If someone trains their body, practices daily physical exercise, learns muscular control and athletic skill to the point of being the best, we put a gold medal around their neck on TV. If someone trains their mind, practices daily rational thought, acquires knowledge and technical skills to the point of being the best, we go online to call them elitist and tell them to keep their opinions to themselves.
Spoiler Alert: I’m about to get a little political and quite serious. If you no longer have the patience for that sort of thing, you may be interested in this article I wrote a few years ago about the value of running in the fallout of a zombie apocalypse, so read that instead. On the other hand, if you can put up with just one more rant, read on…
When I was in my early twenties, I spent a month travelling through Europe. My bus tour, between stopping at numerous pubs and other exciting sightseeing locations, spent a somber trio of hours at the remains of the Dachau Concentration Camp in Upper Bavaria, near Munich (after checking out the nearby Oktoberfest party that was happening there.)
Having spent the prior evening in a beer tent, most of my travelling companions were hung over and probably fighting to stave off wicked headaches as we wandered through preserved bunkers and various brick buildings with disconcertingly large furnaces. I, on the other hand, was sober… and further sobered by the tour.
Whatever group now operates that site, showcasing it as a stark reminder of a terrible span in European history, they should pride themselves on the fact that of the thousands of things I saw on my month-long adventure through that continent there are only a few crystal clear memories still stuck in my heart today. One of the things that still haunts me nearly twenty years later is standing in the courtyard of that camp in Dachau and feeling the weight of that place on my shoulders. It was a boulder set upon my back, and surely chained there for the duration of my life. I’ve come to understand since that I did not feel that weight because I feared that I’d have been one of the millions who’d been queued up for their fate in a furnace. No, I felt the weight because I feared that I’d have so easily become one of those on the other side of the fence, one of those whose house was being dusted with the ash of human extermination each day and never questioned it, never stuck their neck out to say WTF?
Many folks online like to fend off any discussion of this sort by quoting Godwin’s law: the proposition that all online discussion eventually devolves into calling someone with an alternative opinion a Nazi and comparing their leader to Hitler. And surely, after reading the last couple paragraphs, some people reading this are already dismissing these words on that basis.
I’m not calling anyone a Nazi. I’m not comparing anyone to Hitler. Even I don’t agree that our broken government has devolved that far quite yet. But I am attempting to make a point that hinges on my experiences between those introspective moments in Dachau, my intervening years on and offline, and the frustrating discourse that has been given life in this recent election.
See, about mid-way through this election I was challenged by someone with words that he probably doesn’t recall saying, nor if he did would he probably own up to their impact. I was told to stop behaving like my education made me better than other people… that I was being arrogant because I was well-read, lettered, and had a viewpoint that (while imperfect) is something I’d always considered was based (with focused effort) on a balance of fact, trusted opinions, and societal empathy.
At first I took the insult at face value, and like the metaphorical slap in the face that it was, retracted a bit in shock and readied myself to re-evaluate my thinking on this accusation of arrogance. Maybe I was asserting my opinion too forcefully. Perhaps I was coming off as an asshole because I feel a responsibility to learn, read or think about things and then try to share that information with people who have different opinions, willing to listen or not.
And so, yes, I retreated a bit. I stepped back from writing about ideas and posting my position. While in my own head I’ve been angry and frustrated and ready to rail against political stupidity and divisive campaigning that seems to set ready to further crumble the foundations of this once-peace-loving nation, I kept to myself.
However, I stayed informed. I watched the discussion. I read the articles from all three major camps. And I voted in the advance polls, but because I couldn’t stand the lingering pressure of that nagging self-doubt and minuscule possibility that having picked my ballot choice based on years of their actions rather than weeks of their promises, that my fortitude might somehow crumble in the remaining days and I’d sway in some unforeseen direction I’d later regret. All the while, I kept to myself, afraid of arrogance.
Then that stone still chained to my back felt too heavy again: I remembered Dachau Concentration Camp.
