There’s a popular and somewhat understandable misperception of culture as a vehicle of reproducing “normalcy” throughout society. However, each historical era makes the cognitive mistake of assuming its particular version of Normal is, well, Normal. And that all eras which came before — that were obviously ruled by stupid people who could not understand the kind of objective truths we are now privy to in the New Modern era — were a series of mass delusions in which people fooled themselves into thinking they had The Answers, when they so clearly didn’t. Because The Problems continue apace.
The twisted social psychological paradox we have not yet managed to escape is our abject failure to understand that we Moderns, too, are trapped within an enormous cultural projection of our current set of utopian delusions. We are no different, nor more special, than all the well-intentioned optimists and sad charlatans of bygone eras we love to thumb our elitist noses at. But our cursed cross to bear is the historically inescapable belief in our own Exceptionism — that we are The Smartest Guys in the Room, and that our newfound flavors of scientific rationalism will allow us to Save The Day and prop ourselves up as the hero gods of humankind we deep inside know that we must be.
For how can it be otherwise?
Whether God created us or we Him, it hardly matters — both narratives serve our deep-seated psychological ends: to prop ourselves up as the Platonically pure forms of human perfection we are eternally striving to be, despite all available evidence to the contrary. Whether mere mini-Gods or True Gods ourselves, we puff ourselves up with the pride of our uniquely gifted creationism vs. other species (and when it suits us, Other races, genders, ethnicities, or other demographical lenses that may be wielded to set The Best among us apart), which (in our minds) serves as the supremely obvious evidence of our planetary — and possibly (hopefully!) galactic — supremacy over natural reality.
All of this has happened before
But even a shallow skim through history could easily produce ample evidence in support of the opposing idea: that all such delusions of grandeur are false — which is part of the reason we (technologists, especially) love to avoid consulting history regarding such matters. The social proof of accolades in the Here and Now is far more exhilirating and, of course, less depressing.
And why look to the past, when all that is accessible can only lie before us? Yet both perspectives are false — neither the past nor the future are truly accessible to us. We live ever fixed within a singular bubbling moment of spacetime we have only barely begun to comprehend. In fact, all that our intellectual and scientific machinations have managed to reveal to us is the staggering lack of edgeness at the edges; and that the more deeply we pursue any sort of objective insight into any subject, no matter how narrowly defined, the more we only find an ever-widening gulf of ignorance opening up as if to swallow us.
Such is the fractal nature of reality, that it seems to slip further from our grasp the harder we struggle to know it — like flies in a vast inky darkness of transfixing ointment. Take for example two of the most theoretically “objective” fields known to modern scientific inquiry, and ask for their practitioners’ opinions on how the imaginary “coefficient of certainty” in their domains (that I am just now making up; bear with me — for you see, I too am a mini-God with powers of creation! Voila!) has fared over recent decades. They’re liable to tell you that physics only seems to be getting stranger, while mathematics may be brushing up against the limits of computational irreducibility, leaving a host of fundamentally unsolvable problems (although Stephen Wolfram does nonetheless leave us with ample hope of an infinite amount of discoveries to be made within the remaining territories of computationally reducible systems that we can continue to practically soldier on in. PHEW!).
Where shall we look for the Normal?
Outside of heady intellectual computational theory and the often esoteric pursuits of hard science, there is still a planetary majority of people who simply aren’t interested in this particular method of asking questions about the deep mysteries of life. Far from being irrational clods who lack the cognitive capacity to understand engineering and complex equations, they are seeking — and many have found — their answers to the profound mysteries of the meaning and purpose of life elsewhere, in other domains.
Whether it be hearth and home, creative pursuits, caretaking of others, careers and/or inquiries into other fields, or any of a dizzying variety of alternatives to the purely scientific-relational approach to values: these people are not wrong. They are not misguided, or necessarily simplistic in their searches for meaning — and neither is a simplistic approach itself objectively worse than a complicated one. In fact, as the economist-turned-philosopher Nassim Taleb so compellingly argues for via the concept of antifragility, our modern, rationalized, (predominantly) Western tendency to hyper-complexify matters often only ends up making things worse. We can’t resist the urge to meddle, and insert ourselves into the micromanagement of many processes that ought to be left well enough alone, such that the natural, organic forces of time and randomness can perform their mysterious acts of self-healing.
Instead, we exhaust ourselves with frantic over-interventionism in our quest to “smooth everything out,” eradicate the uncertainties of risk, and tamp down the erratic edges of non-conformity into the kind of straight lines and perfect curves that makes it easier for us to manipulate them within our clever mathematical models. We embark on ever more ambitious projects of forcing people to fit the models we create, so that we may pat ourselves on the back for our obvious brilliance and sophistry with prediction (and, of course, justify the collection of enormous financial rewards for being so clever).
