing it, but it isn't really what I'd been looking for. I'm a technician, not a businessperson; I'm built to make computers run, not to design company processes.
And yet it doesn't seem to be a good idea to refute any of this. It doesn't seem like a good idea to put up my hand and say "Hey, um, excuse me? I didn't actually want to do any of this. I just want to do the same stuff that people do when they're starting out." I wanted to fix stuff that's broken and make things work, because that is what a techie does. But there's an implicit assumption that if you work as a techie for long enough, you should no longer be just making stuff work; you're just expected to put on your adult pants and start getting more involved with the business side of things rather than the technical side of things. More than once, I've tried to get involved with some technical issue, only to be told by my direct manager that no, my time is too important for me to waste it on minor technical glitches, and that I should get one of my junior colleagues to investigate and resolve such technical problems. I'm supposed to be writing documentation, setting internal standards, and having meetings with customers. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I should probably be grateful that I'm seen as commanding enough respect and competence to be able to engage in such internal decision-making and delegation of responsibility. And yet, again: I never actually looked for or asked for any of this. (Yes, I know I sound like Adam Jensen with this.)
I should probably start thinking more productively about my future, both professional and personal. Most of my co-workers are younger than me. The ones who aren't are in management positions. I'm increasingly beginning to realize that I need to make some changes now or I could end up burying myself in a hole that I can't get out of anymore.
It's difficult for me to think of myself in these terms. It's difficult for me to think of myself as someone who's really competent or who knows what they're doing, because every day when I go to work, I still encounter technical problems which I have no idea how to fix. But I've come to understand that this is something which will never change: computer software and network systems are so big and complicated now that no one
, not even those super-geniuses you hear about going into the technology industry, will know the reasons or the solutions for such problems off the top of their heads. They need to do specialized research into such problems just like anyone else would have to. Several years ago, in a previous job, I had a co-worker who was, at that time, a similar age to the one I am now, and he was one of the best in our industry I'd ever met. He was a brilliant IT administrator and had great respect from his department since he was recognized as being at the top of his group, the most capable guy in a team of very capable people. And yet one day, in a moment of reflection and sincerity, he confided to me: "I swear, if you only knew how little I feel like I really know..." And then I understood: the best aren't the best because they know a lot. There is too much information for even the most eidetic memory to take it all in and memorize every software patch, every bug, every solution, every software library, or every network route. The best have something else which makes them the best: it's not knowledge, per se, but rather some more vague ability to function and make things work even in the absence of such knowledge.
This is a good lesson to learn for people who work in the IT industry, I think. But while that might be somehow comforting, it doesn't really give me any sort of direction forward, and I seem to have reached a point where I fundamentally need one. I'm pretty satisfied with my life right now; I'm content with where I am and what I'm doing. When I was young, that was all I really wanted from my life: a normal, simple, quiet, contented life where I could feel satisfied with where I was and what I was doing. I have that now. And yet, I have an overwhelming sense that I can't keep doing what I'm doing now for the next 30 years, and that if I'm to avoid a mid-career crash and a mid-life career crisis, I need to change something soon, before it's too late to make significant changes.
Maybe it's time to change careers. Maybe it's time to change industries. This isn't the first time I've had this thought. Already in the year 2000, when the technology industry collapsed, there were many people who left for other lines of work, never to return to the IT field. For me, working with computers always seemed like a decision that had already been made: ever since I was a child, I spent most of my time interacting with computers on a technical level, so it was a natural choice to make doing that a career. But today, working in the technology industry has precious little to do with computers, as I've written so many times before. So again, this isn't the first time I'm having such thoughts. And yet now I'm realizing that these thoughts are taking on a new urgency as I begin to leave early adulthood. It wasn't that long ago that I turned 30. In another twinkling of an eye, I'll be 40. And then things will really start to go downhill if I don't have a plan ready by that time.
And so I keep torturing myself with questions I've already asked countless times: what else should I do? What else would
I or could
I do? I'd be no good in medicine; I would gleefully kill all my patients. I'd be hopeless as a lawyer; I would declare the entire state and its constitution to be invalid and spend all my time fruitlessly demanding a revolution. I'm not artistically talented, I have absolutely no head for sales or marketing, and I detest everything about the financial industry. I like animals but don't want to make working with them my job. I have no sympathy for tourists and support hunting and executing them like rats, so working in the tourism or hospitality industries is out. I hate food and eating, so I would be allergic to the food industry. I wouldn't mind being a farmer, but I'm in the wrong place for that, and anyway, I realize that this dream of retiring to the countryside and spending the rest of one's days on a farm is sort of a false dream, a fantasy which people idealize and which doesn't reflect the actual everyday reality of living and working on a farm for the rest of your life. In the right place, with the right people, it can work, but you have to make sure that it really is the right place and that you really are with the right people. I'm certainly not in a place to be doing that right now.
It seems childish, too, to be ruminating over such fantasies, to react to the changes in my career by wanting to throw it all away and start from the bottom somewhere else. And yet, sometimes we need to be childish in our lives. Sometimes we need to put aside the responsibilities and expectations that are placed on us as adults for a moment and get in touch with our inner child. Not too much, but just a little, just enough that we can recognize when we're not being true to ourselves or when changes need to be made.
Should I stay or should I go? Should I try to make a fundamental change and start over with something completely different? Or should I take the 10 years I have behind me and leverage that to get into something better, something which I wouldn't have been able to reach when I was just starting out?
If only you knew, dear reader, how little I really know.
|Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016|
|When the BRICS collapse
So now the Olympics in Rio are over. Some people had their moment of glory: world records were broken, medals were won, and sports fans had a good time. But now that the ceremonies and celebrations have passed and everyone's gone home, it seems that the games have been overshadowed by the highly-publicized problems which Rio as a city and Brazil as a country face in these difficult times: besides the political turmoil of President Dilma Rousseff's ongoing impeachment proceedings relating to corruption charges, the country faces the deeper and more worrying problems of a disease epidemic (or being Ground Zero for a global pandemic) from the Zika virus, and signs of rampant, deep-seated poverty and violent crime that cut through much of Rio, and indeed, Brazil. These things are no laughing matter, and to be sure, they are nothing new: much of Latin America has labored under the burden of organized criminal gangs and sprawling slums for many years. There was a lot of partying and celebrating relating to some sporting events, but a couple of weeks of Olympics couldn't cover up the problems festering beneath Rio's surface, and indeed, they seem to have had the opposite effect: the media attention which the Olympics focused on Rio have raised these serious issues to the surface, bringing them to the attention of the whole world, and now that the sports are over, these issues remain, leaving many with sobering questions about what is to be done about these problems, or indeed if anything can be done about them at all in a Brazil which openly admits that it has no opportunities to offer its young people and no clear path forward to greater stability or prosperity.
I mention all of this because it is a clear refutation of what we were told over the past few years: that Brazil somehow represents an emerging economy. You've heard about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) before; I've written about them several times before. The idea behind this concept seemed to be that the world's so-called "developed economies" (North America and most of Europe) have developed to the point where there isn't much left to develop, and so capitalism, which fundamentally requires constant growth in order to keep on thriving, went international in search of "developing economies" which could supply the growth which globalized capitalism is dependent on. The BRICS countries, then, represented a sort of economic "sweet spot": countries which are undeveloped enough that they have plenty of room to grow, but still advanced enough that they have a good infrastructure to build on. This seems, in retrospect, to have been little more than a delusional fantasy of people who make their living off financial speculation. Brazil entered a spiraling recession in 2014 which has continued to the present day. Russia likewise experienced catastrophic economic fallout from recent events in Ukraine, growth in China and India is slowing as those countries seem to be reaching a plateau, and South Africa is a virtual non-entity. All of this is happening even as Turkey, part of the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey) group of countries, goes through the turmoil of a failed coup attempt and President Recep Erdoğan's apparent decision that he doesn't really want to join the European Union after all, even as terrorist bombings erupt all across Turkey and the Syrian civil war bleeds through the Turkey-Syria border. My intent here isn't to kick these countries when they're down; it's unfortunate that all of these things are happening. My point is that people seem to have founded their ideas of future prosperity on an unreliable foundation, something hollow and rickety rather than the stable base which a country needs if it's to function long-term as a sovereign entity.
Not long ago, I read a news article proclaiming that Brazil just might be the coolest country in the world. I was shocked when I read this idea; how could a country rife with poverty and crime, a country with no sociocultural path forward, be the coolest country in the world? It seems that people are willing to forgive a country anything if it has beautiful beaches by the sea (never mind that those beaches or that sea are polluted) and peppy dance music with a beat. You got robbed while walking on the street? No problem; just dance your cares away on the beach! You have no job and can't afford basic life needs? Don't worry; just turn on some loud music and let it wash away your problems! Any sensible person would read these words as bitter sarcasm, but what's really sad is that some people seem to actually take them seriously, believing that dance music and sandy beaches are a good substitute for stable living standards. It isn't hard to see, then, where the problems in Brazil (and similar countries) began: actually, people got exactly what they wanted. They didn't really care about stability or sustainability in the first place; their thoughts were with music and dancing, and they got what they wanted. You won't find a shortage of music or dancing in Brazil. Non-Brazilians who regard Brazil don't seem to care about these problems either; all that matters to the world is that Brazilian women are beautiful and that the weather is warm, for surely this is all that you need to make a great country. Forget about the things that people actually need to live; a beach of callipygous women seems to be the only item on the world's hierarchy of needs.