I remembered that millions of people were murdered because of fear. Yet, not only because of their own fear. They were murdered because over a decade of gradual erosion of trust, after years of divisive political nudges, through subtle defacing of checks and balances in the system, erosion of the rights of one vaguely defined group over another vaguely defined group, persistent xenophobia and the never-ending threat of aggression from some foreign state or terror-minded actor, Hitler made everyone else afraid. Afraid of questioning. Afraid of speaking out. Afraid of forcefully claiming that hell, yes they knew better: because they were smart, educated, or had access to information that others might not. Perhaps dozens or hundreds of houses in Dachau were daily covered in ash, the burnt remains of millions of systematically destroyed people raining down on other people, too afraid to step out of line and fight that fear.
I’ve kept to myself, and been afraid to be labeled as arrogant because of fear itself. While yes, this election has presented us with valid issues of true economic weight, topics of hefty environmental importance, and discussions around the security of all of our jobs, drugs (legal and otherwise), service delivery and cuts, and funding for everything imaginable, there has been one blazing red light issue outshining the rest in this election for those who are well-read enough to recognize its hue. I glimpse it. And me, I just want to shout out from the roof of my house: “Don’t you see it? How can you value of a few years of fat paycheques over a generation of social harmony? How can you ignore that our lack of scientific evidence about environmental change is only because of government muzzling? How do you sleep peacefully knowing our government is slowly, methodically allowing our aboriginal population to suffer while subtly turning the blame back on the victims of that slow genocide? How does your math not add up that one crazy young man taking a gun into parliament should never have equated to police-state-like powers granted to a government agency?”
Listen: we are not so special as to be immune to any possible fate, evil or otherwise. Yet, I have hope that we can avert it. I have trust that we are not so far gone down a dark path that our future together can be long and prosperous and peaceful and full of hope.
But in a world where information really can be made into power, the only thing we should truly fear is someone who tries to control, muzzle, restrict, or twist that information: be that you, I, or anyone else.
Our fear to governments is like honey to a hungry bear.
In the coming years when partisan politics, racially charged xenophobia, control of the media, and the vilification of science become the weapons of choice for the government to control the people, your knights and our champions will be the educated and the well-read. Your front line will be those arrogant enough to know that their education is so powerful that it is one of the few things oppressive governments actually fear. The best of these become Warrior-Poets, whose words are like arrows and whose ideas are like swords. They train by learning, and they fight by spreading thoughts and freeing facts, and yes, their pride in their finely crafted skills can sometimes be mistaken for arrogance just as their rage against misinformation and fallacy can be mistaken for intolerance.
Many aspire to their ranks, but few are so worthy. Yet, their studies in the words, facts, knowledge, and the power to move and motivate people with the same are what will truly make us free, safe, and prosperous for generations.
Most importantly though? We should never assert that knowledge is about arrogance. It’s never been so clear cut as black hearts and white ivory towers, because education is not a yes or no question. It’s not about who has intelligence or who lacks it. We are all smart, or able to seek being it. We’re all of us capable of hearing both sides, judging facts against opinions, and of using information, experience and truth to fight the irrationality that builds fear. We, all of us, can use our brains to make this the society and nation we want it to be: the difference is not arrogance versus intelligence, nor pride versus intollerance.
The difference will be judged much later: Someday it will be asked who was hiding in their house as the ashes fell from above, and who stepped out and asked why.
“Well, for starters,” I queried, “how do you think you could you tell the difference between a boy and a girl?”
She paused only a second before answering, a bit of a questioning tone ringing weakly in her suddenly-uncertain voice. “By their hair?” She guessed.
Like so much of our heart-to-heart conversation, she had taken the opportunity of catching me (literally) while my back was turned. I was driving, her in the backseat of the car… and then she started asking about sex.
That line of thinking had itself stemmed from a vehicle sighting as we were waiting behind an intersection, an SUV with a neat row of those little ‘this is our family in stick figures’ stickers clinging to the back window. This particular iteration had featured five kids, three dogs, and two moms.
