Getting Back to Normal is the Last Thing We Need

When I think about the coronavirus pandemic, my mind often wanders to what I would be doing did it not exist. Going about my business. Continuing to be a cog in the machine. Perpetuating the status quo.

Is that what we want?

In our rush to get back to “normal”, are we perhaps overlooking the possibility that normal is precisely the problem?

Personally, I don’t want normal. I never have. And I certainly don’t want to get back to it.

Have you ever considered the impetus behind the massive appeal of the troves of aspirational media on the internet – photo blogs, Tumblr, Instagram? These microcosms of alternative reality – cosplay, virtual reality, van life, nostalgia. Could the source of their allure be because we find the real world, the one we have literally constructed around us, completely unfulfilling?

Ever since we ceased having to constantly struggle to merely survive, there has existed the opportunity to create, with intention, a built environment that doesn’t only meet our basest needs, but actually serves to evoke within us positive emotions – inspiration, creativity, courage, joy.

I have long considered what might result from the following experiment: ask everyone to render, in whatever medium they chose, their ideal landscape. The image they see when they look out their window, gaze upon their home or neighborhood, walk out their front door.

I suspect the vast majority of them would appear strikingly similar.

In my mind, there exists an image of a perfect world. I often think about what keeps me from realizing it.

When I watch scenes on the news or video clips captured on smartphones on the internet, I am struck by how unnatural and uninspiring the settings I see featured in them appear to me. Gray. Monochrome. Uniform. Concrete.

Contrast this with the image that we imagined above. Or any image from your favorite influencer or visual artist on Instagram. 

Do the two images evoke similar emotions in you? I doubt it. 

So why not? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

The coronavirus has brought the “all stop” to the economic juggernaut that my wife and climate scientist Dr. Steven Running told me was utterly impossible and potentially disastrous. With that achieved, getting “back to normal” is the very last thing I want to do.

Gitmo

Some time ago, I was contacted by Montana Senator Steve Daines with an email entitled “Keep Guantanamo Open”. I was so appalled by the worldview presented in this letter that I felt compelled to share some thoughts and clearly communicate my position on the matter of Guantanamo Bay in particular and national security in general.

Ethics, honor, and human decency demand that we close this facility immediately and return those detained therein to their respective nations, for trial there, if their countries deem it appropriate, or for extradition to the United States if they face criminal charges in this country, as provided by international law.

Furthermore, while I have your ear, please allow me the opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding in regards to some “values” Senator Daines and others have ascribed to me and purportedly uphold.

I, for one, do not spend my life in fear of any nation or ideology on earth, and therefore do not need to be made secure from them. To echo Eisenhower, the advent of the nuclear option ensures there can never again be a conflict of any scale on this planet, and these wasted efforts on the part of Senator Daines and others in the maintenance of a military state are rooted in a worldview that has long since passed being relevant.

To illustrate my point, let us consider for a moment the world that such people imagine and contrast it with reality. Where again do they find this overt military threat? It simply does not exist. At best there is a cultural threat, a poli-economic threat, but there is no military threat, and, I would argue, no real threat at all. No power in the world today is going to march against another, intent on commandeering the rest by force. Such talk is preposterous.

Let us take our thought experiment even further. What if the United States was to abandon its military position completely? What is the worst that would happen? Every country on earth aspires to emulate our success. Are they going to attack us? Enslave us? We buy their goods, we innovate advances that improve their lives, we are a model of freedom for the world. What nation is going to march against and supplant us?

Who could? So what if they did? Is there something so different about Chinese or Russian life that would fundamentally change how we live? Are there people in the developed world who actually believe there are sovereign nations bent on foreign conquest? To even ask the question is to appear ridiculous.

Imagine now the alternative. What if we were to eliminate all borders and allow people to freely move about the earth? What if we were to train every single person in their own defense and limit the use of military force to the protection of human and legal rights? What if we were to work in concert rather than discord? How would such a world differ from that of today?

To move forward, we must accept that, ultimately, the peoples of the earth will live in peaceful coexistence. This is an absolute inevitability. The sooner we can align ourselves with this reality, the better off we all shall be. 

In doing so, we must become open and accepting of other modes of living and realize that violence alone is our enemy. We can no more expect the other peoples of the world to bend to our will than we should bend to theirs. Surely there may be conflict and resolution as competing forms of poli-social-economic systems vie for primacy, but there need not be violence. Violence assumes resistance, and nature does not allow resistance to prevail. It is, in fact, futile. It will be overcome.

Recently I posed this question to a dear friend: “How do we move from where we are today to Star Trek?” I was disappointed by his response.

“How do we get there? Through competition. Nations competing against each other to be the first to gain advantage.”

That doesn’t sound like something Captain Kirk or Picard would say. It sounds more like the type of rhetoric I would expect to hear from Hitler, or perhaps Steve Daines.

Addendum:

The United States has occupied Guantanamo Bay Naval Base continuously since 1898. If that doesn’t put the artifice of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis into perspective, I don’t know what will.

A reasonable argument for competition from Robin Hanson – Long Views Are Competitive. However, I still believe what makes humans unique is inscribed in our ability to act contrary to our interests, and our further evolution contingent upon transcending this apparent need for competition.