It isn't difficult to prescribe a solution to fix the problems of a country like Brazil, then, but such a solution is basically impossible to enact, because it would require people to change their values and priorities, which is something that people seem to steadfastly refuse to do. The reason why the BRICS economies failed was because they focused too much on exactly what the world was telling them to focus on: near-term economic growth. It doesn't take a genius to tell you that if you try to grow as rapidly as possible without building a solid foundation to support that growth, any short-term growth will quickly collapse and leave you more deeply entrenched in problems than before. But the entire world ignored this basic idea and figured that if they just kept reaching for the stars, GDP could keep rising indefinitely. Any person with any amount of common sense could tell you that this is impossible, but unfortunately, politicians still make economic decisions based on what economists say, and economists live in a world that is not bounded by any concept of basic, fundamental reality. They dream up some chart or graph with random numbers on it, and people believe this nonsense. It's been like this for years, and so we have no reason to believe that this is going to change, because the general public has shown that it is perfectly willing to forget the past if there are women or music involved. "How could this recession happen? Wait a minute... I love this music! Let's dance! Oh yeah, we were talking about the recession... Whoa, check out the butt on that woman! Let's keep dancing, my friends! Surely economic success is just around the corner for all of us!"
The BRICS story is a somewhat retold version of the story of the dot-com bubble. Both were hyped for a while as the next big thing, then collapsed when it turned out that you can't build a structure out of hype alone. And in retrospect, people were foolish to believe in either story. At that time, of course, it didn't seem that way; no one can foresee the future, and when you're not being given facts, but rather fed a series of predictions based on incomplete data, you can make the future look like anything. But the problems inherent in all of these economic debacles are not too hard to discern for anyone who bothers to look and see them. That doesn't mean that people will
see them, because most people aren't willing to see real information that would reveal anything. People want to continue to believe in the hollow dream of economic expansion, and when they look to a country like Brazil, they will never see an empty, broken country which built a house out of sand on a foundation of mud. All they will see--because it's all they want
to see--is a tanned, big-bootied beauty shaking her butt to a bossa nova beat, hypnotizing them into the dreams which they so desperately want to believe in that this is the inevitable future waiting for all of us.
|Monday, August 15th, 2016|
|The problems highlighted by No Man's Sky
If you pay any attention at all to video-gaming news, you are probably extremely aware that No Man's Sky
was released last week. If you pay a little more attention than that, you may also be aware that the game has received highly polarized reviews. No Man's Sky
appears to be one of the most highly-anticipated video games to ever come out, and its release has been likened to that of previous games like 2001's Black & White
and 2008's Spore
. What all three of these games seem to have in common is that they were designed as concepts
rather than as games
, with the result that while they deliver pretty well on the one thing which they were designed and advertised to do, they are not much fun as "games." The release of No Man's Sky
is particularly interesting to me, however, because it highlights a couple of problems which seem to be inherent in gaming culture and which have always bothered me but which other people seem to accept or even enjoy as part of video gaming.
Before I get too deeply into the details, let me explain the basics first, for anyone who doesn't know what No Man's Sky
is or doesn't have many details about it. No Man's Sky
is a video game which came out last week, first for the PlayStation 4 and then a few days later for Microsoft Windows. The premise of the game is simple, but powerful: the game allows you to explore a universe of 2 to the power of 64 planets. Yes, that is 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets. No joke, no exaggeration. You have a spaceship, and you can use it to fly to any one of those planets, then fly around the planet in orbit, or come down to a low altitude and fly over the surface of the planet like an airplane. If you like the looks of the planet, you can then land on it and walk around and explore the planet on foot. That is basically the entire premise of the game. The basic gameplay is not really anything other games haven't done before, like 2014's Elite: Dangerous
, which lets the player explore "only" a relatively paltry 400 billion star systems, but as you might have already guessed, the appeal of No Man's Sky
lies largely in its sheer numerical scope. Make no mistake: it is unlikely that all of the planets in No Man's Sky
will be charted within our lifetimes. Considering that our world's population is currently estimated at almost 7.5 billion people, No Man's Sky
has about 2,459,565,876 planets for every single person alive on Earth today. Obviously, no single person is going to explore that many planets within their lifetime, meaning that even if every single person alive today did nothing but play No Man's Sky
for the rest of their lives, the game would still remain largely unexplored by the time the current generation of people dies. If the game is still running in 100 years, your great-great-grandchildren will still be discovering new planets. The reason for the hype behind No Man's Sky
is that it thus transcends its mathematical foundation: yes, there is a fixed number which defines its scope, and yet that number is so very large as to be basically infinite for any practical purposes. The game offers the possibility of an infinite, unlimited world to explore in any way you like.
You might ask yourself: how is this technically possible? Computers today regularly have disk drives whose sizes are measured in terabytes, and a terabyte is about a trillion bytes. A few trillion bytes is a lot of data, to be sure, but nowhere near the storage size you would need to store data on the quintillions
of planets on offer in No Man's Sky
. And you're right: the game doesn't have a database of all of those planets which it stores on your computer. In fact, it doesn't store that data anywhere: those 18 quintillion planets don't exist yet. The game automatically generates them when you get close to them. When you fly within visual range of a planet in No Man's Sky
, a computer algorithm randomly generates a planet: it generates the planet's color, the planet's atmosphere type, the flora and fauna which populate that planet, and all the other parameters which will define your experience should you decide to land on that planet and walk around. Until you actually get close enough to see the planet yourself, each one of those planets exists as nothing more than a dot in the game's vast map system. The planets in the game are like Schrödinger's cat: they exist in an indeterminate state until you actually go over and observe them. Until then, they could be anything at all. They are both everything and nothing until they experience the act of being observed by a human observer.
If that sounds like a bit of a cop-out in terms of game design, you've just hit upon one of the key problems with No Man's Sky
: although advertised as a universe of more than 18 quintillion planets, the reality is that the game was released with basically zero
planets. It's not a universe full of planets to explore; it's an algorithm to generate
planets. They're not selling a huge, infinite universe whose secrets you can explore; they're selling an algorithm, a formula they developed to generate parts of that universe. This leads us to the problematic questions (which have already existed for years) surrounding what's called "procedural generation," the practice of generating content based on a mathematical formula rather than having a human designer design that content. Procedural generation is not limited to video games: there have already been computer algorithms to generate pictures and music for decades. These algorithms mean a theoretically infinite amount of content: any time you want to see a new picture or hear a new song, you can just press a button and the computer will draw a new picture or compose a new song for you. The results aren't necessarily sheer random noise, either, particularly in the case of music: since most music follows a fairly structured set of forms (anyone who has studied music theory knows that note progressions usually follow a set of relatively mathematical structures), it is possible to make an algorithm that produces something that sounds pretty well like music, and yet can randomly produce a new piece of music each time.
Procedural generation can work surprisingly well for computer games; in fact, it's already been used for well over 30 years to design levels for games. The classic 1980 text-based RPG Rogue
did this, and it was so popular that it spawned a whole genre of games called "roguelikes" which use many of the design principles inherent in Rogue
, including randomly-generated levels which are different every time you play. This means theoretically infinite replay value for a game, since no two games are exactly alike. However, game designers can't rely on procedural generation to make their games fun, and here's where the limitations of "computer creativity" come into the picture: something which was generated according to an algorithm isn't going to be as balanced or variegated as something which was designed by a skilled designer who understands the principles of what goes into a good picture, song, or game level. Procedural generation works very well when it's defined within a fairly narrow set of constraints which are defined by the game designer and which ensure that the algorithm doesn't end up producing pure garbage, but you can't rely on it to generate a whole game for you. It's well and good to have randomization that produces a different game world each time you play, but that alone doesn't make a game; there also has to be some point to that game world, some reason why a player would want to actually bother going to explore it, and this seems to have been something which was forgotten in No Man's Sky
. As a result, the game falls into the same sort of pattern exhibited by the aforementioned Black & White
: all of these games were marketed on a particular gimmick which they do quite well, but once you've played with that gimmick for a few minutes, you find that there isn't really much game behind it, not much to do after you've played with the "software toy" that the "game" was sold on. When No Man's Sky
came out, it seems that thousands of players enjoyed a few hours with the game, but then asked: "Is that all there is? Once you've landed on a few planets and walked around for a while, what else is there to do? What kind of gameplay would motivate us to continue exploring these quintillions of planets?" It's the classical question of existential angst: we are here, but why
are we here, and what are we to do now that we're here?
