Thoughts On Social Media “Challenges”

I’ve never been a big fan of chain texts, social media challenges, etc., often choosing not to participate when I get nominated for stuff. My aversion to these types of things is 2-fold: (1) I don’t like being told what to do. (2) They often seem to misunderstand what the word “challenge” means. I am not some lemming that will just attempt some stupid task because the internet told me to.

Nowadays, with social distancing and quarantining going on the presence of these challenges has grown to the delight of some and the disdain of many. I admit to participating in a few, and while I’m still not a huge fan, I realize my old attitude towards these challenges was perhaps a bit pretentious.

Most of them are just for fun with little to no social stake (in terms of whether or not you actually do it). Participate if it makes you happy, ignore them if not, but don’t be condescending to those that do partake. Most of them take less than a minute, so it’s not like it’s consuming anyone’s life (unless it is, which case please stop). And perhaps before you judge others, ask yourself why you let it bother you so much.

Back to “Normal”

I’m sure you’ve heard the news: dolphins and swans have returned to Venice, elephants are unwittingly reclaiming territory in China; nature is making a comeback!

As flashy as these headlines appear, and as much as we would like them to be true, they unfortunately are not. Apparently the video of dolphins wasn’t even from Venice, the swans are already regulars, and so are the elephants in China (who weren’t even drunk).

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer about all of this, but truth is important. The article I linked above puts it quite nicely; we want to believe these things to be true — we want to believe that nature has the power to bounce back. But that hope and a few months of people limiting their commuter miles is not gonna be enough.

It is true that the water in Venice is clearer and air quality in various parts of the world is much better seemingly as a consequence of the recent pandemic. In a way I think it’s beautiful, and shows that by changing our habits, our behaviors, our routines, we can make a difference, but we need to hold on to that.

There’s a post by the nature photographer Paul Nicklen that is much more eloquent than what I’ve presented here with respect to how current protocols may be applied to a post-COVID-19 world for the good of the planet. On it, someone commented, “Yeah everyone’s talking about when things will get back to ‘normal’…more like ditch “normal” lets make some shifts while we’re at it!”

That’s the attitude we need to adopt. And in this era of COVID-19 I think and hope the world is realizing that we don’t need all the things we think we need. Simultaneously, hopefully people are appreciating their own lives and life that is all around them.

People are suffering and people are dying because of this terrible disease. But this is the situation we are in now, and the world has mobilized more or less appropriately to fight the common enemy, COVID-19 (or rather SARS-COV-2).

Why haven’t we had similar movements against climate change, poverty and homelessness, world hunger? Because they don’t affect people immediately, more specifically, they don’t affect wealthy privileged humans immediately. We care about COVID because our favorite actor now has the disease, or because sporting events and theme parks are closed. Meanwhile there is plenty of evidence of the negative effects of poverty and climate change around the world, just not so much in affluent areas.

And don’t tell me now is not the time to talk about climate change, because according to history and recent events the best time to care is when some TikTokker’s Malibu house is underwater. But by that point people in other countries may be on the brink, and in nature, reefs, rainforests, and the millions of species that depend on them may be severely endangered or extinct.

This planet we live on is truly a marvel, and the life that inhabits it is amazing and beautiful and serendipitous. We as humans are so unbelievably lucky that we may* be the only organisms in the history of the universe to consciously experience how awesome Earth is. And at the same time, is it just as heartbreaking that we are currently responsible for it’s destruction.

All that said, if the Sixth Extinction has been teaching me anything it’s that, yes life will likely go on even if we continue on our “normal” business-as-usual path, the question is what will that world look like, and whether or not we want/ care to be a part of it.

 

*jury is still out.

Calling a Spade a Spade

I was always curious about where this phrase comes from. Why as spade? It could be any other object. The origin according to Wikipedia is not very satisfying as it just talks about it’s first usage in the 1500s and not really at all about why a spade. In fact it seems completely random as to why a spade.

I am currently reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, which to me offers a more interesting alternative, even if it’s not the “true” origin of the phrase. In 1949 there was a psychology experiment by Jerome S. Bruner and Leo Postman in which people were shown cards from a deck of playing cards and asked to identify them. Interspersed among the standard playing cards were abnormal ones; red spades, black hearts, etc. When tested quickly, these abnormalities caused people to default to a card they knew. For example, they would call the red spade a diamond or the black heart a club. When tested slowly, they seemed unable to process what they were seeing, saying the cards looked purple or rusty, or in some cases being at a loss of words. They were so averse to calling a red spade a red spade that their brain either replaced it with what they wanted to see or they were left in utter disbelief. Of course this story still leaves you with the question of why spade and not any other suit, but to me its a better story than “someone used the term 500 years ago.”

In the context of the book, Kolbert talks about the debate between catastrophism (extinctions are caused by singular catastrophic events) and uniformitarianism (extinction occurs slowly over time), and how people, including scientists, often ignored evidence in order to maintain their current beliefs. They didn’t want to call a red spade a red spade. Similarly, many of the greatest revolutions throughout history were met with great resistance. We used to think the earth was flat; we used to think everything revolved around the earth; we used to think all of life was created in a few instances. None of these ideas went down without a fight.