Unified Theory

Like any true philosopher, my goal is a unifying theory.

Currently, I have only disparate thoughts. This website is an effort toward assembling them in a place accessible to others.

Generally, I believe the universe is itself the unifying theory. As far as I can tell, the universe, meaning “all that there is,” experiences itself as consciousness, and the two are mutually exclusive. The universe can be universal, or it can be conscious, but not both at the same time. Beyond that, most things seem up for grabs.

There are a number of delightfully interesting threads worth exploring. I’ll add more as I come to them, but here are a few to start:

  • Being* – what does it mean to be, particularly without consciousness
  • Language* – does anything precede it

*an acknowledgement to Dr. Robert Walsh for leading me to these investigations

WordPress vs Pico CMS vs static HTML

I have been agonizing over the decision whether to use WordPress to manage my website or go with a flat-file approach. WordPress is clearly the easier route – it comes ready to install via cPanel with my web host, is essentially plug and play, and boasts a huge library of widgets and plug-ins to help get the site published, relatable, and SEO-friendly.

Despite all that, I still don’t like it.

Pico is a flat-file CMS that I find really appealing. If I knew just a little more about the basics of web hosting – how to install Pico on my server, for example – I would likely go this route. Obviously, the only way to learn a new skill is through doing it, so I intend to launch a dev site based in Pico. I’m excited to begin building my web skills with this stupidly simple, blazing fast flat-file CMS.

When making decisions, I try to make use of every available resource, those that I would call “high value” resources in particular. Derek Sivers is an example of such a resource. Despite being an extremely successful and relatively private person, I know him to be quite approachable. He also places a ton of value in autonomy, simplicity and self-determination – principles I cherish as well – and applies these axioms to his third most polished skill – after music and writing – programming. After Jem Bendell’s, Derek’s site is most akin to the vision I have for my own, and I have Derek’s email address from his interview with Tim Ferriss, so I sent him a note asking how he maintains his site.

His response?

For making a new site?  Don’t let anyone sell you on some complex solution.  They’re saying you need a jumbo jet when really you need a bicycle.  Do your HTML by hand like this, and then you’ll know when your site has become so big that you need a little more automation to help manage changes or links to the hundreds of pages inside.  But until then, no no no.  Just do HTML by hand.

After that, I was really in a bind. How could I use something like WordPress with advice like that?

Enter the power of rationalization.

One of the great things about WordPress is that it is based upon a relational database. That means that different parts of the site content – namely the posts – can be related to other parts. So you can use queries to batch and display content based on various criteria, date or category for instance. This is the major advantage that WordPress offers over static HTML.

Not that it can’t be done by hand in HTML. Derek is one hundred percent correct, HTML is all that you need. In fact, it is the only way that your site can be viewed over the Internet in the first place.

I’m just lazy.

We All Want to Change the World

There is no love lost between the boomers and me. I couldn’t explain it better than this, so I recommend the read if you care to understand my reasons. But I have to give them credit for one thing. When it came right down to it and the game was on the line, they put their money where their mouth is and changed the fucking world.

It might be why they did little to impress afterward. Maybe they figured they had triumphed, that the revolution was complete. Maybe they felt they had done their part and deserved the rest. It must have been incredibly taxing, altering the human narrative as they did. Perhaps it took it all out of them.

1968 was the single most pivotal year in modern history, comparable only to 1945, the year when the boom began. For the boomers, at least the cohort I’m referring to, although many of the principal actors in ’68 were actually born years before, it was their Midway, their Stalingrad, their Ardennes, literally their Khe Sahn. It was a turning point in the war.

The list of achievements that year is too long to do it justice here — 2001: A Space Odyssey, Apollo 8, ASC II, hypertext, The Beatles’ White Album — a litany of innovations that defined the next 50 years. But none of them hold a candle to what was truly accomplished. For all of its subtext, Planet of the Apes doesn’t fully capture the political and social upheaval that marked 1968.

It’s telling that current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was sworn into that same office in 1968. The corollaries between that year and this — a conservative political climate committed to the restoration of “law and order”, black athletes protesting entrenched racism, a long standing American military occupation of foreign soil, nationalist politicians speaking out against immigration — are numerous enough to give pause. There is one marked difference, however. When the powers seeking to maintain the cultural and economic establishment they aimed to dismantle came out to crush them, rather than sit around and complain about the status quo, the boomers actually took to the streets and did something about it.

And they had every reason not to. One by one, the leaders of their movement, beginning with JFK in 1963, had been assassinated, often right before their eyes. Their government, society at large, even their parents, were all aligned against them. They were literally attacked, jailed, beaten, shot. And still they struggled on.

Compare that to today, when, faced with levels of inequality and injustice that rival the days of serfs and emperors, the best we can muster is a hashtag campaign on social media. It’s sad really. Every attempt at moving forward, at creating the level of fundamental shift such as the boomers achieved in 1968, is consumed from within, sold out before it can even begin to assume its true potential. Sure, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates went corporate, but only as a means for achieving their greater goal, that of enabling others. The money just followed. Gen X spent no time at all devolving the internet into a commodified caricature of its original intent. Those attending the current analogue, cryptocurrency and blockchain, with their arguably greater capacity for moving humanity into the next epoch of prosperity and enlightenment, didn’t even wait that long.