One thing which annoys me about this question is that it's the same question I've been asking for years about Star Control II
, and yet nobody else seems to have asked this question about that game, ever. Star Control II
is a game from 1992 which has a universe of a few thousand planets to explore, which was very large for a game of that time. It's consistently hailed as one of the best games ever made, and yet whenever I play it, I always end up reaching a point after a couple of hours where I just see no reason to play it anymore, because most of those planets don't have anything interesting on them. At the very most, you might find some valuable minerals in the soil of a planet, which you can then mine out through a little mini-game which gets boring after the first few times you play it. Other than that, there is literally nothing of interest, nothing you can do on the vast majority of the game's planets; out of all those thousands of planets, only a couple of dozen contain alien races which you can actually communicate with or do anything with, and those are the planets which you're supposed to visit to advance the game's plot. The rest of the planets contain nothing: no intelligent life, no interesting features to see or explore, and indeed nothing to do at all. I've never understood why people think the game is so great; it seems they're just being forgiving because it was a groundbreaking game for its time. To be sure, I love the game's story, its music, and its overall look and feel, but the prospect of a universe with thousands of planets to explore is a gimmick: the game's designers didn't actually create thousands of unique, distinct planets to explore; they created a grid of random numbers, and if you happen to follow a point on that grid, you'll be rewarded with the information that you've arrived at a planet, a planet which you can now do nothing with. What's the point? No one asked this question in the time of Star Control II
, but people expect more from games now, and so everyone's posing this same question about No Man's Sky
Perhaps in recognition of this weakness and anticipation of these objections, the designers of No Man's Sky
appear to have tried injecting a bit more of a game-like element into the game by adding "Sentinels," flying robots which will attack you if you try to mine resources out of a planet you're on. Now, mining is a key aspect of No Man's Sky
, just as it was in Star Control II
: you need to gather resources in order to fuel your ship, since you do need fuel to fly around the game's huge universe. Perhaps it was thought that the challenge of fighting off Sentinels while trying to mine resources from the planet would make up for the monotony of the game and create a fun game-like experience. Instead, it seems to have done precisely the opposite: many people have complained that the Sentinels ruin a game which could have been fun, since they discourage the player from doing the very thing that the player is supposed to do and needs to do.
Thinking about all this, however, makes me think once again about the question of what constitutes a "game" at all, and whether a game needs to have "challenge" in it in order for it to be a game. Suppose that No Man's Sky
did not contain Sentinels, but rather allowed you to simply wander around wherever you wanted to go and do whatever you felt like doing without consequences. To create an analogy with another well-known game, imagine Grand Theft Auto
without police (since the Sentinels in No Man's Sky
operate on a "wanted level" analogous to that pioneered by the Grand Theft Auto
games). If you could just go anywhere in Grand Theft Auto
and shoot anyone or do anything else without anyone trying to stop you, would there be much challenge, and would it be much of a game?
The problem is that different people would give different answers to this question. Some people would say "No, that would be boring; that would eliminate any point to playing the game, since then there would be no challenge." Other people, however, would say "Actually yes, that would make the game better and more fun, since then I could do more things in the game without anyone in the game trying to impede my actions." This whole debate reminds me of the division over the ghost in Spelunky
, a roguelike game from 2008 in which players have only a couple of minutes to finish each level. After 2 minutes and 30 seconds of being in the same level, a ghost will appear. This ghost cannot be killed, destroyed, or otherwise removed from the level, and if it touches the player, the player dies instantly. The only really effective strategy for dealing with the ghost is to be fast: you need to finish the level in less than two-and-a-half minutes, and if you don't, you need to quickly exit the level so the ghost doesn't catch you. Many people decried the inclusion of the ghost in Spelunky
, insisting that it ruins what would have otherwise been a fun game, since it impedes the player's ability to explore each level of the game and imposes a strict time limit which requires them to make a rush for the exit instead of adopting a more relaxed or methodical approach to the game. This is particularly relevant since Spelunky
, as a roguelike, also uses procedural generation for its levels, meaning that each level is unique, and some players would really appreciate the opportunity to explore each level before they leave it rather than being forced to hurry through and possibly miss something that might have been useful or interesting. In response to these concerns, some people have released modifications of Spelunky
which include the option to turn the ghost off. Whenever I play Spelunky
, I personally always play such modifications; I never play the original, unmodified game specifically because I see the ghost as an offense to the whole spirit of exploration which is at the heart of the game, and for all those people who claim that not having the ghost "ruins" or "breaks" the game, get a load of this: I happen to vastly
prefer playing the game without the ghost, and if something makes a game more enjoyable or fun, how can that ruin it?
Derek Yu, the creator of Spelunky
, has stood behind the decision to incorporate the ghost into the game, insisting that the ghost is necessary to maintain the flow and pacing of the game, that not having the ghost would interrupt the progress of the game and allow players to linger in one area for too long, but I can't help but question: if the player chooses
to do so, why would you want to force
them to do otherwise? If a player really wants to just finish the game as quickly as possible, all right, they can choose to do that, but why can't a player be allowed to take a slower and more cautious approach to the game? I don't understand this mentality which believes that even if a player happens to enjoy a certain play style more, the game designer has the right to prohibit the player from playing the game in that way. Derek Yu has even commented on other games which lack a similar timed element, insisting that while some games might be fun, they would have benefited from some kind of time limit to ensure that the player has to keep moving and can't stay in one spot for too long. This kind of thing makes me angry, because again, just because one person might enjoy that style of game, that doesn't mean that everyone else has to make the same type of game. Hey, Derek: just because you felt the need to ruin Spelunky
with the ghost, don't think that means that you can tell everyone else to ruin their games in the same way.
And yet a similar kind of thinking seems to have gone into No Man's Sky
, because the game's designers have expressed similar concerns about the "problem" of players remaining on one planet for too long. It seems that in the testing leading up to the release of the game, the designers complained that some playtesters were remaining on planets for too much time instead of pushing on to discover a different planet, and so they incorporated elements into the game to encourage players not to spend too much time on one planet, instead hopping from one planet to another in an infinite chain, never spending too much time on each planet because they were, again, convinced that doing this would somehow destroy the flow and the fun of the game. No Man's Sky
is not really a game about exploring the planets you land on; it was designed to be a game about getting to a planet, stripping it of as many of its resources as you can grab without getting killed by the Sentinels, then running away and speeding off to another planet to continue this process ad infinitum
. This process seems pointless and wasteful to me; yes, the game may contain more than 18 quadrillion planets, but why does that mean that I need to try and explore as many as possible, given that I know I won't be able to visit that many planets in my lifetime? Why can't I remain on one planet for a few days, or even longer if I feel like it, rather than just having to dash from one planet to another? It's clear that tremendous work has gone into creating the algorithms which define the universe of No Man's Sky
, so it baffles me that the designers have gone to such efforts to limit how players can experience that universe. Why are they so upset at the prospect of players not playing the way they are "supposed" to play? What's the point of making an interactive game if players can't play the game the way they want to?
If you think about it, life is a process of mixing history with the future. We are defined partly by the things which have happened to us and to our world in the past, but we can still make decisions which impact the future. We can't choose where we are born or who our parents are, but we can still define a future for ourselves that is independent of this history. And yet it would be a mistake to leave that history in the past, because we can learn things from history. I wouldn't want to live a life or play a game that is all about staying in one place forever and never making any kind of changes or progress, but neither would I want to live a life or play a game that consists entirely
of changes, because then there is no structure and no coherent narrative, as events move from one place to another at a breakneck speed without any moments to pause and consider where we've been, where we've come from, what path led us to where we are now and why. Remaining in one place and moving to another place are not opposites; they are two actions which complement each other, and any balanced life includes a combination of both of these. The same is true of a video game. Yet this balance seems to be lost on people today, with consequences that are disastrous for our society, culture, economy, and environment. In comparison to the problems which face our real world, perhaps the problems with a video game seem small and inconsequential in comparison, but the lack of balance in video games is a symptom: game designers who believe that their game needs to be played a certain way are attempting to force players to play in that particular style, and in this way, the debate surrounding No Man's Sky
is, in a very real way, a microcosm of the debate surrounding modern human society.
|Tuesday, August 9th, 2016|
Some years ago, when I was living in the United States, I was invited to a social gathering by a friend of mine who was an immigrant to that country, and who had integrated pretty well, in the sense that they were very enthusiastic about American society and seemed to be enjoying it tremendously. My friend was quite a lively person, enjoying the parties and the inclusiveness of American society, the way it welcomed people from all walks of life and from all over the world, which was important to this friend of mine since they wanted to feel like they could fit in. There was just one word of caution which my friend gave me as we were making plans to attend the social gathering: "Be entertaining," my friend advised me. "You will find that people like you better if you're entertaining and show enthusiasm about things." I had the impression that my friend was giving me not only advice for this particular social gathering, but for life in general.
This was, for me, a pretty nice encapsulation of the American lifestyle and the American point of view. I don't think my friend had intended to summarize American life so succinctly, but it turns out that in a serendipitous turn, they had: with those two words, "Be entertaining," they had summed up the entire American philosophy toward the meaning of life. As long as you are somehow like a character from a television sitcom, people will like you: they will react positively to the things you say and to you as a person, and they will welcome you into their social gatherings. On the other hand, if you are more like a "normal person," not someone whom you'd see on TV but rather a person who doesn't constantly have funny stories to tell or other amusing ways to make people laugh, then you will be shunned in American society, because people get together in America to be entertained, not to have any kind of society or community.
The irony is, I hope, not lost on the reader: my friend loved America for how tolerant and accepting it is, how much it welcomes all different types of people, and yet my friend had embraced yet another type of exclusionary thinking, the thinking which excludes "boring" people, the people who don't always have a joke or a trick up their sleeve. In America, it might not matter what your skin color is, what your native language is, or what country you were born in, but if you want to be like a native, it's important that you can be a fast-talking, "cool" person who impresses others with your cleverness and uniqueness. If you don't have these qualities, you'll be cast off to the lowest classes of society.
