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Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Beautiful Ones


I've been thinking a lot —probably overthinking—about the differences between Orwell and Huxley. The novels 1984 and Brave New World are very similar in many ways, but it's the differences between the two that fascinates me most.

I'd also like to point out that while 1984 absolutely deserves the attention and recognition its received, Brave New World is deserving of the same treatment. I say this because as 2020 proves to be more and more dystopian, people keep crying out, “Orwell was right all along!”

There are many elements of what Orwell feared being integrated into the current modus operandi, but I'd say that it was actually Huxley, not Orwell, who was right.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books; what Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, because there would be no one who wanted to read them.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us; Huxley feared that the truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture; Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture.

In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain; in Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

What Neil Postman observed in the passage above was that Orwell was concerned about the possibility of force being used to silence and control entire nations, but what Huxley feared was that force would not be necessary, because a hedonistic society would be so apathetic that they wouldn't even resist to begin with.

Although one observation that I'd like to posit is the possible and likely theory that Huxley's predictions will beget Orwell's predictions. There's this old saying; hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times, and so the cycle goes. We witnessed this very process in the rise and fall of the Greek empire, and our contemporaries have this nasty habit of never thinking history will repeat itself. "That sucks for them, but good thing I live in this modern era where something like that could never happen to me." I don't think anyone literally thinks that consciously, but I see very few people who seem even remotely alarmed by the possibility. It seems to me that nearly everyone carries the sentiment above without being entirely cognizant of it.

We are (or at least were) in the good times. We've reaped the rewards of all the people before us. Each of our grandparents lived in harsher times than we have, and their grandparents lived in harsher times than them, and through the collaborative efforts of millions of people, the people before us managed to create everything.

There's this common misconception that this generation, as the most “advanced” one, is the most intelligent one, and that hundreds / thousands of years ago the average person wasn't as intelligent as the average person today.

But this couldn't be further from the truth; because we weren't intelligent enough to invent all of these wonderful things and advancements we use, the people before us were. There's this ancient Chinese proverb: “No kingdom can flourish unless the people are willing to plant trees whose shade they know they will never get to sit in.” I think I butchered the translation, but that's the gist of it.

The generations before us were willing to sacrifice their own comfort, time, and likely sanity so that we can have all of the comforts that we have at our disposal. Through a labor of love, they went to the deserts of woefully underdeveloped social systems and planted numerous trees knowing that they would never get to reap the benefits of doing so, but their grandchildren and great grandchildren might. And now we have an overabundance of metaphorical verdant fields and trees, but instead of planting more trees for our future generations, we lounge around in the shade, point to one spot where the sun is seeping through, and curse our ancestors saying, “They missed a spot.”

Then when the going gets rough and the trees start to wither up and die, we complain about it instead of watering them and planting more.

There's no shortage of criticisms on post-modernism's effects on western society, but I'd like to tackle a different angle. Many of the complaints leveled at western civilization are actually just complaints about the symptoms of our culture and not the underlying disease. One might complain that people are shallow and superficial, another might complain that celebrity worship is pointless and fake, another that (insert young generation) is lazy / unskilled or unknowledgeable.

But amid all these valid frustrations is the aggregate of all these problems—the philosophy and way of life known as hedonism. Hedonism is inherently narcissistic; it's the belief (conscious or unconscious) that one should structure their life around seeking pleasure. This does not necessarily have to be physical, but often is. The obvious offenders would be things like drugs, sex, alcohol, et cetera, but there's a whole myriad of subtle things that fly under the radar. Fast food for example; one might say, “I don't smoke because it's damaging for your health,” then proceed to consume copious amounts of McDonalds. I admit that a little part of me is that way—I would sometimes enter a 7-Eleven, see the vast wall of various cigarettes on display, and pat myself on the back for being a non-smoker, just mere moments before buying a greasy slice of pizza or chicken wings.

Although the worst offenders are far more subtle. In my humble opinion, the worst offender is quite literally just leisurely time. But before you grab your torch and pitchfork, hear me out.

