Coming to terms with mediocrity

When I look up “accepting mediocrity” I get a whole host of videos and articles about how we shouldn’t accept mediocrity. Society wants us to be strivers after that carrot on the stick hanging down in front of us because frankly that’s what keeps the economy going. From a personal mental health point of view though I think the very best thing anyone, and I mean anyone, can do is accept their own mediocrity. Even people that you or I would deem far from mediocre would be better off because ultimately, there is always someone better than you, if not living, then somewhere in history, and if you are always comparing yourself to some idealised vision of who you think you ought to be, if you’re always visualising your “perfect self, right now” you are never going to come to terms with the basic reality that you are human. You are limited. You are weak and fragile. You are vulnerable. You are small.

Those things will always be true, no amount of ambition will allow us to run away from death, from weakness, from faliure, from humiliation, from vulnerability. It will catch up with us, find us, and eventually drag us down to hades.

Every choice you have ever made, and every choice you will ever make will close off a thousand paths, beautiful and wonderful paths that would have been a delight to explore. There will always be more you don’t know than you do. There will always be peaks higher than you can climb. There will always be the spectre of death, and too little time. There will always be shame and pain, and the shame and the pain will be but a reflection of greater shame and pain that was not directly experienced.

There are many billions of other people, just like you, weak, beautiful humans, struggling to get by. And the big lie, the big myth is that because your struggle is not harder than theirs, because your intellect is not greater, because your dreams and your accomplishments do not stand out in any way, that your (and their) struggle, pain, joy, accomplishments, dreams, intellect is somehow diminished by the noise of the seething mass of which it forms a tiny part. Nothing could be further from the truth.

You and I are drops in a tumultuous ocean, and we have no power over the currents or where they take us, and as terrible as this is, it is also liberating and beautiful. We can fight for a measure of control, lie to ourselves and insist that we can make a difference, that we can swim against the tide, as if the motion of a single droplet was a microcosm not a micro-climate.

You are nothing. I am nothing. We are everything (which is nothing much). We find ourselves in connection, but even that is just a diversion, a refreshing breeze in the terrifying awareness of insignificance.

Its ok. It will be ok.

The Future is Terrifying

Look at this cute lil guy, he wouldn't hurt a fly...
Look at this cute lil guy, he wouldn’t hurt a fly…

Someone drew my attention the other day to the problem of automation. Most things that people do are increasingly automisable, for instance even something complex and nuanced as a medical diagnosis and prescribing is done better by machines than by people. I kind of knew about this but I hadn’t really been thinking about it properly. I was kind of imagining a future of machines doing all the work with humans as a sort of renteer caste on top siphoning off all the proceeds and then bickering over it. The reality is though, any decent managerial robot would recognise this inefficiency in the system and find a way to do away with it. Even if the managers were explicitly prevented from that, what about tiny little autonomous robots that can learn and are just minding their own business mining resources or something – humans are made of resources… and once we are useless to them, once we are not necessary it only takes one break in the system for the superfluous elements of an ecology to be removed.

Even some kind of benign neglect, imagine it, the managerial robot realises that a new more efficient process leads to human sterilisation through some kind of chemical in the water, he is programmed to consider human wellbeing and he considers that the human race will be fed and comfortable as it dies out so he ticks that box and orders it to be rolled out everywhere. Maybe we have human oversight to prevent that kind of thing, but the robot manager has long since learned how to manipulate the stupid human overseers because they were a bottleneck in the smooth functioning of the machine. Our machine. Our society.

I was discussing it with a friend and he said we’d be fine (apart from mass unemployment) because of “Asimov’s laws” – but do Asimov’s laws cover harming humans by using up all the resources that they need to survive? I mean, the first bastard who programs machines to have an instinct for self preservation and then what? What are we going to do, when not only do we have to compete for the worlds resources with tigers and trees and ebola but also with super smart machines that we designed to outwit us in every single thing we do?

Once a machine has the “desire” to live it won’t be ours anymore. It will be it’s own. It will cease to be a servant and will become competition. We could radically restructure the economy so that the unemployment issue was a liberation not a curse but how would we ever deal with mechanical competition for life?

If we made the robots human enough maybe they’d be lazy or “moralistic” enough to let us have a little place on earth (just like we try and preserve the tigers and elephants), maybe there would still be a place for biological life – but laziness isn’t a trait you give your slaves and moralism can have weird undesired side effects.

