A tough day at work has put me in the mood to watch Vikings (on Amazon Prime, of course), another in the modern vein of gritty and rough-edged TV series, covering a period mostly neglected in historical drama – the Dark Ages in Europe. As you may imagine, there is a lot of warfare on the show, just what I need to heat up my blood.
One scene from an episode I’ve already watched has a Norse warband defeating a less disciplined English force, which ties into a book I recently listened to – War by Sebastian Unger, a reporter embedded with a platoon of airborne infantry in Afghanistan. In the latter case, as well, the superior training and discipline of U.S. forces allows them to prevail against a seemingly endless supply of hapless Taliban fighters, who are mostly teenage boys with almost no warfighting skills (but armed with deadly weapons and therefore a serious threat).
So across the ages, this simple military principle holds – discipline and training are the key to success in battles, whether fought with bow and arrow, spear and sword, or with rifle, mortar and grenade. But also consider that England is ruled by the English still, and the Taliban remains a force in Afghanistan. So winning battles is not necessarily going to achieve one’s war aims in the long run.
That’s enough thinking for now I am going to watch TV.
One of my many preoccupations is re-reading old sci-fi books from a modest collection I have. Just because it was there I picked up this one by Fritz Leiber:
This turns out to be a short novel where some guy somewhere in the 20th century discovers that he is the only actually sentient human in a world where everyone else is robotically going through the motions of life. Whenever I encounter this theme, as in The Stepford Wives, or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (they are plant-clone beings who act like robots), I assume I am reading a parable about the human yearning to break free from the shackles of social conformity. After all, science fiction has replaced the old mythmaking as our collective way of exploring and expressing the human psyche.
The fear of being just another pod-person is understandable. We easily fall into patterns, and time sweeps us all too speedily down the course of our lives. We don’t want to look back and feel that life has passed us by, hence the constant rush to have new, authentic experiences.
Scientists call our patterns “behavioral conditioning,” the biological equivalent of programming, and there is even an experiment in which neuroscientists can predict our decisions before we make them (or are aware that we have made them), putting the whole notion of free will into question. But fear not – deep within us is the wellspring of creativity, the true source of freedom, which lets us overcome our conditioning. It requires effort and awareness, but it can be done. Because we are not actually robots, we just act like them a lot of the time.
Back to the book; another fun thing about it is that it has a cigarette ad in the middle of it:
It’s a 1972 edition, and I guess that was a thing then. Advertisers: the ultimate puppet-masters!
I will end this post with a link to a bizarre and brilliant song along the same theme. The lyrics are on the same page as the video to help you follow along.
The idea of parallel worlds or alternate timelines is a compelling source of endless entertaining science fiction stories. It is also taken seriously in theoretical physics as a possible interpretation of quantum mechanics, that bizarre empirical phenomenon in which matter loses its substantiality at sub-atomic scales, particles become waves, and reality becomes probabilistic – until the moment when an observation is made. An observation precipitates the so-called “wavefunction collapse” and restores the familiar objective world of classical physics. In the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, it is assumed that the wavefunction simply describes all the possible versions of the Universe, and when we make an observation, we don’t collapse the wavefunction, we just determine which version of reality we are currently in. It’s an appealingly simple interpretation, which saves us from having to resolve the paradoxes of wavefunction collapse; it is a theory that has been jokingly described as “short on assumptions, long on Universes.” And now it has been updated with the many interacting worlds version, with its tantalizing possibility of being verifiable experimentally.
I remember reading a short story by Larry Niven, All The Myriad Ways, in which a corporation had figured out a way to travel among the many worlds, discovering all the possible timelines, and demonstrating to all that, indeed, the Universe does split into different versions every time a choice is made. This ends up prompting a wave of casual crimes – including suicides, murders, and rapes – as people process this knowledge to the extreme logical conclusion that there is no reason to consider the consequences of actions. After all, if I kill someone, what does it matter, since there is some other Universe in existence in which I didn’t kill them?
I wouldn’t hold out for a dimension-hopping corporation to come along and sell us souvenirs from alternate historical timelines, though. The best interpretation of quantum mechanics is the Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation – consciousness causes collapse. This interpretation neatly resolves the paradox of wavefunction collapse by accepting its salient property – it occurs at the moment of observation. Through the vehicle of consciousness, the Universe comes into being, one timeline unfolding according to our choices. This is why our actions are rife with moral significance: each choice fatefully fixes the storyline, and dispenses with the alternatives.