Five minutes worth of innocent questions about “how do two moms have five kids, dad?” and a few of my fumbling answers later, we were talking about sexual reproduction, and not for the first time either.
“What if you couldn’t see their hair?” I prompted.
“Boys have hairy armpits.” She offered, alluding to an insight that had found some traction in her little brain one day recently while we were swimming at the local pool.
“Okay, sure.” I fumbled some more, and continued to prompt. “But what is different about a girl’s parts and a boy’s parts?”
“Do you even know what is different?” I probed, cautiously. “Have you ever seen a boy without any clothes on?”
I was met with something of a restrained giggle, and an uncertain “no” that I was certain wasn’t a whole truth. We’re not exactly a let-it-hang-out kind of family, but we’re also not so private that she hasn’t wandered into the bedroom or bathroom and caught either of us in various stages of undress… or showering. But then, in my head I was rapidly making an inventory of when actually she may have encountered that particular bit of life experience, and I was coming up rather short.
“Well,” I took a deep breath then looked in the mirror as I turned down our street, checking to see that she was still paying close attention. “It’s like this. Boys and girls have different parts. Boys have a penis…” and then we spent ten more minutes parked in the driveway talking far more frankly than I ever thought possible about human reproduction.
fostering independence, rule 017
knowledge is freedom: be honest about sex
The “Talk” has (probably) always been a tricky topic for parents and probably always will be. It’s that moment in time when a probing little mind discovers that there is something more to the whole baby-making-equation than they’ve until then been led to believe. It is a topic mixed up with ideology and tradition, science, practicality, power, and perception. What parents tell their kids, how open they are, what they say and how they say it –from the very first words that come out of their mouths– undoubtedly frames a lifetime of perception, behavior and hangups. And it is entirely up to the parent to get it out just right when they are least expecting to be asked.
It’s not the role of this blog to suggest methods or materials, but rather simply suggest a single statement of position. In a society where sex and sexuality are so closely tied to power, independence and a perpetual struggle for self-determination and personal rights, being dishonest, vague or just plain timid with inquisitive children about the subject doesn’t seem as though does kids any favours, and may ultimately leave them dependent on those who are not so afraid to be more open… regardless of their methods or motives.
I do think there is value in everyone and anyone setting specific life goals. And just like I think every adult should have a list of things to do before they die — a bucket list, some might call it — so too every child should have a parental-supported list of things to do before they leave the age of innocence and become a teenager. I decided to write that list down, and from my daughter’s fifth birthday until the day she turns thirteen we’re going to try and do them all.
39. [Visit] somewhere nature has been preserved near your home.
Some of the items on this list are simpler than others. Some of them are so simple, in fact, that I’ve tended to overlook them when it comes to just getting the act of accomplishing the task checked off on this massive list we’ve created.
Living in what Wikipedia tells us is “the northernmost North American city with a metropolitan population over one million” it is a simple thing — a very, very trivial thing, in fact — to step outside and find wilderness.
I mean, sure, there is a bountiful prairie with a thriving agriculture industry, hectares upon hectares of cultivated land stretching in many directions.
But, on the other hand, our city’s river valley is aptly labelled the “ribbon of green” because it represents an often naturally preserved park system with way more land area than New York’s Central Park. In fact, Wikipedia tells us that “Edmonton’s river valley constitutes the longest stretch of connected urban parkland in North America, and Edmonton has the highest amount of parkland per capita of any Canadian city; the river valley is 22 times larger than New York City’s Central Park.”
I’ve run through a lot of it. Walked through a lot of it, too. And since Claire was a few weeks old, she’s been no stranger to the wild trails of our river valley, a space that is home to a small vareity of trees, shrubs, scrubs, wild flowers, wild life, and bird species. In fact, it has been more than once now that I’ve witnessed coyotes and signs of other large mammals .
We were walking through one small park of this wilderness this past weekend, an area that is admittedly more groomed than some pieces of the valley, when I decided it was probably time to write this particular entry in our “100 Things” list.
