Notes from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

A few years back I was talking with a friend about how much more frequent and easier air travel had gotten even since I was a kid. I mentioned that our kids would probably travel constantly and never settle down, and he responded “or maybe we’ll run out of resources and they won’t be able to travel at all.”

That was the first time I really considered that our way of life might not continue growing forever, and may end or transform completely. Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a short, poetic exploration of how we might come to terms with our mortality as a civilization, and if we must die out, learn how to die well. It’s a dark book, but offers an unexpected olive branch in the form of the humanities as a way to avoid the worst of what might come.

The Big Idea

Humanity’s survival through the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism and into the new world of the Anthropocene will hinge on our ability to let our old way of life die while protecting, sustaining, and reworking our collective stores of cultural technology. (23)

Scranton highlights that the foundations of our civilization are the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell stories about endless technological progress and individual fulfillment, we are likely to fall into chaos once our resources run out. But if we tell stories about what’s best–and most basic–about human culture, we build knowledge and a support system for harder times.

Rather than technology, this emphasizes the humanities as the most important area to develop in ourselves and our children. Scranton argues that reading, writing, singing and drawing new stories about “the good life” is the best way to protect against the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, and societal collapse.

The first step, though, is to personally and as a society realize our mortality and shift to a mindset of collective responsibility.

5 favorite quotes

  • Politics, whether for bees or for humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. This is where the ideas of the vote, the town hall meeting, and the public debate get their power: humans come together to resonate on one frequency or another. (55-56)
  • Accepting this emptiness, letting go of my self, was only the first step in coming to understand my responsibility to and participation in a larger collective self, a kind of human existence transcending any particular place or time, going back to our first moments in Africa 200,000 years ago, and living on in the dim, fraught future of the Anthropocene.(93-94)
  • “All the wisdom and reasoning in this world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.” – Michel de Montaigne (91)
  • The only inherent trait of the human ape that differentiates us from other animals is our knack for collective symbolic manipulation. (94)
  • The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life…The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself. (99; 110)

Next steps

I’ve long wanted to write simple children’s books about the future, and illustrating possible good lifestyles in a challenging environment seems like a good way to do that. Will make that a priority this year.

Update – Just found out I posted this on the day Ursula Le Guin died. Sad news. A quote of hers that applies quite nicely here:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

Investment and love

Dan Ariely on why we love our kids so much (and more than others):

Kids really come with no instructions. Very tough to deal with, difficult, complex, but incredibly involving and time consuming and I think the love that comes out of it is an example of the effect of a tremendous investment.

Big man power

Conor Dunne, patron saint of tall cyclists, shows what it would take for me to ride in the WorldTour:

“The average rider would do well to be able to hold 390w for five minutes,” he adds. “For Conor to be able to sustain that for over four and a half hours in this bike race shows you how much you have to have in the tank to compete at this level.”

Harnessing AI to build better UI

A fascinating article (and set of demos) about how generative and improvisational AI techniques could help us invent better interfaces, and better ways of thinking for humans:

At its deepest, interface design means developing the fundamental primitives human beings think and create with…

We’ve described a third view, in which AIs actually change humanity, helping us invent new cognitive technologies, which expand the range of human thought. Perhaps one day those cognitive technologies will, in turn, speed up the development of AI, in a virtuous feedback cycle.

So not just computers quickly generating lots of options based on existing pieces, but helping us think up new ways to frame the questions, and build new tools to explore them. Your next design colleague could be a machine.

Gratitude increases patience and self-control – as the author asserts, a good way to keep those New Year’s resolutions!

The biggest constraint in most product development is not technical capability or design skill–it’s willingness to talk with customers.

How Fungi Saved the World

For all that we humans worry about saving the world, it was mushrooms that rescued an Earth that had drowned in wood for 40 million years, and even gave us the coal to jumpstart modern civilization:

Here is the crux of our problem: lignin made the lycopod trees a little too successful. Because their leaves were lofted above many herbivores and their trunks were made inedible by lignin, lycopods were virtually impervious to harm. They grew and died in vast quantities, and their trunks piled up in swamps, eventually becoming submerged and locking huge quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for good in the form of coal. Without any decomposition to recycle this carbon, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels crashed, leading to global cooling and making it much harder for plants to grow. Atmospheric oxygen concentration, in turn, soared to an estimated 35%, much higher than the 20% of modern times.

How video games point to enlightenment

In 2008, Metafilter member aeschenkarnos wrote a review of the outside world as if it were a video game:

The physics system is note-perfect (often at the expense of playability), the graphics are beyond comparison, the rendering of objects is absolutely beautiful at any distance, and the player’s ability to interact with objects is really limited only by other players’ tolerance. The real fundamental problem with the game is that there is nothing to do.

It received a score of 7/10.

Since then, a few people have written about how treating your real life like a video game can improve your productivity and personal development. Jane McGonigal, one of my design heroes, developed a game to make people happier and healthier in real life. And many “games” have been created to teach meditation, calm the mind, and even “promote compassion, altruism and teamwork”.

There are clear parallels between the activities shown and taught in these “games” and the ones that multiple religions point to as leading to truth and enlightenment. Video games let you build a character, developing their “experience points” along the way; religions provide paths of growth toward holiness. Video games let you explore alternative realities; Buddhism and Christianity both explain that this world is not the “true” reality; the promised kingdom.