This is one thing which separates European society from American society for me: in Europe, people are still allowed to be normal people. It is okay to be like other people in Europe. It is okay to be average or unremarkable. It is okay if you don't have some weird and funny quirk which somehow makes you unique. In Europe, it is not a requirement that each person somehow mark themselves in a way that makes them unique and memorable. In Europe, you can be a part of a community, and people will not think any less of you for it, even if you don't make them laugh constantly with your funny stories and quirky eccentricities. In Europe, the most important thing is to be a good, solid person, someone who does the right things and acts with personal integrity in a way which supports the sustained health of the community. In the United States, by contrast, entertainment and unique individuality are the most important qualities a person can have: people might say that they want personal integrity from others, but what's really valued in practice is that a person can somehow give others the feeling of being in a TV show with a laugh track.
No wonder people like living in the USA so much. It's a place where the fun never stops. The show must go on, even when the TV is turned off: once the actual show ends, the real-life show continues, as people are expected to continue putting on funny behaviors that they learned from the greatest and wisest teacher of all, the electronic picture screen. It's no secret that even for children who go to school every day, the television has been America's actual
teacher for several generations, and so it's not surprising that American society's values and American people's ideas have been formed by what they learn in that classroom. Today, you can see the results of such an education system: a whole country of people who just want to be entertained. You, too, can be an American, and fit well into that set of values, if you learn from the same teacher in the same class. And if you don't, well, America will also be glad to receive you as a minimum-wage laborer who works 12-hour shifts every day, lives in a slum, and remains invisible to the public eye, since no one would want to see a boring person like that.
|Saturday, August 6th, 2016|
|The shift from constructionism to instructionism
It wasn't that long ago that people were talking about a shift in education from instructionism to constructionism. But the natural limitations of our human experiences mean that things are actually moving in the opposite direction.
In the field of pedagogy, the theory and study of teaching and how people can best be taught, there is a divide between instructionism and constructionism. Seymour Papert, who only just left us this past Sunday, described the difference between these two as "Teaching versus learning." Instructionism is the more "traditional" model of a classroom in which students sit and watch a teacher explain something on a blackboard. Students have no involvement in this learning process other than just observing and receiving the instruction they are given. By contrast, constructionism is the idea that people learn best when they have some personal involvement in the learning process: constructionism is "learning by doing." The contrast between these two philosophies of learning is perhaps best typified in science classes, where there is a clear division between "lectures" and "labs." Many students and teachers believe that people learn science best by doing, by seeing the results of experiments rather than studying the principles behind those experiments out of a book. The problem with the constructionist approach is that it's limited in what it can convey: it can only convey things which we can personally witness or experience. This means that while it's easy to demonstrate simple scientific concepts like gravity, light, or temperature in hands-on settings, it is basically impossible to get a thorough understanding of atomic fission or quantum physics in a lab environment, since these processes occur at a level which we can't see and can't understand intuitively based on our everyday experiences. Constructionism is also largely useless for teaching history, since we obviously don't have the ability to personally experience historical events. Until someone invents a time machine, we'll have to rely on instructionist methods for teaching history.
The thing is, when we are born, no one comes and tells us everything that we need to know in life. The things which people know today were largely learned through a process of trial-and-error, often as the result of great mistakes which we only later recognized as mistakes because of their consequences. Imagine how the course of history would have been changed if God had told us when we were born about the toxicity of lead and the consequences of using lead to carry and store water, the health problems which lead causes and how those problems can be avoided. Imagine if God had told us about the risks of nuclear radiation, AIDS, or global climate change. But no one did. We were only able to discover these things as the result of these things actually happening, of people actually experiencing them and documenting them. And to be sure, the idea of teaching these things through practical experience is absurd: no one should have to learn about AIDS or lead poisoning by experiencing them personally. I've sometimes thought that if there is a God, then God must be a constructionist, or at least partly so, since humans have historically been allowed to make their own mistakes and needed to learn from those mistakes rather than being warned about the consequences of their actions ahead of time. But we're entering a world where constructionism is of limited value in pedagogy, because we're working with increasingly abstract concepts in all
fields of education and research. Science and engineering, including the social sciences, are all becoming increasingly more specialized in their research as the things which we can intuitively understand become so thoroughly studied that there isn't much more that we can learn from them at the intuitive level.
We've reached the limits of what we can understand with intuition and gut feeling. If the process of scientific advancement is to continue, it can only do so in an environment in which people have no emotional or intuitive feeling for what they're learning, and can only understand those ideas within the context of rigid analysis. We're entering a world which we can only understand by being told about, not by experiencing it personally. This also means, of course, that we'll have no way of fact-checking anything: if a group of scientists claim that subatomic physics work a certain way or that a certain substance has been found on one of Saturn's moons, we'll have no way to verify these claims, because we lack the equipment we'd need to verify this information for ourselves. Science and technology tends to divide people into haves and have-nots, and anyone who lacks advanced scientific equipment is at a disadvantage since they have no way to test or verify anything. Computers were supposed to empower people to be able to discover and transmit information more readily than they could at any other point in history. Papert himself had high hopes for computers, believing that they could help us make the leap from instructionist to constructionist methods of learning, but the problem is that even if someone has a computer, the computer itself doesn't tell them anything about the world; they are reliant on the software which someone has written for that computer to tell them anything, and if software becomes our new medium for learning about the world, then software is a propaganda tool, a way in which software developers can get people to believe anything.
The more things change, the more they stay the same: we might be able to send a message to anyone in the world in a matter of seconds and pull up more information on nearly any topic of study than we could ever use, but we're still as dependent on other people as we ever were to tell us what the world is like or what's going on. If we're ever going to learn anything, we're still dependent on instructionism: we still need someone to tell us and teach us. And whether what people tell us is true or not is something we can only guess. These are fundamental problems with no solution, which is why they're still as relevant to us in our present day as they were thousands of years ago.
|Thursday, August 4th, 2016|
|Monkey see, monkey do
I usually tend to make the assumption that other people are generally intelligent and capable of rational self-determination in the way that humans are generally capable of being. I don't know if other people make this same assumption when dealing with other people, but one thing which tends to become clear when you deal with people and examine their motivations for doing things is that this assumption is false. People may have the capacity for rational self-determining intelligence, but they do not generally use this faculty. Rather, people have an overwhelming tendency to pattern-match in everyday life. People don't decide what to do or how to live through a set of carefully-planned decisions based on well-analysed criteria, but rather on what they see other people doing.
The true extent of this "monkey see, monkey do" effect is difficult to gauge, because people do a good job of seeming
to know what they are doing as they go throughout their everyday lives. People always seem to know what they're going to do and why, and so they give a pretty strong impression that they've made up their minds about something based on reasons which are clear to them, but a bit of careful questioning of people almost inevitably reveals that this is just a facade, the appearance of being well-grounded, balanced, and aware. In reality, people go through their lives quite blindly, without a clue as to why they are really doing anything. If you ask them why they are doing something, they will usually be quite content to tell you that they have no reason and don't need a reason for what they do; if they do try to supply a reason, it will usually be the simplest of all possible reasons, a rationale based on popular slogans or simplistic thinking based on what they have observed other people doing and saying.
It's well known that children form their ideas of social and behavioral norms by watching other people's behavior as they grow up. What's not so widely recognized or acknowledged is that this trend is lifelong; even in adulthood, people tend to exhibit an unconscious tendency to do what they see other people doing, and if they notice that most people seem to be doing something, they will usually start doing the same thing without really thinking about why they are doing it or what the consequences for doing it might be. The tendency to follow the crowd is perhaps slightly less impulsive in adults than it is in children, but to imagine that we live in a world of self-determined people where each adult has a clear idea of who they are or what they want their life to stand for is an illusion, a fantasy. Most adults are nearly as clueless about everything as the day they were born.
A relevant question at this point might be: how important is this observation? Is it important that people actually think for themselves and make their own critical life decisions, or is it fine for people to follow the crowd and let social norms guide their path through life?
Impulsively, many people, particularly "Western" people, tend to immediately say that of course it's important that people choose their own path, that people be "independent" and "self-defining" rather than allowing their society to choose their norms for them. But this is a sort of lip service to the idea of freedom and independence; in reality, even people who say these things are allowing their society to choose their thinking, since these ideas of freedom and independence are themselves hallmarks of "Western" ideology. Indeed, it is a characteristic of Western society for people to imagine that they are free and independent while actually living within a structure of subtle social and psychological manipulation which is all the more effective for its subtlety. It's only noticeable if you pay attention to it, and most people don't, since they were never trained on what to look for, and even if they were, most people don't want to.
Is it really that important that people be independent thinkers, though? You might think that you want to be one, but do you really
want to be one? Do you know what the consequences of having your own ideas are? Do you know what it means for your life when you don't agree with anyone else and no one else agrees with you, when every person you speak to finds your ideas strange and forgettable if not outright dangerous and reprehensible? If you've never lived that kind of a life before, you don't know what it's really like. You might not know what the psychological consequences of long-term social alienation and conflict caused by having your own ideas might be.
There are indeed people who have seen both sides of life, who have observed both what Socrates famously called "the unexamined life" and its opposite, and concluded that human beings live healthier, happier, more productive, and all-around better lives when they don't think about things too much, when they don't ask serious questions about what or how or why, when they don't question the fundamental assumptions and dogmas of their society and culture, but simply allow themselves to be carried along with it. You might think that to live such an unthinking, compliant life seems like a pretty sad way to live. But to constantly be fighting against your own society by having contrary ideas to the people around you is also a pretty sad way to live.
The narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We
(widely recognized as the Russian counterpart to 1984
) notes that to be aware of your own thinking suggests a disorder. You are only aware of a body part when there is something wrong with it. When your stomach feels fine, you don't usually think about it; if you have some awareness of your stomach, if your attention is drawn to it, that usually suggests that you are feeling sick or beginning to develop some illness, because you are developing that sense that something is wrong with it, that awareness of your own stomach which you only develop when it is ill, or about to become so. To likewise be aware of your own mind, of your own thoughts, seems like a disorder: it suggests that there is something amiss with your own thoughts, because people who are content with their own thoughts do not pay attention to those thoughts, but simply let thoughts drift in and out of their heads like leaves being blown by the wind. You might say that to think in this way--to lack self-awareness, to lack consciousness regarding your own thoughts, to let your mind drift like an unanchored boat--is to lack development, to live more or less like an animal, obeying instinct and the actions of the herd rather than using one's own capacity for intelligence and reason to form one's own opinions and decisions. You might be right. But can you really conclusively say that to be so self-aware, to be so self-determiningly intelligent, is somehow objectively better? At the end of the day, the belief that to think in such a way is "better" is itself an irrational bias, an opinion which cannot be right or wrong since it can neither be proven nor refuted by objective facts. If you are like me, you feel compelled to think rationally because you would not be willing to live any other way. But there are plenty of people who are happy to live like monkeys, copying the actions of other people they see and feeling happy because they are in the midst of people who live just like them.
You can be a monkey too. It is your choice. Most people won't fault you for being one. And even if someone does, you can quickly move on and find a group of other people who will help you forget all about it.
|Monday, August 1st, 2016|
|Hex-editing your way to victory in Castle of the Winds
As if to prove the point which I made in this recent post
, I recently played through the classic Windows 3.x RPG Castle of the Winds
, but instead of playing through the game while building up my character, I hex-edited my character to quickly get up to maximum ability. Far from spoiling the game for me, this made the game infinitely more enjoyable, as I was able to blast through the game killing everything in sight instead of slowly and painstakingly grinding the character up one level at a time. I really cannot understand why people would want to waste hours and hours grinding up their character when they could just go right to the good parts of the game. I've tried playing the grinding way, and it's a terribly frustrating and sad way to play a game. People say that my way makes the game go by too quickly, but I would rather enjoy an hour or two of something good rather than dozens of hours of pure frustration and time-wasting.
So how do you hex-edit a saved-game file for Castle of the Winds
? I thought you'd never ask. The values which I found to be useful are listed below. All location values are in hexadecimal.
(Blue attributes are current, green is maximum.)
80: Green strength
81: Green intelligence
82: Green constitution
83: Green dexterity
84: Blue strength
85: Blue intelligence
86: Blue constitution
87: Blue dexterity
9E: Current experience (lowest byte)
9F: Current experience
A0: Current experience
A1: Current experience (highest byte)
94: Current hit points (low byte)
95: Current hit points (high byte)
96: Maximum hit points (low byte)
97: Maximum hit points (high byte)
98: Current mana points (low byte)
99: Current mana points (high byte)
9A: Maximum mana points (low byte)
9B: Maximum mana points (high byte)
564: Money (lowest byte)
567: Money (highest byte)
|Saturday, July 23rd, 2016|
|Killing, evil, and ideology
Coincidentally, I had glanced through American Sniper
, the autobiography of U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, just a few days before yesterday's spree shooting here in Munich. I mention this because the beginning of the book is thought-provoking in that unpleasant way which makes you think about ideas which people would generally rather not think about, but which one must admit make sense when you think about them. Right from the book's start--not even in the first chapter, but in the prologue--Kyle writes of shooting dead a woman accompanying a child because she'd activated a hand grenade which she clearly intended to use as a suicide bomb. Most people would rather not think about a child seeing their mother shot dead before their eyes, let alone have to shoot that mother themselves, but Kyle maintains that even thinking back on the experience while narrating the book, "I don't regret it. The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn't take any Marines with her."
I think most people, no matter what their stance on violence is, would have to acknowledge that Kyle is right. If that woman had already activated a bomb which she was carrying with the intent of blowing herself up with it in the next few seconds, it was too late to save her. She was going to die no matter what the outcome; the best thing you can do in such a situation is try to minimize how many other
people she can kill. In that moment, as Kyle killed the woman with a sniper shot, he became not a murderer, but quite the opposite: he saved lives. Forget the trolley problem; that woman had already made the decision that she and her child were going to die in that moment, on that spot, and that was a decision she could no longer be swayed from. What other decision could the man behind the rifle make?
Kyle uses the word "evil" to describe these people, people who are so obsessed with achieving some kind of death or destruction with their lives that they will readily give everything they have, including not only their own life but the lives of their family, if it means that they can kill whatever enemy they hate so much. Kyle writes of "Savage, despicable evil," a hatred and a compulsion toward killing which consumes a person body and soul. On the subject of how many people he personally killed, Kyle hedges on providing a concrete number, declaring: "The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives." Obviously Kyle has an American perspective, but replace his use of "American lives" with "innocent lives" and I think you can understand pretty well the point, the reason why a murderer can be seen as a hero for murdering another murderer. This is also why the United States still has the death penalty: as I've pointed out in the past, it's not about proving that killing is bad by killing the killer. There is a difference between a just killing and an unjust killing.
These thoughts occurred to me yesterday when I heard the news that right here in Munich, the city I've lived in for a while now, there was a mass shooting in the Olympia-Einkaufszentrum, a shopping mall which I've been to many times. As you can perhaps imagine, this made things personal for me in a way that other recent such events didn't. The shootings in Paris, the bombing of the Brussels airport in March, last week's truck massacre in Nice, even this past Monday's axe attack which occurred here in Bavaria, weren't quite as personal to me as a shooting at a place where I've personally been. For me, it wasn't so much frightening or horrifying as outrageous: it felt like an attack not on me, but on my land and my people. Of course, the first assumption which most people made (and I will admit that I made this assumption as well, since it fit the pattern) was that this was yet another ISIS-inspired attack committed by people of foreign origin with a religious or quasi-religious motive, but the eventual discovery that the shooter was not the three people originally reported, but actually a single man who was born and raised here in Munich, didn't make things any better. I don't care where a person is from or what their skin color is; an attack on people is an attack on people. And it got me thinking about what I would have done if I'd been there, if I'd been at the mall when the shooting happened, if I'd been standing next to the guy or behind him when he was shooting. Whether I'd have been able to stop him is a technical question, and the answer is likely no--a guy like me, unarmed and without formal fighting training, doesn't get very far against a madman wielding a firearm--but the more pertinent question is whether I'd have had the resolve to kill him. Supposing that I'd had a gun too, that he'd been there in front of me and that I might have had the chance to shoot him and thus stop a massacre, would I have done it? Would it have been the right thing to do?
I grew up in a Christian family and went to church every weekend. I'm well aware of "Thou shalt not kill." I was taught that to go to war is a sin. I was taught that "The battle belongs to the Lord," that God protects the righteous, and that only a lack of faith would lead someone to take up arms against another person instead of entrusting their safety to the higher powers that watch over us. And yet I can't frame the unfolding of events in my mind in any other way. If I were there, right there in the mall as that guy was shooting others, and if I'd been in a position to shoot that shooter dead, I can't conceive, in my mind, of any other outcome than one in which I raise my own gun and open fire on that guy. May God forgive me; there is a difference between faith and foolishness, between meekness and madness. Chris Kyle seems to have come to the same conclusion, declaring: "I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job."
Incidentally, Kyle's death also seems to parallel something of what happened here in Munich: after serving in Iraq and killing well over a hundred people in a war zone, Kyle came home to his family and ended up being shot dead by a madman in his own country. Seems like you're more likely to die these days as a result of home-grown terrorism than in a war on the other side of the globe.
The fundamental question of whether it is (or can be) justified for one person to kill another, whether we can be making the right decision by choosing to kill, is one which has troubled humanity since time unknown. It's a question usually avoided in political, legal, and even academic contexts, since it's mostly not a very practical question. How many times in your life will you face a situation where you actually have to make such a decision? I don't think I ever have. Hopefully I never will. But it's still a question that seems to demand an answer. I've written in the past about how I would wish death upon certain people, not even just people who are in the act (or about to commit an act) of a mass shooting, but people in general whose only function in life is to take from others, people who only consume selfishly and thoughtlessly, and I can't see any way in which the world could be a better place with such people in it, but this still raises the question of whether I would actually have the certainty needed to go through with it, if I would actually choose to kill such people even if I could somehow do it without repercussions for myself. How much do you trust your own judgment? How willing would you be to end someone else's life if you felt certain that their disappearance would make the world a better place?