When some people begin to rationally feel spiritually and emotionally lost within this framework, scientific rationalization once again comes to the “rescue,” via medicalization of a vast and growing array of commonly routine experiences and phenomenological traits. From the most trivial and mundane “disorders” such as “inadequate or not enough eyelashes” to the more Orwellian “oppositional-defiant disorders” that tend to land the less obsequious amongst our children on a regimen of expensive drug cocktails, Big Pharma has got The Cure for YOU!
Whatever malaise afflicts the less engaged portion of the population that isn’t quite sure about the necessity of all this excessive (and fabulously profitable) interventionism, there is sure to be ample pharmaceutical “assistance” available in pursuit of learning to appreciate the New Normal — whatever the New Normal becomes at the behest of powerful corporations and the political minions who serve them via armies of lobbyist Slugworths whispering self-serving plans into the ears of the global elite whilst writing dark money checks in smoky back rooms (of course in my imagination, the global elite have flouted society’s pathetic insistence on protecting the plebes from the dangers of inhaling the carcinogens that afford sociopathic business “leaders” with their well-deserved profits — they retain the right to smoke indoors, goddammit!!).
In other words, Normal is merely what we decide it to be, whether by collective decision or by imposition from a cabal of powerful forces whose colossal self-interest bias has created one of the largest systematic exploits of the principal-agent problem heretofore witnessed in history.
We no longer even recognize the war we’re fighting
Our spoken or unspoken desire to dominate all of civilization through the manipulation of ideologies is no longer even a thinly-veiled attempt — we’re too sophisticated now and, in the common parlance of the often-discredited Youth, “like, totally over it.” We’re more liable to either be bored of the game and tune out altogether, leaving the fate of civilation largely in the hands of the elite forces who have only their own best interests at heart; or to make the seemingly logical decision that the best course of action is to play it, and play it well — in the hopes of making it into the upper echelons of elitedom, by which to survive Whatever May Come.
So: if we do collectively hold some deeply-seated love for Actual Reality, and seek to enjoy the pleasures of each other’s company in a more peaceably sane pursuit of gratitude at the wonders of existence (or at least, a tongue in cheek self-deprecating awareness of our utterly infinite lack of ability to directly do so), then we ought to resist more forcefully the current project we are collectively on — whether by choice or, more commonly, by being caught up in the accidental lottery of birth which placed us into this particular era at this particular time: full of self-important drudgery, decadent hedonism, pomp and circumstance, and neurotic self-obsession.
We cannot, as human beings imprisoned within the distortions of perception and cognition, in any objective sense “know” the world that is Out There. But the illusion is so compelling that we find ever more seemingly obvious ways to convince ourselves that the knowledge is ever just out of reach — if we could only move a little bit faster towards it, we will surely catch it.
Meanwhile the individuals most drawn to the pursuit of wealth and power — the most arguably useful symbols one can wield in one’s pursuit of planetary domination via ideological colonization — have us zealously convinced of the above fallacy throughout every age. Playing on our deepest psychological weaknesses, it gets easier and easier to do so via application of all the modern tools in the toolbox of propaganda at our disposal, that only increase in number under the guise of the “progress” that curiously seems to benefit the wealthy and powerful in an asymmetrical way, versus providing promised benefits more broadly.
This is why we can’t have nice things
Or rather, why we can only have nice Things, and we can’t seem to find a way to enjoy the suspiciously elusive things which are not Things. The simple and ephemeral joys that only well up from In Here, from love to joy, empathy to compassion, are simply not measurable by the sophisticated rational-scientific methods we have thus far been able to invent. Not indexable, not capturable by market predictions or mathematical modeling, they teeter on the edge of a steep precipice inside of an aggressively advancing value system that resists being unhinged from the comforting certainty of statistical analysis — left flapping out in the harsh, unpredictable winds of uncertainty and risk.
Paradoxically (and somewhat hilariously), we often wonder why we’re so terribly bored and full of ennui at the whole otherwise astonishing business of life (once unmoored from the over-interventionism of the Business of Life). We cannot seem to grasp that all of our efforts at stamping out variability and disorder work precisely against us — distancing ourselves from the organic, unplanned diversity of the natural world that did just fine on its own, thank you very much, before it perhaps made the mistake of running into the set of random conditions that proved hospitable enough to produce our tragedy of a species: so well-intentioned, so brilliant and well-meaning, yet so horribly, pathologically, depressingly Quite Lost.