0564 – modern civilization pt 3

I’m losing a bit of steam here but I got to keep going while I can. A quick summary– I’ve been thinking about the context that I live in, and the history that has lead to this context, and how it shapes my thinking and my life. I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s joke at a commencement speech about an old fish greeting younger fish with “Good day boys, how’s the water?”, and then one fish says to the other, “What’s water?”

Water in my case is modern civilization– the physical spaces, the technologies, the ideologies, the media, everything. I’m also thinking now about Paul Graham’s essay What You Can’t Say, and how he talks about moral fashions, and how we inherit them, and how they can prevent us from thinking certain thoughts altogether.

I relate to PG– I want to be able to have freedom of thought. I want to be able to be free in every way that is afforded to me– or at least I say that because I think that will lead to a happier life for me, with more pleasure and more enjoyment and more fulfillment and all of those good things. I outlined that there are things about modern civilization that I love– and I don’t need to talk too much about those things because that part is easy to rant and rave about – and there are things that I hate. And the things that I hate are (to name a few) bureaucracy, unnecessary complexity and bullshit. And boredom, I suppose, though boredom is a luxury and a privilege compared to living in fear or worry. Let’s focus on the earlier bits.

I chose bureaucracy as an antonym for brutish– I was thinking of Hobbes’s phrase “brutish and short” as a descriptor of life in pre-civilization. I was trying to figure out the inverse of that– long, obviously, but what’s the inverse of brutish? I came up with “bureaucratic”– and I was delighted to find out that the word’s etymology is rooted in “desk”. And that sums up a lot of the transition, I think. We’ve gone from being wild to being desk-bound. We’ve gone from playing in the streets to playing in santized playgrounds, staring at iPads all day and whatnot. I don’t think of myself as an iPad hater, I love technological tools. I love my Macbook and my Android phone, and I’d quite like an iPad too though i can’t quite justify the expenditure right now. But the point I think is that we’ve gone from living primarily in our bodies to living primarily in our heads (Ken Robinson has a great riff on this, re: how our education systems have been modelled after the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment and so on– that math is somehow definitely more important than dance, for example.)

I’m not going to say that dance is more important than math, but dance is important. Diet is important. Exercise is important. Flirting is important. Movement is important. Hiking is important. We seem to have, in our eagerness to evolve or progress in some way, thrown out a bunch of things about ourselves that made us who we are.

Okay I’m being a bit vague and grand here, I should be more precise. What am I trying to say here… we cut out a lot of things from our lives in an attempt to make things more tidy, more organized, more legible, easier to account for, easier to measure and so on. Standardized tests. Standardized everything. Again I probably don’t fully appreciate how powerful and empowering standardization must’ve been for a lot of people. It would’ve brought them out of poverty, given them dignity, so on and so forth. I’m writing all of this under the blanket of security and wealth provided by all the sacrifices that people made before me, and for this I am grateful. But I still want to understand how exactly we got to byzantine, bureaucratic bullshit-ville, so that I can navigate it better. My main way of dealing with BBB is to be angry, or sarcastic, or absurd, to call it out, to complain about it, to laugh at it, to find other people that I can laugh at it with. But it doesn’t make the problem go away. BBB stucks around after I’ve made fun of it. So I need to change my approach if I want to have less of it in my life.

Some tentative thoughts. Cutting through bullshit requires knowing what the truth is. The truth is often obfuscated in civilization– sometimes because truth is expensive and tedious and people don’t want to bother putting in the effort when they don’t have to, and sometimes because somebody or some group of people don’t really want the truth because it’s awkward, painful, uncomfortable and so on. The latter can seem like a conspiracy theory but that doesn’t necessarily make it invalid. I recall reading a quote from someone in power who said that the drug war was knowingly perpetuated so that the “wrong” sort of people could be smeared on dinnertime television night after night for years. That makes total sense to me.

But I’m not doing this to take BS-artists to court. (Courts and legal systems are incredibly byzantine and full of BS too, allowing all sorts of wiggle room and interpretations– so much of it is theater, blah blah…). I’m doing this so I can come to a place of acceptance about my place in the BBB circus, and figure out steps for myself to climb out of it, to dust myself off and at least carve out a space that I can inhabit comfortably and not feel like blowing my brains out or otherwise committing acts of indecency. Or being lulled into a sense of helplessness and apathy, which is equally bad, I think. Sometimes I shake myself up a little in a silly way because I think that would be preferable to getting jaded.

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