People are afraid of change. They are afraid to admit that something they have believed for their whole lives might be wrong. Perhaps because they think that to do so would mean their whole life is a lie. And so when reality doesn’t match up with what they are seeing/ experiencing (cognitive dissonance) they make up stories to fit their perceptions or yell, CONSPIRACY! While I think it’s important to fight for the things you believe it is just as important, if not more so, to have humility and an open mind. The world looks different if you look at it another way. Nobody has all the answers, and to think your way is the right way is naive. That statement itself may be naive, because perhaps there is an ultimate truth out there.

All I know is that when things get uncomfortable, that usually means big things are about to happen, especially if you lean in. Just as we can’t change the laws of physics to fit our own desires (unassisted flying would be awesome), we shouldn’t change or pick “truths” to fit our own perceptions, and yet it happens all the time.

Just be careful out there.

My mind is telling no…but my body…my boodyyy……

….does what my mind tells it to do.

The section I just read from Homo Deus talks about free will. We as humans pride ourselves as unique amongst all beings on Earth because our free well, our ability to choose. Harari argues that free will is an myth, as much a fiction as any Disney fairy tail. How do we choose? How do we make any decision? It’s all based on algorithms we go through in our heads (mostly unconsciously). Things we like. Things we avoid. All of it has a reason behind it. I choose to do certain things because the story I tell myself about myself says I should do it. That story is informed by my experiences, which are decided by my previous story. Every word I’m choosing to write at the moment is based on my personal story of who I am, which was created by my past experiences, which were based on my personal story at the time, etc. etc. from the time I was born.

To further the argument Harari describes experiments currently being done on rats. Using implanted electrodes, scientists have been able to basically remote control rats to go through mazes, climb ladders etc. This may seem cruel to some, but supposedly the rats don’t experience any pain or discomfort, in fact they feel rather euphoric. They don’t feel as if someone is controlling them, rather the electrodes stimulate the brain in such ways that the rats want to do “as they’re told.” Are we as humans much different? We are encouraged to act according to our true selves. To do what feels good. Are we not just responding to electrical impulses in our brains?

All that being said, not all algorithms are not definite. Existence is not predetermined. Our “choices” have a random component to them and are partially influenced by random events outside our control. That uncertainty/ randomness is where our feelings of choice and will comes from. Perhaps humans do not have “free will” in the sense of complete autonomy. But what really is the difference between my brain telling me to do something and my self telling me to do it. If nothing else at least we can take solace in that our fates are not predestined, maybe, though of course there is no way to see one way or another with absolute certainty.

When’s all’s said and done, this is kind of a useless discussion for various reasons, but it’s interesting to think about.

This Goes to Eleven

I recently finished season 4 of the Amazon Prime series, The Expanse. Briefly, its about the social, political, economic, cultural, etc. tension between the people of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt far into the future (obviously). The show is interesting and draws on a lot of themes that are relevant to modern society and societies of the past. I’m not here to talk about any of that though, go watch it yourself, I highly recommended it (despite the coming comments).

While I think the story overall is captivating and interesting, some of the writing tries too hard in my lowly opinion. There is a lot unnecessary swearing and overall brutish character interactions. Sometimes it’s like, why the heck are you yelling? And it feels like they want some characters to spew expletives just for the sake of being edgy. For example, Chrisjen Avasarala (for those who have seen it) is an old lady and government official who swear like (worse) than a sailor; I get that maybe they are trying to make her seem badass and no-nonsense, but sometimes is just too much. She averages at least one F-bomb per sentence and it really takes you out of the scene sometimes. I’m not saying I prefer she didn’t swear, I’m just saying I’d believe it more if they toned it down some. There are better, more subtle, and frankly more tasteful ways to show her character’s strong personality.

Also I think the main character, James Holden, might be the dumbest guy in the universe.

Every time I pass that room

I expect to see you lying there.

Already staring at me with those eyes

That everyone thought were scary.

I always thought they were sweet.

If only they stared a little longer

And saw past the sagging red lids

To your amber eyes.

They would know how sweet and gentle you really were,

And how you hated thunder.

 

An oldie but a — actually just an oldie

People always look to the past to validate present actions. We look to the Bible to tell us what’s right and what wrong. We look to the Constitution. We look to our ancestors. But just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s good. The world is ever changing and our approach to life needs to change with it.

The people who wrote the Bible had no conception of modern problems and neither did the framers of the Constitution. You could argue some things are timeless and absolute, but that to me is just plain lazy. That mindset ignores the complexities of reality.

Example: Climate change is bad. Deforestation is a big contributing factor. Therefore people who cut down trees are bad and should be condemned.

It’s easy to place blame on them and shame them for being morally deficient.

But, what if those people are cutting down trees to pay medical bills for their family? What if, because of circumstances they were born into, they have no other option if they want to survive.

The Bible says not to plant two kinds of crops together or wear blended fabrics. So chances are we’re all heathen or heretics.

Similarly ridiculous “rules” can be found in the Constitution. But the Constitution has evolved as society evolved. And so have interpretations of the Bible.

We try to find answers in ancient texts because it takes responsibility out of our hands and places it into the hands of an immaterial body. It makes sense though. That’s how things work. It’s harder to believe the opinion of a single person than it is the opinion of century/millenia-old collectives. And yes, there is a reason these ideologies are so old, it’s not completely arbitrary. But the reason many of them survived and thrived was because of their ability to adapt with a changing world not fight it. What happens when our interpretations fail to change as society changes? (much of this is a big idea from Homo Deus). From our days as hunter-gatherers to the present, the prevailing belief systems always matched the technologies and cultures of the time. Those that failed to adapt were forgotten or simply exist as memories of primitive societies.