Again, these are questions that seem to demand answers. And yet I think it's probably better not to think about them too much, because it's not good to fixate on one idea for too long, especially a dangerous idea. This became clear in the aftermath of the shooting, when people from both sides of the political spectrum promptly weighed in, as such people tend to do whenever there's an event like this. I heard commentary from a spokesperson for the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, a political party which is often described as "right-wing populist," although some people declare this to be a misnomer, insisting that the party is neither right-wing nor populist) who maintained that these kinds of attacks are growing more common specifically because of the refugee situation in Europe, that we've committed a grave error by allowing more than a million people to come here from war-torn countries without even a form of identification, and thus no way of knowing who these people are, what their background is, or what they intend to do and what's going to happen to them after they relocate to Europe. This has been one of the central messages of the AfD since its founding in 2013, and the problem is not that there's anything wrong with this message, but rather that it seems to be the only message which the AfD is capable of. Of course a country needs to maintain basic stability and security; of course it makes sense to check people who want to enter your country and defend your borders against the risk of dangerous people who want to enter your country, and this is such a stupidly basic idea that it's actually kind of embarrassing that it needs to be said, but the problem with the AfD is that while everything they say is basically true, you can't build a political strategy on one single idea, and the AfD has hammered this one idea so consistently and insistently that one could get the impression that they don't stand for anything else at all. This is actually not true--the AfD does seem to have other opinions on other subjects, but there seems to be no good way of finding out what these are, as they are rarely publicly espoused. The political situation in Germany is similar to that in the United States in the sense that there are only two major parties which collect most of the votes and there is hardly a viable third-party alternative, but while it is true that Germany lacks a proper opposition party, while it's clear that Germany does need a political alternative, it's not clear that this
specific alternative is the one which Germany really needs.
On the other side of the political spectrum, one of the saddest things, to me, about yesterday's shooting in Munich is the people who reacted to the shooting by saying "My greatest fear is that this will motivate more people to vote for a right-wing party." (This was when it was still assumed that the shootings were jihadist in nature and committed by Islamic terrorists.) Even if you are politically leftist, even if you disagree with everything which "right-wing" political parties stand for, what kind of mentality does it take for a person to hear of a mass shooting in a public place, and react not with sympathy for the victims, not with sorrow at the madness which moves people to do such things, not even with the animal instinct of fear for your own personal safety, but rather of the fear that someone's political thinking might be influenced by such an event? How brainwashed must the people of Germany be for them to hear of a shooting in their own city and immediately respond with "Oh no! I fear that this might motivate people to cast a right-wing vote!" I feel terrible for the people of Germany. What a sad, broken people they must be to hear of their own city being shot up by madmen and react by thinking that political responses to implement basic security measures is the worst thing that could happen. I don't strongly identify with either side of the political spectrum, but it becomes apparent that whatever kind of thinking drives contemporary "liberal" or "leftist" thinking is, if this is even possible, somehow more wrong-minded than the "evil" Chris Kyle described, the hatred which causes people to kill. That kind of "evil" isn't even a mentality; it's a mental state which has gone beyond all logic and reason, and people caught in its grips have no way of thinking in any reasonable or rational way, but for a calm, thinking person to respond to terror by stating in plain terms that their greatest fear is stopping that terror, is some kind of denial of basic humanity which I can't even begin to comprehend. I can understand wanting to kill someone, but I can't understand this kind of "liberal" thinking. It seems to me that this is "ideology" in the purest and most dangerous sense. Most philosophers today tend to use the word "ideology" in a derogatory way, which bothers me since I am not opposed to ideology as such, and indeed, I tend to think that ideology is necessary in order for there to be any reason to live for either a person or a nation, but I tend to think of the word in the more neutral sense of "A way of thinking," while postmodern philosophers seem to use it to mean "A rigid way of thinking which demands conformance to its precepts and denies all reality which might contradict that way of thinking," which is of course something dangerous. If that's what ideology is, then, the insistence of "left-wing" thinkers that a shift toward the political "right" is the worst thing which could happen in our world today is pure ideology in its most damaging form. We desperately need a voice of reason, and there is none to be heard; everyone who proclaims themselves to be such is just spewing more madness.
So what do we do now? We do what people have already done: we pick up the pieces and carry on with our lives. The shooter killed himself after taking the lives of nine other people, and in this case, it's unlikely that there will be copycat attacks, so there isn't any specific reason to feel particularly afraid as we go back out into the city and continue the process of living. But our most dangerous enemy today isn't some guy with a gun who decided that he wanted to bring a random collection of bystanders with him to the grave; the most dangerous enemy we face is lurking inside our own minds, and there is no end of people who want to exploit it for their own ends. If we have anything to fear, it is our own capacity for foolishness and irrationality which causes us to do things that can only be described as the most evil of madness.
|Wednesday, July 13th, 2016|
|Saturday, July 9th, 2016|
|The death of the hit
One of the biggest concerns which people have about the unification of world cultures is that everything will become the same. In theory, it's a nice idea that telecommunications technology like the Internet allows people from all over the world to share communication with each other, and it's clear that this communication goes well beyond "hi, how r u?" type messages: cultural forms of all types--music, literature, visual art, and so on--are readily shared on a global level through the Internet, and while this has been recogized as a good way for students of art and culture to be able to find information more easily and inexpensively, it's also often observed that this has the inevitable effect of blending those cultures together. As the Internet becomes more pervasive around the world, it is commonly observed that it has the effect of erasing smaller cultures and replacing them with a globalist culture that can be more readily spread through mass media. The result is often called "global monoculture," a vision of the present and future in which the entire world exists within one cultural sphere and mindset, and there is no room for regional variation. Kenya would be indistinguishable from India, Paris would be identical to Buenos Aires, and the entire notion of phrases like "Russian literature" or "Chinese art" would become obsolete historical terms with no relevance in the modern world. While we're obviously still a long way from such visions becoming reality, the effects of pervasive commercial culture annihilating local indigenous cultures has already been observed around the world. The effect is analogous to the development of "Newspeak" in Orwell's 1984
: Newspeak was a language designed to limit the range of ideas which people could express by limiting the number and type of words in the language. Similarly, global monoculture limits the number of ideas which people can express through literature or art by eliminating certain ideas from the global cultural awareness.
If some people are to be believed, however, an opposite effect may be simultaneously taking place: there are those who insist that even as this globalization of culture is taking place, there is a simultaneous fragmenting effect, a process through which the idea of a cultural "hit," something so popular that it becomes a recognizable touchstone of its contemporary generation, becomes less prevalent, replaced by countless cultural niches that serve special interests, a process which is inevitably enabled by the Internet with its global reach and thus capability to connect people with niche interests who would otherwise remain isolated.
Perhaps the first book to bring this phenomenon to the public's attention in a major way was Chris Anderson's 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More
. The fundamental idea of this book is something which anyone who has spent a fair amount of time on Amazon or eBay will quickly understand intuitively: if you have a speciality interest, the Internet is the most likely place to find people or businesses which cater to that speciality interest. In any city or town, big or small, most stores sell either clothing or food, which makes sense since those are the things which people are most likely to buy when they go out shopping, but suppose you have a particular hobby and want to buy something relevant to that hobby. In my case, for example, I have a specific interest in old computer games. Where do you suppose I'm going to find them for sale in any shopping mall? Walk-in game stores usually only sell new games, and the idea of such a store selling any kind of game for DOS is basically not viable unless it happens to be a second-hand store, or a store specializing in "collectible" or "antique" items, and even then, the chances of you finding exactly what you're looking for in such stores--which are necessarily just random collections of bric-a-brac with little organization and no good way to see what's actually in stock in the store's inventory without looking around for a while--are sufficiently low that you can actually expect to not
find what you're looking for. On the other hand, eBay generally has such items for sale, and if you're looking for an obscure book, movie, or music album, Amazon has basically the world's largest selection of such items, including the ability to provide you with a stunning array of out-of-print and import items which you basically have no chance of ever finding in a local shop. Sure, if you're looking for a Harry Potter
book or Lady Gaga CD, chances are great that a store in your area sells these items, but there are thousands--probably millions--of books and movies and CDs which you will never find in a local shop, but which can be readily ordered on the Internet for a few bucks. Similarly, from a non-commercial community perspective, the Internet allows people to connect based on interests rather than geography: I have a huge interest in computer games from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it's guaranteed that I would never have found people who live near me whom I could share this interest with, but I've exchanged messages with countless people on the Internet who share this interest with me even though they live thousands of miles away. The Internet has allowed countless types of obscure cultures and niche interests to flourish by bringing people together from all over the world who would never find someone with their shared interests in their local neighborhood.
In "The Rise and Fall of the Hit," the second chapter of The Long Tail
(the chapter's subtitle is "Lockstep culture is the exception, not the rule"), Anderson argues that "hit culture" was actually something unnatural and temporary, pointing out that in pre-modern times, culture was naturally segmented by geography: before the age of air travel and the internal combustion engine, different places had their own cultures due to lack of contact with each other. As transcontinental railway networks and, later, jet aircraft made it easier than ever to travel around the world, an unprecedented level of global contact with foreign cultures began to take place, and as radio and television networks arose, it became viable to transit information across entire countries--even a big country like the United States or the Soviet Union--in a matter of seconds. This had the side effect of bringing a lot of publicity to whatever those radio or television networks played: throughout the latter half of the 20th century, young rock-and-roll bands were usually made or broken by whether they managed to get airplay on the radio, and later, in the MTV era, on television. These telecommunication networks were marked by how little control listeners and viewers really had over what was played: you could change the station, of course, but in any location there were only a few dozen stations that you could pick up if you were lucky, and they were often saturated with advertising to pay for the expenses involved in operating a large transmission tower. Even in the age of satellite television, when people had access to hundreds of TV channels, there was often a sense of having "hundreds of channels but nothing to watch." This era did mark a notable beginning of fragmentation of television viewership, with speciality channels like the Golf Channel (which really is just about golf all the time), Court TV (which focused on video recordings of actual courtroom trials), The History Channel (yes, it really was just about history), the Food Network (nothing but TV shows about food), and the Cartoon Network (basically nothing but cartoons 24 hours a day) gaining significant viewership, but this still doesn't compare to the YouTube phenomenon. Having 500 television channels sounded like a lot to people in the 1990s, especially to those who had grown up in small towns where you might have been lucky to have two local television stations, but today, there are literally hundreds of millions (some counts say more than a billion) of videos on YouTube, and I can watch any of those videos in seconds without having to pay for anything other than normal Internet access. This means that even if I am a fan of the most obscure music group in the world, a band which would basically have no hope of ever getting played on commercial radio or MTV, there is nothing stopping that band from uploading their songs to YouTube or some similar online site and allowing me to listen to their entire catalog of music without having to wait for the song to come on the radio. The Internet is thus a huge enabler of niche artists and the fans of such artists, allowing obscure artists, for the first time in history, to reach a global audience without any travel or advertising costs.