She was walking ahead, asking questions about insects over her shoulder, and looking at the small variety of berries (saskatoons and choke cherries, mostly) as she inquired why we could eat some and not others. I pointed at a nearby shrub, its bark a reddish-brown colour, and asked her casually: “Do you remember what this bush is called?”
“Dogwood.” She replied without hesitation.
“And this one?” I asked, pointing at a thorny shrub sporting a clump of underripe rose hips.
“Wild rose.” She shrugged, and walked on.
We talk about these things while we walk the dog, sure, but she’s starting to know them, too. And, for me, that’s kinda the point.
If you were to visit my house and look on my bookshelves, what might strike you most is the scatteredness of my reading. My interests tend to meander through a gamut of topics and genres weaving through a spectrum of science fiction and fantasy, dancing across the hipster-like polish of gen-x fiction novels, dipping into complex world histories, toeing the waters of dystopian narratives, and briskly strolling through the gardens of modern political ramblings… with but one particular and consistent exception: those books shedding a philosophical interpretation of modern popular culture always have a prominent place on my shelves. I own and have read a substantial fraction of the commercially available books on this topic, from less obvious tomes, to some of my favorites, the essay collections in the “pop culture and philosophy” series. Admittedly, I am little more than an armchair philosopher — a philosophy fan, as it were — but there you have it. I have conceded to my quiet obsession.
Minecraft is –and this is important — a game without an obvious story.
One of the sadly overlooked bits of knowledge, I think, in our modern society is that so many — too many — people (mis)understand the study of thought itself, the study of philosophy, and presume it to be merely a dusty old collection of essays confined to moral quandries from past centuries. Many, I presume from the less-than-popularity of the subject, would consider the idea of philosophy and (I might suppose that by chance) if any great names are to come to mind they are often and only the names of the foundational thinkers of centuries or millenia past. And this is unfortunate. This is unfortunate because philosophy is, I think, right now in a vibrant, glowing and growing era. Seven billion people swarm this world, each with an independent mind with clever thoughts and nuggets of rational questions. And while there is a long way to go before all seven billion of those people are truly free to think and discuss ideas in total security, never before have we had the tools to share thoughts, discuss ideas, and nurture philosophical ponderings as we do right now. The internet, books, literacy, and the clarity of thought underlying thousands of years of modern cultural inquiry drive us to not only create clever and thoughtful additions to our popular cultural landscape, but allow us to discuss, dissect and understand them, too.
So many of us have the resources and education to think about ideas, our worlds, in the context of philsophy. So many do not. But then — I must admit — if you were to visit my house and look for me, there is a good chance that would not find me studying philosophy and that instead you might find me in front of my computer playing Minecraft.
Building Blocks & Exploding Creepers
I have written previously on this game. And I have shared the caveat before that I have no association with the game whatsoever, save for my simple user account and countless hours spent in its sandbox-like worlds. But for those unfamiliar, a description:
Minecraft is –and this is important — a game without an obvious story. The new player appears in a crisp, clean landscape, the sun high in the sky. His new world is a randomly, algorithmically generated country-side composed of thousands, maybe millions, of blocks, each block a perfect squared-off equivalent to a cubic meter of mass, a block of dirt here, stone there, and great, rectangular trees protruding from the ground everywhere. Immediately, the new player looking at the world from a first-person perspective, begins the never-ending task of shaping the world to suit his needs. He bashes at a nearby tree with his fists, after a half-minute of pounding releasing a cube of wood into his possession. And another. And another. He does this until he discovers that he can craft the wood blocks into crude tools: a pickaxe, first, then more complex tools later. If he has never before played, he might make the mistake of squandering his precious first bits of daylight, not realizing that in a short, few moments the ten-minutes of available sunlight will shift into an equally long night, a night from which single-minded creatures will spawn, each intent on destroying him. If instead he does not waste these few minutes, he quickly builds his tools, hacks into the stone of the countryside, and constructs for himself a lighted shelter to protect him from the creepers, zombies, spiders and other mobs soon to appear.
