Last week, after getting back from the work trip to DC, I went to a holiday party hosted by Chris Heuer, organizer of BrainJams. I figured I’d stop by, chat with a few people, and head home.
Instead, I ended up in this fascinating conversation with Brian of CivicEvolution (thus meeting the challenge from my friend Adam to “Have a really amazing conversation”). We talked about what I’ve been thinking about, and what he’s been working on (although I haven’t had a chance to read his paper yet), and steadily drifted further and further afield, discussing the nature of reality and whether our lives have a plan in advance or only in retrospect.
Three things struck me in the conversation that I want to record here:
- We were talking about our shared belief that everybody lives in a different reality, and he asked me how I had come to believe in different realities. Which was a really good question. It’s so obvious to me at this point that we each have our own reality, and yet it’s not apparent to most people. So what makes me different?
I thought about it for a few seconds and came up with a plausible answer, that being the fact that my childhood was spent in a suburban bastion of white Republican Christian values. Thanks to my parents, I grew up decidedly liberal and non-religious. But I was surrounded by people who lived in a fundamentally different world than I did; for instance, I spent my senior year of high school trying to convince some friends that evolution made more sense than creationism. Not being part of the mainstream, I think my choices were either (a) admit I was wrong (never!) or (b) convince myself that my reality was as valid as theirs, and the rest flowed from there. It’s a theory, at least. The question certainly got me thinking.
- We were talking about the power of language – he used the example of “Imagine a boat sailing on the sea”, and how that immediately evoked a detailed picture in each of our minds, and how amazing was it that seven words could do that. But the interesting thing to me, picking up on my filling in the blanks post, was how people fill in their own ideas – he might be imagining a yacht where I’m thinking of a square-rigger, he might be thinking of a stormy sea where I’m thinking of a calm one, etc. Language is powerful, but ambiguous. And it’s deceptively ambiguous because it is often not clear when there is a mismatch between two people’s expectations regarding a given set of words.
Which helped me to answer another good question of his, which was how I was planning to relate the high-falutin’ philosophical stuff of my blog to the real world, a question I’ve been struggling with for a while. I think the powerful ambiguity of language is a hint. These ideas about conflicting realities and even Bruno Latour all inter-relate in this concept of diplomacy, of translating between different cultures and realities. Taken to the extreme, language ambiguity entails the 600 page specifications that the military uses to capture its requirements. But I feel like there’s an intermediate level which can be filled by those of us who understand multiple frames of mind and can translate readily between them. I’m not sure exactly what that role of techno-cultural translator is yet, whether it’s in management or mediation or something else, but I think that may be the productive intersection of my philosophy and the real world. Now I just need to define what that means.
- At one point, we started talking about the Rapture, and how true believers are untrustworthy because if they really believe the world will end in this generation, they will act differently than if they really believed in the long-term future. I pushed back a bit here, because I thought that Christians weren’t the only ones who thought that way, but my thoughts didn’t crystallize until the next day when another friend of mine mentioned Peak Oil, and I realized it wasn’t just religious folks who believed in the imminent end of the world (or at least of life-as-we-know-it). Peak Oil is the Rapture equivalent for environmentalists. The Singularity is the Rapture equivalent for techno-futurists. The capitalists talk about The End of History. Each of these groups has their own myth of the imminence of the End Times.
What is the attraction of the End Times? Why do so many people believe in it? Why do we have such a hard time really believing in the Long Now? I think it’s because we want to believe that we are special, that our lives mean more than others. If we are witness to the End Times, it is clear that we are significant, we are at the cusp of history. And that’s an attractive feeling. Everybody wants to feel like they matter.
It’s also a testament to the power that the single reality concept holds over people. The End Times (whichever one you believe in) confirms one’s reality as being the correct one, the only one that matters. If Jesus appears, blowing the Last Trump, it would be hard to argue that Christianity is only one of a number of religious options. Each End Times scenario is the ultimate “I told you so”.
While I can see the attraction of the End Times, I think I prefer Latour’s outlook, where instead of being special because everything has collapsed to a single reality (Rapture or Singularity or whatever), we are part of an ever-growing, ever-learning collective. We face obstacles, we learn from them and adjust to them, and we go on. Humans have been around for a long time, and while it’s tempting to think that we are the apotheosis of evolution, a hundred years from now folks will be mocking us the same way we mock the scientists who said they understood everything in the universe five years before quantum mechanics was discovered.