Attending to Now

I live among a com­mu­nity of hu­mans who be­lieve that they need to save the world.

They aren’t good enough. They may still save the world com­pletely on ac­ci­dent, but ul­ti­mately, on the mea­sure, the odds are pretty grim.

And they know this. All around me I see peo­ple fac­ing their task with grim de­ter­mi­na­tion, or re­s­olute de­spair, or cheer­ful-but-in­sis­tent oblivi­ous­ness.

The prob­lem is that sav­ing the world is hard. The Gods keep hand­ing us mon­keys new kinds of fire to play with, hop­ing that this time maybe we’ll burn our­selves up and rid them of the pesky usurpers. So far we’re sur­viv­ing on sheer dumb luck.

When I was a child, the first truly holo­caus­tic de­vice had been cre­ated: the atomic bomb. For forty years, mankind stood on a pal­pable knife-edge over­look­ing oblivion—if not of the species, then at the very least of the hard-earned way of life that thou­sands of years of civ­i­liza­tion had granted us.

Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, seem­ingly by mir­a­cle, the Cold War ended and we man­aged to step back from the precipice of an­nihila­tion. It didn’t have to hap­pen that way; we dodged a bul­let. And Mankind’s col­lec­tive re­ac­tion to this was, for the most part, “whew, glad THAT’S over!” in­stead of “oh fuck, BULLETS.”

We’re busy build­ing more bul­lets, and notic­ing the bul­lets that we’ve already been build­ing for along time, that were a lit­tle slower to reach the firing cham­ber. Global ecolog­i­cal up­heaval. Nan­otech­nol­ogy. Molec­u­lar biotech­nol­ogy. Full eco­nomic au­toma­tion. Ar­tifi­cial gen­eral in­tel­li­gence. And, should we get bored of the past 25 years of rel­a­tive peace, there’s always a global ther­monu­clear ar­se­nal to dust off and point at our­selves again—be­cause hey, why not?

So there’s plenty of bul­lets, and we’re not good enough to dodge all of them. Most of the peo­ple I know are only fo­cus­ing on one of them—around here the fad seems to be AGI—and even within that sin­gle do­main most ev­ery­body seems ter­rified that the ge­nie will come out of the bot­tle be­fore any­one knows how to leash it.

This isn’t a post about be­com­ing good enough. Around here, EVERYONE’S talk­ing about be­com­ing bet­ter, stronger, faster, smarter. This is a post about fac­ing the grim prospect of your cul­tural an­nihila­tion and fight­ing on any­ways. About, if not defeat­ing your foes and see­ing them driven be­fore you, then at least fight­ing to the last, mak­ing a stand wor­thy of the mead-halls of Valhalla, and then gath­er­ing your re­main­ing friends to share a toast to the end of the world.

Be­cause if noth­ing mat­ters, then why not that? If, once there’s no one left to tell your tale, there’s no point to there hav­ing been a tale… shar­ing a last great thrust to the tune of “this would have made a great story” is just as good as any­thing else.

Amer­i­cans are par­tic­u­larly hand­i­capped in our think­ing around these lines, be­cause we ex­pect to win. We have a cul­tural blind spot that de­nies failure even when it’s star­ing us in the face. This is good and use­ful for cer­tain kinds of sol­dier­ing on, but it cuts us off to the grief and fear, the dread and de­spair that we’re ex­pe­rienc­ing any­ways within the parts of us that can’t be fooled.

And maybe we should spend a lit­tle more time re­spect­ing that. Some­times it might be use­ful to give “WE HAVE TO MAKE THIS WORK!” a rest, and spend some time ac­knowl­edg­ing that we’re try­ing very hard, and things may still not work out. I’m cer­tainly not sug­gest­ing some kind of grim­dark suicide-cult apoc­a­lyp­tic at­ti­tude; but there’s a cer­tain kind of hedg­ing our bets that could be made.

Some­thing like, “just in case this mat­ters to save the world, I am go­ing to give it ev­ery­thing I can. But just in case it doesn’t, I’m go­ing to at­tempt to take se­ri­ously the idea that these might be my last few decades on earth, and take a se­ri­ous look at how I want to spend each day of them.”

Maybe that means some hokey shit like walks in the park or more time spent mean­ingfully with loved ones. Maybe it means some weird shit like cut­ting small-talk en­tirely out of your life and spend­ing your free time only on things that max­i­mize your own he­dons. Or maybe it means spend­ing time and en­ergy, in the short- to mid-term, on build­ing an in­clu­sive cul­ture of fun and play with each other—start­ing with the com­po­nents already in place all around us. Go­ing to Game Nights at a group house, or learn­ing Park­our in the park, or sit­ting in a quiet house hav­ing con­ver­sa­tion with in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, while a lovely host cooks amaz­ing meals for you in the kitchen. There are op­tions.

I’m say­ing that, on the mar­gin, I think you should take them more. And so should I.

See you around.