Each game-day the player will emerge from his ever-growing, ever-more complex shelters. Each game-day he will dig deeper into the randomly generated landscape, discovering deposits of precious raw materials to craft ever-more complex constructions. He might tunnel into the bowels of the earth and spend his time spelunking dark caverns, or he might strip-mine vast tracts of cobblestone and sand in an effort to find the resources neccessary to construct towering castles, lighted highways, or pyramids of glass reaching high into the sky.
If he is unlucky or just less-than-careful, it is likely that at some point he will stray too far from his shelter or crack open a wall to reveal a vast underground dungeon, and a skeleton’s arrow will ping at him from the darkness, or the tell-tale hiss of a soon-to-be-detonated creeper will rattle his nerves in the seconds before the screen turns dark and he dies, respawing, inventory empty, in the wide world somewhere perhaps far from safety.
All at once it is a game of solitary survival, a non-linear story of loneliness against a limitless world, where understanding grows not from a crafted narrative unfolded along a path of certain conclusion, but through the exploration of self and an unravelling of an unknown metaverse through sheer exploration.
“Some philosophers, such as Sartre, believe in an epistemic loneliness in which loneliness is a fundamental part of the human condition because of the paradox between the desire of person’s consciousness to have meaning in life conflicting with the isolation and nothingness of the universe.” [Wikipedia]
But of knowledge and story and plot: what of these things? Where does knowledge come from? What is the source of knowledge in a game like Minecraft, where understanding of the world seems to be nothing more than a mere nuance or side-effect of gameplay.
Minecraft then becomes this quest of epistemic loneliness, a solitary struggle…
In some ways as I write this I am reminded of something I know little about except for what I’ve learned from (that’s right) popular culture. The idea of a “vision quest” or a “walkabout” seems to be a real-world parallel to the philosophical backbone of the Minecraft experience. My simple understanding of these epistemological undertakings of a sort are as little more than transitory and unpredictable adventures of self-knowledge and solitary introspection. In the stereotyped quest, a young man is sent into the wilderness with the minimum of technology and tools required to ensure his survival (if that) and — through trial and terror, facing his own mortality at every turn — emerges from the natural world some span of time later an adult, a man, aware of his limits and rarified in his philosophical understanding of his place in the universe.
Of course, Minecraft is but a video game. But as a parallel of the purest form to such wandering quests of self-discovery it is intellectually interesting. Minecraft then becomes this quest of epistemic loneliness, a solitary struggle to reconstruct a fresh slate of a universe in the face of adversity and certain destruction. Knowledge not only arrives as knowledge of an artificial universe, but as a kind of self-knowledge, emerging from an uncertain exploration in the face of danger. The player, but an artificial avatar wandering a digital landscape, learns to navigate that world with no true drivers from the game’s creators: there can be no story, no plot to drive you forward, no NPC hinting at the next stage of a quest, no strategy guide written by experts, no walkthrough posted on message boards, nor any sort of hint or help from a friend. Simply, there is advice: try this, look for that, dig, build, explore, and learn how to interpret the articial natural world randomly constructed for your solitary enjoyment.
“Existence precedes essence… man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.” [Jean-Paul Sartre]
Loosely defined as it is, the existentialist philosopher might revel in this kind of adventure-based, walkabout-style knowledge-seeking as crash course in everything he believes. The very story-less nature of Minecraft is a philosophically interesting position: for the most part Minecraft is a game without a plot yet with a kind of hint or glimmer of a higher purpose. For the existentialist, just existing in this world and exploring it with the quest of self-discovery and universal understanding as the primary objectives, makes it a game of existence preceding esssence, of merely being coming before a defined purpose.
So, back in the real world, existentialism seems to me to be fixed to the idea of a world without supernatural imposition. Take this in whatever form your personal ideologies or iconographies suggest, but a true existentialist could not help but settle into an athiest viewpoint: if existence preceeds purpose, then in its most monochromatic state, existentialism seems bound inexorably to a creator-less universe. After all, one entire thread of the stories of nearly every religion, faith and belief hooks into the notion that there is a higher purpose to be understood, sought, and enveloped. Existentialism, like a game without a plot, or an artificial univese without a story, puts existence as the foundation of purpose and growing from that existence an essence, a meaning, a reason to continue living in that universe.
