I ponder nothing. Endlessly. Nothing in the intangible sense – the increasing dominance of things without physical form in society and economy. Nothing in the sceptical nihilistic sense – the “meaninglessness of existence”. Even the nothing inherent in the stupidity required for cleverness.
Nothing isn’t new. The problem baffled thinkers for much of the 20th century. In the 21st we may finally be being overwhelmed by it. Possibly without realising. How society resolves a potentially uncomfortable relationship with nothing is important. And intriguing. It’s possibly the most difficult problem to resolve, yet underpins many contemporary issues.
This article introduces 3 approaches to resolving nothing. They are an attempt to summarise various different articles I’ve written over the past year. Broadly:
- Tangible Renaissance: Physical representations of nothing. Idols to communicate abstract values. Belief in certainty.
- Virtual Illusion: Virtual consumerism. An economy base on nothing, happily sustained in the denial of the meaninglessness. Belief in who cares?
- Post-Existential Skepticism: Understanding built from nothing. Presumption of illusion. Belief in uncertainty.
This text is poorly researched, incomplete, and, well, uncertain. But it might be an interesting summary of the extent of my current confusion. This is written from a Western, especially British-American perspective. Keep these quotes in mind:
“Assume you are wrong (and forecast often).” – Paul Saffro (The Revolution After Electronics)
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” – Woody Allen (My Speech to the Graduates)
Intangible sectors of the economy increasingly dominant (Socio-Economic Environment, Valuing). Yet we tend to favour physical representations, especially to convey status and action. From the idolisation of most religions, through the grandiose buildings occupied by banks, to cloths fashion.
The pattern continues into political government: The preference of “train sets” in transport policy, in spite of their minimal influence on transport (Railways for Prosperity). The inability of political government to even understand its impact on the intangible economy is well documented. Ironic, given the tendency for government intervention to define the value of intangibles (Valuing, again).
Tangible expressions of the intangible historically tend to be used to communicate concepts across large groups of people, especially across language or cultural barriers. The human illusion also seems to be stronger than any virtual creation (upcoming: examination of fame in World of Warcraft), so perhaps tangible things will always be preferred?
Tangible Renaissance is also associated with certainty (Optimism), in spite of growing uncertainty in the world itself (upcoming: why buses should be late – an examination of the paradoxes of denying the existence of uncertainty in policy making). Failure to acknowledge uncertainty compounds an ever-more complex underlying world. The extremes become more extreme, while the population continues to expect everything to be “normal”.
Overall, this traditional approach appeals to human instincts. It’s comforting and reassuring, regardless of its failure to address underlying problems. Unfortunately, it’s wasteful of increasingly limited physical resources, and relies on lucky to counter extremes of variability in the world. Logically, a Tangible Renaissance will eventually fail. Spectacularly.
This approach takes an already predominantly intangible, consumerist economy (Socio-Economic Environment), and transfers it entirely into a virtual environment (Valuing, Adventures in the Invisible Tent). “Virtual consumerism” – socio-economic activity without utility value, without any physical component.
These illusions are still constrained by the uncanny (Adventures in the Invisible Tent), with an “augmentalist” relationship between the physical and virtual self (that they are the same entity). The human emotions behind what is physically happening, simply transfer to a virtual arena (Do You Fish in Real Life?).
There are significant advantages to this approach. Most obviously, the maintenance of civil “happiness” and economic prosperity in the face declining physical resources (Socio-Economic Environment). Philosophically, it’s a practical defense against the “nihilistic epoch” – replacing the realisation of pointlessness with a benign, but self-perpetuating, illusion of purpose.
The legal structure for this already exists with Intellectual Property rights (Poor Gina), allowing a feudal-style structure of sub-society, where everything is subservient to the master right (the Goblin Princes in A Strange Game exemplify the complexity possible).
While such a structure might be sustainable (these are “customers”, not slaves), it evokes many Marx-era fears of the dominance of the corporation over the people. But with some 21st century twists: I am both my right and a right owned by someone else – which conflicting right wins? Values can be internalised within the structure (made non-transferable), preventing conventional income re-distribution of wealth to offset inequality (Animal Farm). The potential evolution of the corporate right-holder into “a god” (A Strange Game). Plus more widely accepted intellectual property and privacy debates, such as restricting re-creativity (Poor Gina).
These conflicts potentially lead to civil tension. Tension which cannot be resolved through the parent legislature, because that government is wedded to the Tangible Renaissance. It will struggle to comprehend its role in this. So the Virtual Illusion might also be flawed.
The fall of the Virtual Illusion raises questions for individuals, which potentially lead to a much broader understanding of the self. Specifically an appreciation of the multiplicity of self (Valuing). That in addition to you, there can be lots of other versions of you:
The structure of law would be an unexpected, but logical, way to challenge the popular perception of the physical and virtual self as the same entity – the unresolved conflict between my right to I and I as a right owned by someone else. Or perhaps the result of the Virtual Illusion is that “reality” evolves to have so little certainty, that the only sane path is to assume uncertainty? Critically, human perceptions need to cross the uncanny Valley (Adventures in the Invisible Tent).
So, somehow, we emerge into what I’ve called Post-Existential Skepticism. An inversion of conventional meta-physics: Notionally starting from nothing, and questioning everything as a series of uncertain assumptions. The opposite of assuming “god created”, and then picking apart reality like a vulture, until there is nothing left to believe. The transition through nothing is widely considered absurd, terrifying, destructive, even apocalyptic. Yet Nietzsche, and many since, have also seen great potential for humanity in overcoming nothing. Chaotic, emergent thought is the most intriguing (Difference and the Same).
However, the popular trend is towards de-immersion and de-canniness (Adventures in the Invisible Tent). People gravitate towards each other (Difference and the Same). And humans don’t evolve anywhere near as fast as technology (Financing Hyper-Virality in the Clouds comment, Do You Fish in Real Life?). Optimism seems to triumph over logic (Optimism). And the pessimists get frustrated.