I am not implying that a person relaxing is more dangerous than a person doing drugs. What I am implying is that most people understand that drugs are dangerous, but because no one thinks relaxation is dangerous, its effects are unnoticed. Or perhaps saying too much relaxation is bad isn't accurate, and more accurate would be, "Too much relaxation with no duties is dangerous." This implies that it's not necessarily the relaxation itself that's dangerous, but rather the absence of duty and responsibility.

What I've observed is that there are massive quantities of people who only survive, and it's vital to understand that "surviving" is not synonymous with "living."

There's this one anime series that explores this difference very well, and it's called Log Horizon. In Log Horizon, everyone has all of their basic needs met. No one can die or feel pain, no one can starve, everyone is, for all intents and purposes, immortal.

What this initially leads to is a lot of people who don't know what to do with themselves. In the past, they would have had to worked for food, and the possibility of death was always a looming reminder of their mortality. But now that they don't have to worry about every dying or needing sustenance, things should be great, right?

Well, no.

Here's some historical context that shows the parallels between this show and the real world; before the advent of agriculture, individuals only had time to survive, and no time for any hobbies or leisurely activities. 100% of their time and attention was devoted to maintaining shelter, hunting and gathering food, acquiring drinkable water, and overall just not dying. They had no room for any other thoughts or behaviors.

But then, with the development of agriculture, it was discovered that one person could proficiently generate much more food than he himself could eat, and in doing so could free others to invest their time in other pursuits since they wouldn't need to worry about food if a handful of farmers could feed entire populations.

This process was repeated with everything; it was done with water in the form of irrigation, it was done with children in the form of public schools and daycare, it was done with trading with the arrival of currency and marketplaces, it was later done with the mass exchange of goods with vehicles and transportation, then with food again with slaughterhouses, and so on and so forth until every facet of human survival has been dwindled away.

It is now, for all intents and purposes, essentially impossible to die of natural causes before an elderly age without either human error or powerful afflictions. While we aren't literally immortal, the same problem from Log Horizon has come for us.

We have all of our basic survival needs met.

Yet, in the past each advancement in making survival easier freed up time for individuals to pursue other worthy ideals and goals, from exploring the arts and humanities to the sciences, medicine, philosophy, and the expanding market of inventions. We saw the renaissance boom into existence during the 1300s right after the end of the dark ages; prior to this, Europe was shattered by so many wars and plagues that survival was the only attainable goal for most people, and once these issues subsided the populace was free to explore the arts.

With this new-found free time, people began to reflect on themselves and their surroundings. It was all very odd and unusual to not have to worry about surviving every moment of every day, and for once they were able to indulge in a modicum of novelty for once. During the rise of these good times, they pursued things like knowledge, artistic craftsmanship, religion, invention, and the clash of ideas was always a prevalent undertone.

However, in the 21st century things didn't pan out this way. After WWII, sensationalism came to the forefront. And there was nothing wrong with this at the time; we saw lots of good music and television come out of these years. But it was the response to these that gave way to problems.

Ingratitude.

The adults who survived the world wars were grateful for the new technologies they had--for the first time they were able to see the wheels of progress churning.

But we've optimized too far; in a video by Mark Brown from Game Maker's Toolkit, he explores how game developers protect the players from themselves. Why would game developers need to do this? Because the developers would design a game with a certain method of play being the most fun or enjoyable way to play through it, but the players wouldn't do the most "fun" way of a playing these games. Instead, they'd optimize all the fun out of it. In games where the fun is in taking risks, they'd play it safe, focusing--not on having fun and enjoying the experience--but on winning as fast and efficiently as possible.

So instead of taking their time and enjoying the game, players would use repetitive tactics, and would always play it safe and focus solely on beating the game with as few failures or risks as possible. But most of the time, this isn't fun. There's nothing fun about only trying to win with as little risk as possible in a game that was designed to be chaotic and risky. Games like Dead Cells exist to address this problem.