Minecraft is an existential kind of game, then. The world inhabited by the player is never truly created, per se, as the landscape is unique for each world launched by the software, the result of an algorithm that generates it through mathematical rules and the story is driven by nothing more than the desire for the player to survive against untargetted threats. The plot, whatever that plot becomes, is not created by anything greater than the player reshaping the world out of the pieces he finds within it. Contrast this with nearly any other plot-driven game: take for example another favourite of mine, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In this game, as open and free as the world might seem, there is a static, pre-determined plot. There are quests to complete and those quests have been written, designed and implemented by team of writers, programmers, computer engineers, and play-designers working to construct a world with meaning and purpose for the end-users — the players — enjoyment. They are a kind of creator; A higher power with authority and control of the universe that directs the essense of the game. And much of this direction stems from a very distinct element: the lack of solitude.
“Loneliness is therefore a subjective experience; if a person thinks they are lonely, then they are lonely. People can be lonely while in solitude, or in the middle of a crowd. What makes a person lonely is the fact that they want more social interaction than what is currently available.” [Wikipedia]
Many people think of solitary gaming as lonely. I will caveat here that in recent move of the gaming industry towards massively multiplayer games and network cooperative games there is another factor to consider, a factor which I am not incorporating here. Also, I am definitely aware that Minecraft itself is (now particularly, with recent changes to the core of its technology backbone) a potentially multiplayer game. But playing alone — playing any game alone — is not neccessarily lonely.
Loneliness is not only distinctly possible … but the very driver of the gameplay and the attraction of the universe therein.
Let’s consider again Skyrim as above. As a designed universe, the player is not at all alone. He enters a world populated with characters, each differently complex and each a crucial element to the essence of the game. The player may be alone in his gameplay, sitting in a swivel chair in front of a screen, away from natural human contact, but he is not in solitude. The NPCs — non-player-characters — of the game are imbued with dialog and actions that guide, nudge, and otherwise shape a story. The player is plunged into a narrative plot where one action affects another action, one conversation leads to another conversation, and the limits to the complexity of his involvement in this world seem more confined by the patience of the player than by the detail of the construction of the universe. The player may be a lonely person, but inside the world of a game they are usually immersed in a kind of culture and story that leave them anything but alone.
This is where Minecraft differs. Like that notion of a wandering quest in the wilderness, a walkabout of exploration and self-discovery wrapped in an existentialist worldview, the universe of Minecraft is one of alone-ness. The game world, as I have written already, has not so much been constructed as it has been grown through algorithms and formulae. The game is seemingly devoid of a grander purpose — a plot — and save for some very simple-minded creatures bent on the player’s destruction, there is little to be found in that regard. (Note: in recent updates to the game, NPC players — monks — have been added to the world-generating algorithms that facilitate trading and the like, but they are also simply randomly generated and of limited interaction with the overall “purpose” of the game.) In many ways, this is — arguably, definitively — solitary play. Loneliness is not only distinctly possible, and a sense of purpose for those unwilling or unable to create there own an inevitably a failed proposition, but the very driver of the gameplay and — I would posit — the attraction of the universe therein.
Unlike a plot-drive game, Minecraft has created a world where we are trapped by our own freedom of choice, left to devices and rules and a limited structure that is at once frustrating, yet enticing. It is the digital equivalent of the vision quest: that stereotyped adventure of survival and yearning that transports players into adulthood, real or maybe just virtual.
Condemned to be Free
In my research I’ve came across a philosophical ideology from Jean-Paul Sartre who claimed the notion of “condemned to be free” and “that morality is derived from our ability to choose in reality; the ability to choose being derived from human freedom.” In our popular culture — through our modern toys, playing games like Minecraft — we often explore this notion. There is the idea that meaning, morality, and the practical identity of our society will ultimately be defined not from any higher, external guide, but through the idea of simply existing in this world, living here, and interacting — alone or together — to an end with higher meaning and greater essence.