Anderson cites this effect as causing the death of the hit. Throughout the 1990s, pop music groups were bigger than ever, setting one record after another in terms of albums sold. But right around the year 2000 or perhaps a couple of years after that, things suddenly collapsed. Music sales fell off a cliff, and year after year, the number of hit albums continued to drop precipitously. The music industry was quick to blame piracy for this, and it's true that music piracy surged after technology made it possible to distribute albums in MP3 format online, but the story runs deeper than that: music sales have fallen, it's true, but sales of "hit" music have fallen even more. In other words, the proportion of "hits" has fallen as a percentage of overall music sales, while smaller and more "alternative" music acts have increased in importance and popularity. If the concept of the long tail is to be believed, then, this signifies a new era in which superstars are less important and public interest is more evenly and equally distributed across different types of art and artists. Of course, some people will still be more popular than others: there are still going to be the big stars which are recognized as household names around the world, but they will arguably become less common and less pervasive as our culture turns inward and becomes more fragmented.
In a certain sense, this process parallels what is happening with the significance of countries. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States was left as the world's sole remaining superpower, but we've been hearing for years that the United States is also diminishing in importance as other countries which have been in latent stages for decades become increasingly important on the global stage. We've heard about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries and the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey) countries as emerging powers that are set to become major players on the global stage, and the European Union is often seen as existing primarily to allow Europe to maintain economic competitiveness in an increasingly globalized world, but none of these entities are really capable of taking on the entire world. All of these countries are important and have their role, but none of them are likely to maintain global cultural and economic hegemony in the way that the United States has done since the 19th century. The United States was a big hit, but like an aging rock star, it seems to be becoming less relevant as time goes by, turning from a role model which everyone wants to imitate into a sad, pathetic parody of its former self which people regard with pity among whispers of "Doesn't he realize that it's time to give up and retire?" We're entering a world where individual countries become less important, where who you are or where you're from doesn't matter anymore, and the only thing which people really care about is how much money you have or can raise, how much financial worth you as a person can become attached to.
So a question which most people might ask themselves after thinking about all this is: is this a good or a bad thing? To be sure, "big hits" in culture have value as landmarks which people share and can mutually understand. For example, most of us know the story of Cinderella, and even if this is a fictional story, it has value as something which unites us, something which we can cite as a story which is immediately recognizable to everyone in our culture and which we can build on as a recognizable symbol of something. A community's culture falls flat if people don't have such recognizable cultural symbols. Imagine if you were talking about something and used the story of Cinderella as a comparison for something, then everyone responded by saying "Huh? Cinderella? What's that?" It would be difficult for the analogy to make sense without explaining the entire story, at which point the moment would have passed and whatever point you were trying to make would have been lost. Our culture has benefited from having well-known, widely-recognized stories like Hamlet
and Oliver TWist
which people can reference without other people scratching their heads and wondering what you're talking about. (Imagine meeting a person with whom you had no stories in common whatsoever.) An ideal education of a well-read person mixes both the well-known with the obscure, because it's important to be able to recognize the common symbols of your culture, but it's also important to be able to go beyond them and explore more obscure corners, discovering hidden treasures which did not receive widespread fame but still deserve some study. A community of people who live in cultural isolation from each other and do not have shared literary or artistic symbols which they can recognize is not much of a community. On the other hand, the fragmentation of culture also seems to prevent one large entity from taking over, because if everyone is off doing their own thing and paying attention to their own little niche, it seems difficult for one culture to take over the consciousnesses of the entire world, as Western culture has done on a global scale since World War II.
I suppose the risk of such a new model of culture, then, is that we could end up with the worst of both worlds: a world of countless cultural offerings in which each one is the same. Every time any form of art becomes popular, it receives countless imitators. When any book, movie, song, or video game attains mass popularity, other people take "inspiration" from it (if you're being kind) or seek to blatantly rip it off (if you're not so kind) and end up producing so many clones and copies that it's hard to find anything which isn't just some stupid knockoff of an established trope. That's the danger of our new networked world, then: we may be entering a world where people all think the same and live the same, but think that they're individual and unique because they're all doing the same thing in what they perceive as their own way. In such a world, people find it difficult to communicate or connect with each other because they lack a shared cultural background, existing as individuals and yet somehow simultaneously disassociated parts of an engulfing whole, cogs in a machine who don't really understand each other (or even themselves) because they lack the shared background that would be needed to come to an understanding of each other. I don't know what can be done about this. Differences between people are as important as shared commonalities between people, and you need both for any community to function. Idealists and humanists might insist that all people are the same, that if you look, you can find commonality between any people, but the real world has shown that it's not so simple, that relationships between people are complicated things, and that it's possible for two people to have fundamentally different beliefs and desires even if they share basic humanity in common. Even in our world today, it remains as important as ever for people to be able to live with each other in a way that allows them to understand and appreciate each other while still allowing them enough independence and individuality that they can go off and do their own things without disturbing one another or being too dependent on one another for it. It remains to be seen how (or if) we can manage such a thing in a globalized world following the death of the hit.
|Wednesday, July 6th, 2016|
|The triumph of old ideas
Having lived in Europe for a while now, it sometimes amazes me how similar life in Europe is to life in North America. In many ways, people really are the same all over the world: they exhibit the same psychological tendencies, the same social patterns, and the same desires no matter where you go. Of course, this is a result of our own human nature and the basic realities and requirements of our world and the laws of science under which we live. Yet I am likewise often surprised by the things which are different, for there are things about the two regions which are strongly contrasting, sometimes even complete opposites.
One of the latter was brought to my attention recently when I was discussing the idea of management with a co-worker. I work for an "information technology" company, and after having worked in Silicon Valley for about a decade, I can attest that the general attitude toward managers in that region (and, from what I understand, most of the United States) is one of tolerance at best, the sense that a manager is a necessary evil, someone with no clue about how anything works but who manages to make the money work and who thus must be patiently borne like a child. Particularly in technology companies, there was always a sense that a manager is someone who exists within a cloud of pervading cluelessness, a person who only undertands fancy-looking charts and figures but has no idea about how the underlying technology which forms the basis of the company actually works. There was a very strong perception in Silicon Valley that a person who had never been a manager for a cutting-edge technology company--even if they had been a CEO of something else, like an insurance company or a bank--had no understanding of the technology industry and thus no place running a company in such an industry.
This mentality is the opposite of the still-prevailing European mentality, which generally believes that a manager is a manager, that someone who managed a toilet paper producer or a car repair shop has "managerial skills" and is thus equally qualified to run a microchip manufacturer or a software company. This is an idea which I saw very specifically refuted in the American tech sector: more than once, I saw someone explicitly say "There used to be an idea that a manager was a manager, that someone who'd managed any company could manage any other type of company, and that you could take someone with no technology understanding or experience and have them manage a tech company with no loss of competence, but this has been shown to not be true. The technology industry has a very specific set of demands and requirements, a unique body of knowledge and skills that are needed to succeed in such an industry." And I believed this idea because it had been repeated so many times, because I saw so many people in Silicon Valley saying the same thing, and since I am not a businessperson myself and have never managed a company to any level of business success, I assumed that what people were saying was true. And now I am suddenly in an environment where I'm being told the opposite: that there is nothing special about the technology industry, that it is an industry like any other, and that the only way to make a company in such an industry successful is to adhere to time-proven practices of business management which have formed successful companies in pretty much every other industry in the world.
I thought about it for a while, and I was a bit doubtful at first, but when I thought about it, I realized that the European idea is true, or at least, closer to the truth than the American one. Certainly, technology companies operate differently from other companies: there is a reliance on selling "new" ideas (or at least, ideas which can be marketed as new under the guise of advertising that presents decades-old ideas as the latest trend), which means that the industry is necessarily different from oil companies or other companies which deal in commodities that are more or less unchanging from one decade to another. But the technology industry is ossifying: we no longer live in a world where groundbreaking technological advancements come out every year, or where a guy in his garage can start a company that grows into a multi-billion-dollar success story. I grew up in such a world, and so did the other people my age, which means we were taught to think that this is how the world operates, but actually, that period was an aberration, a statistical blip: yes, things were very different during that time because the world suddenly discovered computers and the Internet, powerful but hitherto-untapped technologies which had the ability to change how businesses worked and how people lived, but this is not something which happens regularly, and it is the nature of the universe to settle into a sort of entropic pattern of equilibrium after such blips occur. We've been told that as time goes by, things will only get faster and the rate at which such groundbreaking technologies are introduced will increase, but actually, an examination of reality--that is to say, of the facts--reveals that the opposite is true: in fact, the rate of change is decreasing, technologies which were brand-new 30 years ago are now so commonplace that there is no longer a growing market for them, and there are no new technologies coming out which can support industry growth on the level seen back then. From a purely technical standpoint, scientific research may still be continuing and there may be refinements to existing technologies like computers with more RAM or bigger hard drives, but this is not something which drives the creation of new industries, new ways of working or thinking about work, or new job opportunities for people entering the workforce or looking to switch careers. In terms of how the technology industry intersects with society and the economy, things have solidified quite some time ago, and there have been no significant changes in years.
