The Meaning of Life
A presumptuous title for a blog post, I know. Bear with me.
I may have this wrong, but I think there's been something of a fairly recent trend among younger people, perhaps millennials, to forego the acquisition of material things in exchange for experiences. That is, rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars on a luxury car, the money would instead be spent on some kind of activity with the expectation that it would be some kind of unusual, worthwhile experience.
Implied in this shift is the idea that experiences are superior to stuff. Having grown up living in McMansions filled to the rafters with trampolines, jet-skis, large screen TVs, swimming pools, ATVs, every cooking gadget ever conceived, motorcycles, boats, electronic devices and so on; and perceiving some spiritual void that stuff was unable to fill, we've somehow got the idea that experiences are superior.
But it's really just substituting one form of consumption for another, and conspicuous consumption at that; because what good is being superior if nobody knows about it?
But at the end of the day, an experience is just a memory. What is the larger meaning?
One of the very few advantages of getting older is a different sort of experience. One that isn't consumed, but instead imposed, perhaps. Something that can't be avoided, or, in the act of avoiding, becomes a different sort of imposed experience. One that isn't actively sought, so much as endured.
And this is the sort of experience that makes meaning.
If you're lucky.
Because making meaning is a volitional, cognitive act; and you must make the choice, and have the resources of time, attention and thought to do so. You can't buy a meaningful life. You can probably try, and I'm sure many people do, but it's probably the long way around and you'll still wind up having to use the same resources everyone else has of time, attention and thought.
Life is inherently meaningless. If you stare into the abyss, well, it's an abyss! What did you expect to find?
Life is meaningless. We bring meaning to life. We make it. Think about it. It takes time, attention, cognitive effort and some desire to do so, but if you think about it, I think you'll find it's true. You may also find it makes you feel uncomfortable. If so, you're probably doing it right.
Meaning is subjective. Identity is subjective. These are tied together in a narrative construct inside our heads. The Matrix, maybe. We find ourselves in the world, where not only are meaning and identity subjective, they're also contingent. Your interior narrative construct, the story you tell yourself to make sense of your life, of your experience, is merely a smaller riff on the larger narrative construct going on in the culture around you. And you had no part in creating that, it's just the water you swim in.
So why is this important? Why are you up at this ridiculous hour writing nonsense, Rogers? And who do you think is actually going to read this shit?
Well, I'm glad you asked. To the last question, I don't know. Just gonna fire this off into the void and hope for the best.
As to the first question: Our contingent, subjective narrative constructs are about to get crushed by the world, which is not immune to the effects of our ideas about meaning, but profoundly indifferent to them. We didn't "mean" to alter the climate or destroy the biosphere; but the world doesn't care whether we meant to do it or not.
The stories we have told ourselves, and by "we," I mean mostly white, western people, and mostly men at that, since they've been the biggest authors of this mess, but the stories we have told ourselves have brought us to the brink of disaster. That may not be the reality you perceive, depending on what screen you're looking through and the state of your interior narrative construct, but remember, the world doesn't care.
Because our narrative constructs are intensely personal, we often confuse them with our identity, which is itself just an artificial construct we fabricate to swim in this particular ocean. It's a zen thing, or maybe a Tao thing. "The Dave that can be named is not Dave." But we cling to this story, and we're afraid of anything that might upset it, render its truth value null. Despite the fact that it's just a construct, an artifact, we made it all up!
But we're going to have to let go of our old stories, and begin writing new ones if we hope to have lived our lives with some meaning. And enough of us must do so to create a new larger narrative construct, hopefully one that is more compatible with making meaning, more compatible with sharing this remarkable rock with all the other life that inhabits it.
We can either begin doing that now, or we can wait for the world to make our old stories, and our lives, meaningless.
Into the Ether
Several decades ago, when I was an adolescent, I lived in a three-bedroom house at the top of a hill and my nearest neighbors were mostly my cousins. For much of that time, if you picked up the phone, the chances were pretty good you might stumble into someone else's conversation. And I think most of the folks who shared that party line were my relatives too. At some point, they all became private lines, but you kids these days are spoiled. "Social media?" Hah!
Anyway, as a teen, somehow I got bitten by some kind of bug that made me fascinated by science and technology. Demographically, probably not that unusual; but it still seems odd to me because in elementary school, I was not a very bright student. Arithmetic was hard, English was even harder and made no sense; and I hated homework because it was hard and it interfered with TV. My report cards were nothing to get excited about. But in the sixth grade, Mrs. Lupica, the librarian, somehow introduced me to science fiction, and I recall the exact book that hooked me, Have Space Suit – Will Travel, a Scribner's juvenile by Robert A. Heinlein.