"If given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of the game," said developer Soren Johnson.

The full video can be found here: https://youtu.be/7L8vAGGitr8

However, I've come to a rather horrifying realization: Have we optimized the meaning out of life?

When the the goal is optimization, and not enjoyment, meaning, or novelty, the only inevitable conclusion is rampant hedonism. Look no further than architecture to see how this is happening.

In his video The Lunatic Responsible for Destroying Every Beautiful City in the World, Thoughty2 dives into the startling history of modern architecture where it recieves an unfortunate downgrade. The goal of modern architecture (post WW2) is pure utility, not quality or beauty. What this looks like in practice is the modern attitude of: "This building doesn't have to be high-quality or beautiful, it just has to meet the minimum regulations." That's why such a large percentage of modern buildings are just big concrete cubes and bridges are just big concrete arcs.

The real tragedy is all this isn't even meeting its stated goal of being utilitarian, as there is greater utility in quality. Going back to the architecture example, the average pre-war house was typically built with brick and mortar. The average post-war house is built with wood and drywall.

The average pre-war brick and mortar house lasts around 120 years, but the average wood and drywall post-war home starts to fall apart after about 60.

That's a serious downgrade, the lifespan of these homes has effectively been halved in the name of utility. What this leads to is a litany of structurally unsound 60-year-old houses that would be cheaper to bulldoze and build a new house than to repair the existing one; compare that to a pre-war home that was built to last out of the best materials available, many of which are still standing tall from the civil war era.

Even if it costs more to build a home like this the first time, the mere fact that it won't need to be bulldozed in 60 or so years and rebuilt offsets any extra cost. It costs around $12,000 to bulldoze a medium sized home in the US, and then you'd have to double the initial cost of building the home if you inteded to rebuild it or a similarly sized home where the previous one stood.

I'm not saying homes should all be made with bricks (especially in earthquake regions), I'm merely using architecture as an example.

Now, we've gotten pretty deep into this subject and I have yet to address the title of this essay, so here's what that's about.

In 1968, a scientist named John Calhoun creates a bigger and grander version of his previous little experiments on mice, which he dubs The Mouse Utopia Experiment. I wrote "experiment" as singular, but he actually repeated the same experiment dozens of times and got the same exact result each time. Others have recreated similar experiments to Calhoun's and also gotten the same results, which are completely terrifying.

Calhoun's intentions with the experiment diverge greatly from what his observations became focused on later; he was not trying to chart the behavioral effects of hedonism, his original intent was merely to study the population density of mammals and figure out how their population size would increase or decrease in response to relaxed living conditions. But like with gunpowder and many others, some of the biggest and most important discoveries are completely accidental.

Calhoun set about to create a utopia for the mice to study their population, so he took 4 pairs of average mice and sealed them in a 9' x 4' metal mouse pen complete with easily accessible clean water, food feeders, tunnels, and comfy nesting boxes.

The mice were off to a great start. Their population boomed and doubled every 2 months. But they prematurely hit their peak population at 2,200 even though the enclosure could easily support as many as 3,800 mice. After peaking at 2.2k mice, their population plummeted into extinction even though all their survival needs were easily being met with no effort required on the part of the mice.

Calhoun's study found that this decline began suddenly and swiftly after 315 days when all of their social norms began to crumble. It first started with the female mice abandoning their young to die, followed by the male mice refusing to defend their territory and both sexes of mice becoming more volatile and aggressive.

Socially and sexually deviant behavior dilated every day, with male mice aggressively mounting other males, some mice becoming antisocial and suicidal, and female mice ignoring their young and grooming themselves nonstop.

The last thousand or so mice were incredibly antisocial and avoided any remotely stressful activity while focusing all of their attention solely on themselves.

Calhoun refered to this last born batch of mice as "the beautiful ones." They spent all day grooming and fixating on themselves, so they were much better looking than the previous generations of mice, but Calhoun notes that they were "averse to any new stimuli" and were "incredibly stupid."

