Hello, good morning, and again, Happy New Year. It’s Thursday‒the first one in 2022‒and so it’s time for my first blog post of the year.
There’s really not much to report this week. The pandemic continues‒and when I say this, I’m referring both to the literal one and to the pandemic of human stupidity. The latter seems unassailable even in the face of the deaths of millions of people, more or less at random, due to an infectious disease against which science (and those who use it) has been providing astonishing and unprecedented weapons which many more millions (particularly in the US, it seems) eschew because of numerous examples of misguided, often magical-thinking nonsense fueled by that bane of QI contestants: General Ignorance.
The thing about ignorance in the modern age, especially in America, is that it’s frequently willful ignorance. There’s no shame in being ignorant, per se. There exist an infinite number of facts about which we all are and always will remain ignorant. But, to use a perhaps tired metaphor, though the ocean of ignorance is endless, it is possible for us to expand the island of our personal and collective knowledge.
Lately, however, it feels as though most people in America would rather drown. If this were a literal urge, I could sympathize with them*. Unfortunately, it’s merely figurative and unrecognized, and it leads to appalling facts such as that the per capita number of deaths from Covid-19 in the US is more than three times the global per capita deaths number**. This in a country that likes to imagine itself the greatest nation the world has ever known. Unfortunately, although aspirational greatness‒the desire and the will to be and to achieve great things‒can motivate actual improvement, and sometimes even greatness, unfortunately, once you decide you just are great, without having to do any more personally to earn or maintain the designation, you’re at serious risk of going the way of the Roman Empire and countless other such self-satisfied civilizations.
Oh, well. These things happen.
I have continued rereading Outlaw’s Mind as it is so far, but I’m not finished and so haven’t yet started writing anything new on it again. It’s a good story, I think, and I enjoy reading it, but then again, I wrote it. Who knows if anyone else will ever read it? Much of the time‒a growing fraction thereof, in fact‒I don’t hope to live to complete it. To be honest, I often didn’t hope to live to see 2022. But here it is.
Oh, well. These things, as I said, do happen.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the Bystander Effect, partly because of a book I recently read‒Rationality, by Steven Pinker‒and partly because of personal reflection. For those unfamiliar, the Bystander Effect is that circumstance in which a person is ill or injured, or being attacked, or something along those lines, and there are many people around them who could, in principle, help them…and no one intervenes because of the diffusion of responsibility, though if there were merely one or two people nearby, they would likely do something.
The Internet and the Worldwide Web seem to be “places” where a person could surely, if they needed help, reach some person, somewhere, who could and would help them. But it is, ironically, home to possibly the greatest instantiation of the Bystander Effect ever seen, for each individual knows that there are, potentially, millions of other bystanders, and what’s more, they are all effectively anonymous each to all or nearly all the others. It’s a place where a person can be truly, abysmally alone despite being in the largest crowd that has ever existed. It’s the ultimate example of somewhere one can shout, or even scream, at the top of one’s figurative lungs, all while surrounded by countless other people, and yet, no one seems to hear.
What’s the difference between billions of voices all talking without speaking and hearing without listening, and silence? Silence is at least peaceful.
Where, oh where is Sailor Saturn when you need her? Oh, yeah, right, she’s in a fictional universe. What a pity. Well, they say when you want something done to your satisfaction, you should do it yourself.
Anyway, let’s hope this coming year regresses to the mean a bit, assuming we’re measuring our mean of year quality using the last decade and a half (or better yet the Nineties). Of course, taking in the whole span of human existence, during most of which life was proverbially nasty, brutish, and short, the overall mean quality of years is probably way below even this pandemic year. So, maybe what’s happening now is not an outlier in the negative direction which general tendencies will tend to correct back upward, but rather this is the correction, and the progress of civilization has been the extraordinary, truly aberrant, outlier. Maybe our success is not truly a sign of any real progress within human and civilizational character, and unless improvement is deliberately, persistently, and intelligently and rationally pursued, regression to the mean will happen.
The cosmic mean, by the way, is about six protons per cubic meter***, at a temperature of only roughly 2.7 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero, and it’s getting colder and less dense every instant, approaching absolute zero asymptotically. It’s cold****, and it’s lonely*****, but at least it’s peaceful…and it’s silent.
*And the deep ocean is a good place to be buried, all other things being equal, since it makes for an excellent carbon sink, especially if you’re interred near a subduction zone.
**Based on the best numbers available to me.
***Which is about the atomic mass of lithium, interestingly enough. Unfortunately, even if it were all, actually lithium, which is not the case, there wouldn’t be enough nearby to treat your bipolar disorder before you asphyxiate.
****But it probably wouldn’t feel very cold, because there’s no direct conduction of heat away from a warm surface like a human body. Space is an excellent insulator; all your heat would only gradually be lost by radiation, contrary to what one sees in some movies when people like the Ebony Maw get sucked into space through holes in spaceship hulls.
*****But at least it’s not ironically lonely, like the “alone in a crowd” situation.