Somehow, between the miracle of testosterone at puberty, and exciting stories that involved a lot of explanations of physics, I got hooked on science and tech, or STEM as they say these days. My Uncle Bob, who lived about a quarter mile up the road and was my nearest neighbor for a long time, was a ham radio operator. He smoked a pipe, and his gear (and his plaid flannel shirts) always smelled of tobacco smoke; but he was a patient teacher. I don't recall if he bought it for me, or if my parents did, but somehow I got a copy of the Amateur Radio Relay League's "bible" (the handbook) and with it, he taught me a lot about analog electronics, some semi-conductor electronics and Morse Code. He took me for my Novice Class code test, which I passed. He also hooked me up with a Hammerlund receiver, and I don't recall the manufacturer of the crystal-controlled transmitter, but Mom and Dad paid for it all and I had my own little ham radio station in the basement of our three bedroom house on the hill.
As a novice (callsign WN2FEB), I could only communicate using CW (continuous wave), which really means Morse code. And I'm pretty sad to admit that after all that effort, and the not insignificant amount of money mom and dad spent to buy my equipment, I really didn't spend all that much time down there, tapping out CQ CQ CQ DE WN2FEB. But I did do it from time to time, on a long-wire antenna on the 80 meter band, down there in the basement, at night, in the damp, mostly dark, always cool musty basement.
But it was always kind of fun, kind of exciting, waiting after CK for someone to send your call letters back to you. Someone else was sitting at a radio, listening to the ether for a signal that said someone wanted to "talk." Make a connection. Exchange QSL cards.
I'm writing this at Nice Marmot and not Facebook, because this is kind of close to that experience of sending CQ CQ CQ. With Facebook, you're kind of certain someone's going to receive your signal. There's nothing serendipitous about it. In fact, you're mostly just disappointed when nobody gives you a "like." I can pretty much predict my whole Facebook experience. If it's a climate post, I'll get a couple of "likes," even if I made it "Public." Very rarely, someone will "share" a post I've made that's "public." Which will vanish into the ether. If it's a political post, I'll get maybe a couple of "likes," and a comment or two. A picture is usually good for up to a dozen likes and three to four comments.
It's boring. There's no connection. It doesn't make any difference. It's all just Facebook's "algorithm" deciding who gets to see what. "Social media," mediated by algorithms designed to gather data about us to sell us stuff.
The future. It ain't what it used to be.
Anyway, that's not what this is about tonight. Well, it's probably what it's about every night, but that's kind of the subtext and nobody gets subtext anymore. No, all of this is just a lengthy preamble to a few comments on a science fiction series that has kind of taken me by surprise.
As I mentioned, I got hooked on SF at a young age and read a lot of it for maybe a decade or so. Tapered off quite a bit once I became an "adult," but still read some from time to time. One of the things I loved about science fiction were the stories about post-apocalyptic futures. Nowadays it seems I'm living in one, so it's not as appealing anymore. I mean, I'm probably going to be dead (hopefully of natural causes) before I get the chance to be Mad Max or something. Someone needs to make a post-apocalyptic sf movie with a sixty-something ass-kicking hero. Probably not going to happen. But, I digress.
Several years ago, I heard some buzz about a new series of sf novels that were supposedly equal to or better than the "space operas" of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (30s to early 50s of the last century). So I got the book, called Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey, which is the pseudonym of a couple of guys and I read it.
Meh. The world-building was cool, but the characters sucked. I didn't like any of them except the cop and I didn't like him that much. And so much of it seemed contrived, where a bunch of ice-miners manage to gain possession of an advance Martian warship and run around the solar system raising hell without getting their asses blown off. There's been a bunch of other, later books in the series and I've read none of them.
Well, the buzz was enough to get the books turned into a series called The Expanse on the SciFi channel (now called SyFy, because the future isn't what I was promised). I recall watching the premiere episode as a freebie on iTunes or something when it first came out. I kind of liked it, but since I didn't care for the book, I didn't want to pursue it. I didn't subscribe to a cable package that included the SyFy channel ("Channel?")
But the series went on for three seasons on SyFy, and then Amazon picked it up for a fourth, which is supposed to begin airing next month. Well, "airing," I mean, you can binge watch the whole thing starting in October.
Anyway, since it's an Amazon property now, it's available on Prime for free, and I've been watching it.
It's a much better tv show than it was a book. Some claim it's the best television sf since Battlestar Galactica, and I can see why that may be so. I don't think it's better than BSG, but they're different series. BSG would always resonate more with me, just because of my experience. But this is pretty good.
I'm not thrilled with the cast, but most of the female parts are well cast. The main character is too earnest (I know, he's supposed to be.), and his hair is too perfect. There's a decent amount of diversity in the cast, and the Belters are by far the most interesting characters.
The production values are excellent. I've read somewhere that someone praised the series for getting so much of the physics right. Well, it's a very low bar because they don't get anywhere near everything right. But it's nice to see a nod to scientific reality. The ships are far too spacious, but I think that's mostly to make it easier to film in them as sets on a sound stage.
So, that's about it for tonight. It's way past my bedtime, and I'm typing this into my little blog, about to send it out into the ether where it will largely go unnoticed, except for the old RSS hands. My old CW signals are still out there, in the void, spreading outward at the speed of light. Perhaps undetectable now, at least with any technology we have. But they will, theoretically anyway, always be there. This stuff? Once the last server dies, this does too. Not radio waves. They're forever.