With the provided abundance of food and water, the lack of predators and the lack of need to devlop the skills necessary to collect resources, the mice became increasingly complacent until they no longer cared for responsibility and by extension, allowed themselves to become extinct since none of them wanted to reproduce or raise offspring.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If some alarms are starting to go off, then we can at least thank our lucky stars that we aren't completely fargone yet.

The easiest way to reconcile these findings with mankind today is to look at a few things--of course, hedonism, but also welfare. There's a reason people are often warned not to feed wild animals; because if an animal becomes dependent on a human for food, it becomes infantilized and cannot hunt for itself.

To clarify, that doesn't mean all welfare is inherently bad, but it becomes dangerous once a large enough population becomes entirely dependent on the state for its survival. An infantilized population that relies on the state for all of its survival needs becomes a slave to that state, and is unable to survive without Uncle Sam's direct assisstance. In a way, prolongued wlefare states are actually, abjectly cruel, by coercing a vulnerable population of struggling citizens into a state of complete dependence and reliance, and, by extension, controlling them.

Our pets are sort of forced to love us because without us, they would not survive. In a way, we are God to them. A stray cat or dog born behind some bushes down the street might survive (if some predator doesn't get it first), but a cat or dog that has relied its whole life on its owner for food, water and shelter has no chance on its own. In this same way, a welfare-state makes its welfare recipients dependents who are forced to agree with and vote for (or at least tolerate) everything that state does, because at any moment if enough people stopped supporting it, the welfare could go away and they'd be screwed.

Welfare and charity does have a place in the world, but infantilizing a population of dependents and enslaving them to a political and economic system they might otherwise disagree with under the guise of being charitable and virtuous is not one of them.

And such is the case with hedonism--pleasures and fun activities do have a place in the world, but rampant and destructive self-indulgence is not one of them.

 

I swear this one was ripped straight from Wall-E.

 

Addressing the conspicuous implications of his accidental findings, Calhoun wrote:

Herein is the paradox of a life without work or conflict. When all sense of necessity is stripped from the life of an individual, life ceases to have purpose. The individual dies in spirit.

What this essentially amounts to is the actualization that meaning and purpose is not synonymous with pleasurable or enjoyable. Yet as Jordan Peterson wrote as his 7th rule in 12 Rules for Life, "Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient." We have cultivated a set of social systems wherein it is by default and with no thought or consideration that we take the expedient path; indulge in the short-term pleasures of today and give no thought to long term comittments or burdens of responsibility.

Now, there is one thing that absolutely does need to be made clear; this is not a pessimistic blackpill essay. I consider myself to be a cautiously optimistic person, because being utterly devoured by pessimism and nihilism isn't useful, and neither is blind positivity and slaktivism.

"Why even try bro the world is fucked, there's nothing we can do."
 

There is no shortage of media out there pointing at every little flaw in the world and claiming that the end is neigh, but very rarely do these people put forth any solutions. A good rule to live by is the 80/20 rule, an immutable law of nature. The 80/20 rule can be found everywhere.

20% of the pods produce 80% of the peas, for any busniess ~20% of the customers buy ~80% of the product, et cetera. When discussing problems, it's best to spend 20% of the time fleshing out the details of the problems, and the remaining 80% of the time talking about solutions. Otherwise it just sounds like negative chatter and petulant complaining. 

There is nothing productive in pointing out every problem in the world if there's no meaningful attempt to address them or propose solutions. So that's what I'm going to do here. My next essay will be by far the largest I've ever written; it will be a mouumentally gargantuan essay, perhaps my magnum opus, breaking down each problem I see and analyzing various possible solutions, but it will take an outrageous amount of research because I don't want to push any ignorant views I might currently hold onto the Internet claiming it's bonafide advice. I really want to get this right, so it will be a very, very long time before that essay comes out. I might even sprinkle in some small essays here and there while working on that one.

'til then,

May all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.


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