But piloting a character in a video game, and recognizing their false nature, is different than believing you yourself are a character in a game. Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument is the most well-known explanation of how we might actually be living inside a simulation, while Robin Sloan wrote a fascinating piece about how to best succeed–and not get turned off–if that were true:

If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look more likely to become rich, expect to and try more to participate in pivotal events, be more entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happier and more interested in you.

However, I had almost the opposite reaction. Instead of making me strive for simulated immortality, taking such a perspective mostly changes how I view everyday things. When I imagine I’m a character in a game, a few things change:

  • I pay more attention to the present moment: the people I’m with, the sights and sounds and feelings. It really is a well-designed game (“the graphics are beyond comparison”), but you only appreciate that by paying attention. And why play a game if you’re not going to pay attention to it?
  • My phone, the internet, and TV are less tempting. Who logs into a video game just to have their character watch TV?
  • In general I’m less swayed by indulgences. Drinking alcohol and eating junk food aren’t going to help with that leveling up, and being tired is something I can fix by simply clicking on a few more hours of sleep.
  • It’s easier to do the chores and tasks I know I need to do. Somehow viewing myself as a character makes it easier for me to tell him to get to work.
  • I feel braver and more willing to take risks, and try new things. Games reward exploration.

Interestingly, all these are also benefits I’ve found from prayer and meditation. Games and religious practices share the desire to reduce the ego and the identification with the “self”. If you don’t believe that this is your true self–your intended form–you can handle setbacks and struggles better (after all, they’re not about you). And you can still invest in and grow your “self”, but the stress of that and fear of failure goes away when you believe the true consequences and rewards are separate from this reality.

The danger in this perspective is descending into nihilism, where you believe that this life has no purpose. Reminding myself of the personal benefits of growth helps avoid that, but also looking deeply at the beauty of nature and society all around shows me the value of simply being there to experience it.

So if you see me moving a bit awkwardly around the world, gazing intently at every little thing, and trying weird new practices every day, cut me some slack–I’m still learning how to play this game.

Design by inquiry: Can this be a question?

I recently started a new job with new brilliant, experienced colleagues, and it’s been difficult to make helpful contributions while I’m still learning about the problems we’re working on. Often when I propose a solution it turns out to be already considered and rejected, hopelessly naïve, or entirely misguided. And when asked for my opinion on the ideas of others, I sometimes freeze up and stammer out something noncommittal.

I’ve found that the most useful technique is to constantly ask myself, “Can this be a question?” Specifically, I take whatever proposal I was about to make, and turn it into a question for others.

For instance, if I think we should change a design element from blue to green, I might ask “How did we decide on blue for this?” or “How well is blue working here?” If that doesn’t lead anywhere, I could continue by asking “What are the goals of the color choices?” followed by “Would any other colors do that even better?”. Even if we don’t end up making it green, we’re likely to end up with some improvement, and I’m certain to learn something along the way.

Asking questions like this–something I call “design by inquiry”–has several benefits:

  1. It encourages others to share their thoughts and ideas, and puts them in a creative mode rather than a critical one. Often when people hear a strongly-presented idea they feel responsible for pointing out its flaws rather than building constructively on it. And design always benefits from more diverse perspectives.

  2. It gives the people with the most context–they’re asking the question, after all–the opportunity to answer it themselves. If an engineer comes to me with a problem, they’ve already started thinking about it. I’d like to hear what they’ve considered already, and what they feel might be best now.

  3. It can open up an overly-constrained problem to new opportunities. More often than not, the difficulty in design comes from solving the wrong problem, and restating the question gives everyone a chance to reframe the problem and make sure you’re still looking in the right direction.

In several ways, this is similar to the Socratic method, which is often employed in order to discredit a hypothesis or proposal, and sometimes characterized as “acting dumb”. However, design by inquiry comes from a place of open creativity and “actually being dumb”–as designers always are when starting a new project.

One of my mantras is “be the dumbest person in the room”–to make sure I’m always learning–and that means asking a lot of questions!

Notes from “Why Buddhism is True”

Robert Wright’s books have oscillated between evolutionary science (The Moral Animal) and religious history (The Evolution of God, Nonzero). His latest book, Why Buddhism is True, tries to unify the fields, told through a personal perspective.

For more than two millennia, Buddhism had been studying how the human mind is programmed to react to its environment, how exactly the “conditioning” works. Now, with Darwin’s theory, we understood what had done the programming.

One of Buddhism’s big ideas is that most of what we sense and feel is illusory. Wright argues that evolution created these illusions by shaping us to value survival and reproductive success more than “truth”:

Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.

He gives the example of seeing–really seeing–a dangerous snake out of the corner of your eye, sprinting away, and then turning back to realize it was only a stick. In the moment, your brain saw a snake, because it was more beneficial to your genes to believe it was real.

Even if you think you’re being rational, that too can be an illusion:

From natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren’t accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation.

His conclusion is that our collective psychology is “a byproduct of the particular evolution of our species”, and that the way to save the world is for people to recognize their illusions, especially the illusion of separateness from each other.

I think there will have to be, in the long run, a revolution in human consciousness. I’m not sure what to call the revolution—maybe the Metacognitive Revolution, since it will involve stepping back and becoming more aware of how our minds work. But I think it’s going to have to be something so dramatic that future historians will have an actual label for the transformation.

In an age of information addiction and personalized newsfeeds it’s hard to imagine the world embracing mindfulness en masse. But perhaps it is exactly the artifice of those things that will drive us back to a more natural, more mindful, and more truthful lifestyle.