What this means is that the technology industry has become more or less like any other industry: in the 1990s, it may have made some kind of sense to give a 20-something guy with a smart brain and a fast-talking mouth 20 million dollars to see what he could do with that money and what kind of a company he could build with it, but that certainly hasn't been the case historically (by which I mean, over the past few thousand years), and experience has shown that it isn't the case today. A company today, even a technology company, is a business like any other, meaning that if it is to succeed, if it is to be anything more than a shooting star--appearing brightly in the sky before burning up and disappearing--then it needs stodgy old people who sit around and look at spreadsheets and talk about market capitalization and return on investment. Indeed, history has shown that most of the time, when you put a person with strong technical skills--someone who can write code and design systems as their main skill set--in charge of a technology company, the result is a business disaster. Even some of the smartest and most capable techies in history floundered and failed when they started their own businesses, thinking that they could use their technical smarts to lead them to business success. Far from the notion of technical skills being needed in the CEO of a tech company, it's become apparent that those technical skills are better put to use by a programmer or tester or other person who works as an employee but has no role in the management of a company. And contrary to the idea that a technology company can only be run by technically-capable people, history has shown that people with backgrounds in business but relatively little technical understanding have been the most successful at sustaining any type of business in the long run, even high-tech companies. Companies which were run primarily by technical people tended to be businesses that came up with what might have been a good idea, but which simply had no market and thus collapsed because they lacked a customer base. There once was an idea that the technology industry was somehow special, that it wasn't like other industries and was not affected by the rules which other businesses were bound by, and again, perhaps this was once briefly true, but that moment in time is long gone. Today, information technology is an established industry which requires established structures and procedures, and these need to be adhered to in order for anyone to remain in business, which means there needs to be some management to ensure that the company is doing the things that it will need to do in order to stay in the business.
The American and the European approaches to "management" both have their drawbacks. The American model still believes in the old-fashioned American ideal of "working your way to the top," the idea that a person who starts off in a warehouse stacking boxes could become the president or CEO of the company in 10 or 20 years. I do not know how often this happens today, but I can say that this idea does not seem to have much connection with reality. When I became an adult, I started off working in warehouses and factories, and I can say with certainty that the vast majority of people who were working on the assembly line had no career path out of that job: for a person whose entire job was putting metal parts into a machine and then pushing a button to activate said machine, there was no concept of such a person moving into a management role based on their experience at the assembly line. People who were hired into managerial positions were people who'd gone to university, people who already had management experience, people who had probably never worked on an assembly line in their entire lives. On the one hand, this pattern of "hiring from the outside" sometimes creates resentment among employees, a sense that the company does not value their efforts since it is not promoting the people who are working the hardest. American companies sometimes promote a culture of "hiring internally," meaning that people who are already employees are favored for new positions rather than the company hiring external candidates, but this does not make sense in many cases. Why would you take a person who's spent the last 20 years putting machine parts together and assume that this experience qualifies them to manage business functions? The problem with the European model, then, is the sense that once you take on a job, you're doomed to remain within it, that there is no path upward or outward from where you are now. But is this really a bad thing? Europeans still value stability and security more than mobility, and so for them it's more important to keep the same job for most of your working career than to be able to switch to something more exciting or fun. This may seem restrictive to people who are used to American thinking, but actually, there's a sort of dirty little secret of American business in the sense that most American businesses actually operate this way anyway, even if they claim not to. How many people at the bottom of American companies actually
work their way to the top? Yes, I know that this idea is a sort of archetypical fantasy of the United States, a core part of the "American Dream," but as history has shown us, the American Dream is just that: a dream, a fantasy, not something with a basis in reality. And indeed, in the cases when I did
see colleagues promoted out of technical positions into managerial positions, I often saw them dissatisfied with this move, a sense that they had wanted to remain techies working on technical things and had been inappropriately assigned into a managerial role because of the false idea that their technical skills somehow qualified them to do non-technical work. Even the people who enjoyed their new managerial responsibilities often didn't fill those roles properly: they may have enjoyed the sudden power and authority that comes with becoming a manager, the ability to give people orders and the sense that you can just sit back and talk in meetings while you make other people do the work, but many people failed at this kind of role because they were not prepared for it and had no idea how to do it properly other than having the skill of eating donuts in meetings. So at the end of the day, the American ideal is one that doesn't often connect with working reality, and which usually fails when it does.
When I see this kind of thing, it makes me realize that contrary to what we've often been told, the old ideas are stil the ones that matter. We're regularly told by the media and by peers that the world is changing more quickly than ever, that whole business industries are disappearing and that competely new ones which didn't exist 20 years ago are rising up instead, that social and cultural values which people have held for thousands of years are no longer relevant and that never-before-seen ways of living and thinking are being created. It's true that in terms of corporate business, things have changed and are changing, but business is not life; business may be something that people do to make money, but it is not the thing that people live for or should live for. The things that matter to people, the things that have always mattered to people, are health, safety, love, happiness, wisdom, community, honesty, integrity, and so on, and these values are still as relevant and important for us today as they ever were. This might seem like an obvious thing to say, but it doesn't seem obvious when you look at the world today, because not many people are actually actively talking about these things as a goal for the world, especially the Western world. In the West, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of fatigue and boredom, because people are tired of ideas about love and safety and happiness, dismissing these as old-fashioned, obsolete relics of simple-minded "conservative" thinking which are no longer relevant or important for our modern world, claiming instead that only excitement and flexibility and achievement are important now. There is a deep sense of ironic distance from the world, a sneering sort of contempt for the ideals of stability and certainty, and yet the real irony is that these "new" ideas of revolution and reinvention have shown themselves to be ineffective and obsolete. The postmodern cultural movement existed largely as a reaction to modern ideals, a push to go beyond the ideas that we were bound by, and yet it resulted in nothing: like an IT company with no vision, it resulted in some entertaining products and many life stories which are now the stuff of history, but it produced no lasting ideas, instead flaring up and then burning out in its own ethereal baselessness. The greatest writers and thinkers of the 20th century tried to think of something else, something which could replace the old-fashioned values which had guided humanity for millennia, and yet they came up with nothing, concluding that if love and health and security were no longer important, then nothing mattered at all, that life itself was meaningless and there was no reason to do anything or value anything. Some people were horrified by this conclusion, while others reveled in it and declared that we had been set free from the need to find value or meaning in life. Regardless of how people feel about it, however, if people adopt and live by the mentality that life is meaningless and that there is no reason to do anything or value anything, then they will live meaningless lives that do nothing and have no value. Like those IT companies which thought that they were somehow above basic laws of economics, people and cultures which think that they don't need fundamental human values are similarly destined to fail, collapse, and disappear into the pages of history. The only thing which can produce long-lasting, meaningful human culture is the "old" ideas which have always mattered to people. When you no longer value stability, when you no longer make an effort to build something that can withstand the test of time, you shouldn't be surprised when it becomes unstable and disappears.
|Monday, July 4th, 2016|
|The second time
The first time was very bad. It was the worst experience of my life. I thought I would never survive it. I lost everything: my whole life, everything I'd ever lived for or could live for. Yet somehow I made it through, and got my life back again when I was on the other side. And somehow, afterward, it seemed not so bad, only because I was able to learn something from it. I wouldn't say that it made me stronger; no, not at all, quite to the contrary, it made me weaker, a weakness which remains with me to this day. But I learned a lot, about myself, about the world, about other people, and that kind of knowledge is valuable. It certainly doesn't come without a certain amount of suffering. So there's that. At least I came out of it with some knowledge and understanding, perhaps even some wisdom, which I wouldn't have otherwise attained.
The second time was not so bad. It wasn't as dramatic, as destructive, as chaotic. Yet it was somehow worse than the first time, because when it was over, I realized that the cycle would just keep repeating itself, the same pattern recurring throughout my life for as long as I lived, ending only when I died. At least the first time I could say that I had learned something, had gained some insight into myself which I would otherwise never have gained. The second time, What did I learn? Only the same lessons I'd already learned the first time; there was no need to repeat them. And yet repeat them I did, and this was much more terrible than the first time, because even though I survived it all right, I came to realize that there was no stopping it all, that all the wisdom and understanding I'd achieved the first time wouldn't actually benefit me; it wasn't enough to stop the cycle from recurring, and so I was trapped within that cycle, doomed to repeat it until death delivered me from it. That's the problem with the second time: not that the experience itself is worse than the first time, but rather the aftermath, the realization that you can't stop, that no matter what you learned, whatever wisdom you thought you had actually benefits you nothing, because knowing about it and understanding it doesn't make it stop, doesn't help you deal with it, doesn't help you prevent it from happening over and over.
And then there were the rest of the times...