Whether you believe — or even want to believe — this notion or not, is your own business. But ultimately it is an interesting thing to ponder: what can a very popular game like Minecraft do to reflect this philosophy back towards us? If we take the notion of an artificial world with abstract rules and no higher purpose then existence, what do players find there that is so appealing? I’ve found something of interest: and to me, maybe that is nothing more than the toils of freedom in a world of my own construction. Maybe it is the solitude of imaginary worlds. Or maybe it is the absense of a grander narrative outside the scope of a wider (ir)rational consideration of the universe that sometimes seems so appealing.
Though whatever it is, however the cause of me continuing to reload that particular game and dive in for another session of exploration and construction, my philosophy books just keep getting dustier while my tunnels just keep getting deeper.
For the entire month of June I’m planning on writing a series of blog-a-day posts based on a set series of open-ended questions to myself. This is one of those posts.
June 22nd // Something You Want To Understand
We live in a singularly unique and strange time in the history of ‘Knowing and Understanding Things.’ I can ask myself at any given moment, what is something I want to understand and — assuming I have access to, or enough patience to find access to, a web-connected device of some kind — I can have almost always have nearly instant gratification of my curiosity. We live in the age of information. And there is virtually nothing I cannot think of that defies at least some rudimentary answer or basic understanding.
Or, so one might think.
The thing is, these bits of understanding, averaged out, are so fundamentally shallow that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between true understanding of something and the glossed-over, elevator-speech, two-bit, cliff-noted, i-think-i-can, self-esteem version of something. Is there a difference? I think so.
I’ve got a list of things. Though, I write “list,” and immediately think: the list is not what is important. The ‘what’ of it is not important. The details are not the point here. What I am getting at is deeper than just the ‘what’ of the “list” or anything I could share here, now, at this moment, in this post. See, the point of these 30-days-of-questions-and-answers thing is grab the particulars of a moment out of the air and get a sense of what I am thinking, here, now, so that in the future, when someone is reading this, anyone, it is essentially a snapshot of my reality. And while I could piece together a list of of things that match the criteria so vaguely outlined in the previous post, what is really the point of this post is to get a sense that what I want to understand is not a particular ‘something’ — this, that, or anything I could Google-search or Wikipedia-hunt at this moment and get a gleaning, shallow, glimpse of understanding — but ‘something’ deeper that I’d like to sink my teeth into firmly, resolutely, and know past that level of rudimentary answer and vague understanding.
Expertise. Wisdom. Knowledge. Get it? I’d like to.
I have been re-reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (for the third time, no less) and it has set me to considering my own approach to learning and acquiring new knowledge. The book is built upon a fairly substantial collection (for a fictional novel, anyways) of foundational philosophical concepts, one of which is the ideas around The Long Now. It is easy to overwhelm oneself with the relative significances of passing time, particularly around the new year, but Stephenson seems to present an affinity for a more philosophical approach to this in his writing. In Anathem, time — and specifically the deliberate compartmentalization of time by the characters — is a means of focusing the perspectives differently among the ensemble cast. That is to say, because of the character’s individual experiences within a society that has compartmentalized themselves around some of the philosophies of The Long Now, they interact in particular ways that drive the story forward.
What does this have to do with information philosophy, one might ask. I ask, what doesn’t it?
In a philosophical approach to understanding how we learn and process new information in our own minds, time cannot help but be a key variable. With respect to The Long Now, it would not be so much the idea of how quickly one learns something though, but rather the idea of the value of information on a longer time scale. In other words, news and day-to-day trivia rank low on the priority list whilst histories, proofs and theorems rank much higher. One’s personal information priority would never be as simple as choosing either extreme, however, but where one finds balance in the spectrum of information priority would have very much to say about one’s approach to knowledge in general.
For my own part, I would suppose that this informational ‘digging in’ — insomuch as that is even possible in the modern data clutter — is an effort that could prove rewarding, at least from the perspective of self-education.