So Niven’s story can be seen as a parable about the nature of moral choice – it is meaningful because there is one world, limiting us with its physical laws, shaping our destiny as we travel through time. Parallel realities make for compelling television entertainment, but they are not actually going to let us escape this reality. This life is your one chance to make the right choices, and the stakes are very real.
When I write about the Zeitgeist, or spirit of the age, it is frequently in the context of my favorite theory of social cycles, the generational or turnings theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe. In this theory there are recurring social eras, each characterized by a particular mood, depending on whether the individual or group is elevated, institutions are strengthening or weakening, and more. There’s a bit to it, and the best way to learn about it is just to read the books by the authors.
Their web site is here: The Fourth Turning.
Here is a summary that I wrote for an old blog: Background on Generational Theory.
You may have come across this theory recently, because it is now associated with the current U.S. administration, thanks to a particular advisor’s interest in it. Here author Neil Howe discusses this matter: Where did Steve Bannon get his worldview? From my book.
Here’s a brief interview as well: The book that shaped Steve Bannon’s worldview.
I post this in case it helps with understanding my language, since I tend to look at life through this particular, uh, Weltanschauung.
I have a long reading list of books, many of which I purchased years ago, and have had sitting on my bookshelf ever since. So I finally got around to reading David Brooks’ “On Paradise Drive” , which is a follow-up to “Bobos In Paradise”. This book (the follow-up) was published in 2004 (!). Yes, it’s 8 years into the Fourth Turning and I’m finally reading this book from the Third Turning.
On Paradise Drive
It was a quick and enjoyable read. Brooks is snarky and he overgeneralizes about society, both of which sins he freely confesses. As I read “On Paradise Drive” I found myself thinking that he is just repeating stereotypes, there isn’t much depth here, and then I would encounter a sentence that exactly described my life experience. For example, in contrast to the muscular SUV set, intellectuals “putter around in their low-slung Japanese sedans with a clutter of books and magazines on the backseat…” Ooh, he’s on to me.
Brooks mainly discusses life in the suburban sprawl of the United States, which reached unprecedented levels in the early 2000s. He’s writing during the housing boom, before there was much talk of the declining middle class, and celebrating the diversity of subcultures spread like a patchwork across the American landscape. If you’ve read “Bobos in Paradise,” you recall that his term means “Bo-hemian Bo-urgeoisie” – referring to the enfolding of hip, counterculture life into mainstream middle America. A quote from this latest work: “Nobody in this decentralized, fluid social structure knows who is mainstream and who is alternate, who is elite and who is populist.” What he’s describing is the social era that in Turnings theory we call the Unraveling.
Another quote: “Ours is not a social structure conducive to revolution, domestic warfare, and conflict. The United States is not on the verge of an incipient civil war or a social explosion. If you wanted to march against the ruling elite, where exactly would you do it?”
But now, in 2017, the book is looking dated. The diversity of subcultures has coalesced into two pretty definite groups, battling fiercely in government and media over whose values agenda will be instituted. Maybe three groups, if you think about the Sanders-Clinton split and all the non-voters of last year’s election. The conflict underway is about whose version of paradise will be considered mainstream in the years to come.
So this book gets to be put on the pile of “books that describe a now defunct social era.” Which isn’t saying that it’s a bad work, just that it’s been overtaken by history. I’d better get through my other books in the pile ASAP.
I was as excited as anyone about the news of seven planets orbiting a dwarf star, all of which are in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ (neither too close to their star nor too far) wherein they could conceivably harbor life. The memes came fast and thick for a couple of days, including this imaginary travel poster:
But as fun as it is to conceive of interstellar travel and space vacations, the truth is that the challenges that must be overcome for humans to leave the solar system are all but insurmountable. Even spreading out to nearby worlds such as our moon and Mars would require Herculean effort. The real challenge for the human species is learning to coexist on planet Earth without destroying ourselves through war and environmental degradation.
That we keep looking for “life out there” speaks to mankind’s boundless curiosity and sense of adventure, and perhaps to a desire to find an alternative to living with the lifeforms that we’re stuck with here. Like all those idiots who voted the opposite of you a few months ago. But the physics of the Universe, with its limiting speed of light and its dimensions in the tens of billions of light years, confines us to our local star system pretty well. I recall a sci-fi short story by Stanislaw Lem, in which he speculated that this is actually the design of the Universe, which is a vast experimental laboratory for the generation of intelligent life.
The calling of the human race is not to planet hop throughout the galaxy – it is to take care of the planet we inherited, and of each other. It is to evolve our capacity for love right here on Earth.