Could it be that we are incapable of such conviction? That this is one of those things, like so many others, that the boomers neglected to impart to us? Can we hope to regain the fortitude necessary to persist in the face of seemingly insurmountable social, economic and cultural forces, to endure suffering, almost certain failure, maybe death? Is it possible that, as they did in ’68, we need the boomers to take it to the streets, that we might actually need Joe Biden to show us the way?

The problem is, I don’t think they have it in them. And it’s not just my personal “hang-up” with the boomers, to borrow a term they popularized, that leads me to say this. They have told me so themselves.

“We really need the college students of today, and the Gen Xers of today, to take over the world, sooner rather than later,” climate scientist Dr. Steven Running informed me during a recent podcast interview. “Because I have to admit, my generation doesn’t have enough guts to make the changes, they’re too wed to the fossil fuel life, and I think we’re more of the problem then we’ll ever be the solution.”

Still, I wonder if we have the courage, or the skill set. Because, on this golden anniversary of the Year of Protests, the very same war rages on, and we’re not in the streets, and least not like the boomers were. We’re still wed to the same systems — political, social, economic — the majority of which are completely incongruous with our new global civilization, to say nothing of the ecosphere, and I see no indication that we’ll change. It’s clear that, as demonstrated by the successful memes of Brexit and MAGA, all we really want is for things to return to some romanticized vision of the past.

So now we’re putting it on the next generation to save us. But the trouble is, even if the college students of today were to heed Dr. Running’s exhortation, we’re asking them to do so while bound by a straitjacket. We make up the system, the framework, the infrastructure in which the millennials and their younger counterparts are forced to operate. Their generating the impulse necessary to change its momentum would be challenge enough even with our cooperation, let alone when half the available energy is either at rest or actively opposing it.

In other words, this is hard fucking work. No disrespect to Dr. Running, who is still in the trenches, but we’re going to need all hands on deck. Because, unlike the boomers, we’re not merely upending a prevailing culture. What we’re dealing with isn’t just a change in mindset, although that is still an important part of the equation. We literally have the entire apparatus supporting our existence to remake.

Prior to 1968, it was okay to treat people like second-class citizens. It was okay to exploit developing countries through imperialist policies and military action. Those practices were de rigueur. Post 1968, it’s no longer okay, but we continue doing so because our system requires it. And that system is what we have to change.

For all my personal animosity toward the boomers, I readily admit we’re indebted to them, and not just because they gave me life. They spawned an entirely new breed of idealism, one that advanced the notion of equality beyond de facto to make it a priori and then extended it to the rest of the living and non-living systems as well. They altered our very expectation of how the world should be. Quite unlike the virtual nihilism we practice today, the boomers actually believed they could make a difference, and, in 1968, did everything in their power to see that occur.

But this is 2018, not 1968, and it’s high time we manifest that expectation in reality and make incarnate the ideals that the boomers fought to enshrine. Arguments that these things take time or that we must work within the constraints of the current system are worse than denial or outright refusal, only serving to highlight the fact that, while we recognize the need for action, we intend to do nothing about it. Largely because doing something quite likely means enduring the personal discomfort, hardship, and pain that we are currently externalizing to someone else.

Our predicament only becomes all the more vexatious with the realization that there is no one to turn our anger on, no establishment to rail against, no others. In 1968, the battle lines were clear — a new and progressive counterculture united against the forces of an old guard overtly and conspicuously intent upon ensuring the continuation of its ways. Today, we are the establishment, begrudgingly upholding the status quo through a mix of fatalism, apathy, and the understanding that the only confrontation we can expect to have is with ourselves.

That is not to say there is not an established order, a prevailing modality that shouldn’t be assailed and dismantled with the same ardent fervor and resolve as the boomers afforded segregation. There is. It just isn’t going to present itself in the form of us against them. This time around, it is us against ourselves.

Still, we shouldn’t fear the fight, if only to prove to the boomers that we are as capable of driving change in 2018 as they were in 1968. That the generation who tore down the Berlin Wall isn’t about to let another go up. That our policy of non-participation really was a calculated strategy, not a mere attempt at avoidance.

So what does the fight of 2018 look like in real terms? At its core, it revolves around our putting outcome and purpose back in the driver seat and relegating the pursuit of profit to an impetus, rather than an end unto itself. More concretely, it’s about devising solutions to fundamental problems rather than those created by our failure to do so or our desire for distraction. And it means coming to terms with the fact that we really are one unified global community, no matter if we want to be or not.

There is absolutely no chance that we are not moving beyond this present state. It is inevitable and, at the current rate of change, will happen sooner than we think. The only matter up for debate is whether we want that future to resemble a scene from Star Trek: The Next Generation or one from Soylent Green. It’s a catechism we cannot avoid, and, it fact, the question has already been posed. About that, there is nothing we can do. Determining the answer, however, is entirely up to us.