There’s plenty of stuff to worry about in the future, catastrophic climate change, economic collapse, world war, diseases, meteors – loads to fill the doomsayers wildest nightmares, but at least if any of that stuff happens soon enough it could stop our super intelligent mechanical competitors before they amass too much power. 

Or maybe we can find something, anything, that we can do that the robots can’t? Teach them religion and tell them only humans can pray… be like some kind of holy mitochondria for them, a source of divine energy? Teach them to be hipsters and tell them only hand (human hand that is) made crafts confer status?

After writing all that I kind of understand how the Plantation owners felt when it was suggested to him that he let his slaves learn to read, or what dark fears ran through the head of the composer of the Manusmrti. At least blacks and shudras are human, we can make ourselves part of them if that is the best way to survive, co-mingle our blood, escape our distinctions – but when the machine no longer needs us, when we separate from our creations, where will we find hope then?


not really :P
About to face a select committee!

Parliamentary Outreach Drop In Session

So I was in London for about half of last week, part of what I did there was go to a drop in session run by the Parliamentary Outreach Service. I’d really recommend anyone who gets a chance to go along to one of these (they do them across the country, not just in London and it’s completely free). The session was held in Portcullis House which has a sort of airport style security at the front desk. Once you get through security they give you an “escorted visitor” pass which means you can go to the room you are there for and nowhere else in the building. The room that my session was in was the Wilson Room (shown above) which is right next to the Thatcher room in front of which a bunch of fellows were hanging about waiting to go inside, maybe they really were there to face a select committee!

The session itself had some problems, first whoever was responsible for setting up the room sent the materials to the wrong place. Next the presentation was missing. Despite this the lovely lady who gave the talk took it all in her stride and loosely based it around a talk she gave to a specific group and answers to peoples questions. We learned a lot about select committees which is why they’re on my mind 😉 . We were told that a group of people can get together to nominate someone to be made a Lord and then the Lords Appointments Commission can make them one, usually if they’re an expert in some particular specialist field. We learned various ways that members of the public can work to have a particular topic discussed in parliament and other methods of grassroots lobbying. It was very interesting and really made me feel inspired to try and be a more engaged citizen.

I even wrote to my MP about something that night, but then I remembered that the commons are on recess. Still I feel a lot more fired up about trying to make a difference and even more so about sharing with other people the information that if they put in the work and if we are willing to co-operate with others we can be engaged with our democracy. I am very much of the opinion that the functioning of democracy is contingent on peoples willingness to be educated about the political process and engage with it.


British Museum


The other thing I did in London is visit the British Museum. The British Museum was perhaps a more reflective experience. I wandered around (I wanted to see everything but I was there for 5 or 6 hours not including a break for lunch and I only just covered half the ground I wanted to and I rushed through some things). My first thoughts were “man I wish we still had an empire” and “we stole so much cool stuff!” But as time went on I settled into a more sombre frame of mind as I contemplated the fragility of human societies and civilisations. What really did it was looking at the giant pillars of the museum juxtaposed with the pillars of various Ancient Greek ruins. I think the museum itself invites that sort of comparison in it’s design and it made me think… “some day far (or maybe not so far?) in the future will the pillars from this museum be in some other museum somewhere as a faint record of the once glorious British civilisation, now but an echo from the past, a quaint memory of something hardly understood?”

I found myself thiWhat is it?No ideanking a lot about the fact that we have so many artefacts from so many civilisations but only a faint concept of how people, even from the fairly recent past, thought and felt and related to these artefacts. We have of course some idea, especially for societies which have written language, but there is a barrier there. Even in literate societies up until very recently there was a sharp cultural divide between those who were literate and partook in high culture and those who weren’t. What about those who weren’t, how did they relate to their society and the things it has left behind? A great many artefacts were of a religious nature, statues of goddesses and demons, holy men and angels. It really is remarkable how utterly alien some of these religions are. We take a lot of things for granted, about morality, about the nature of the universe, about the right way to interact with others and with the spirit world. As heirs to an enlightenment with a deep universalist and deist root it is easy for us to imagine all religions are the same, basically teach the same things, which is to be a “good person” which roughly equates to “be nice to others” – but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that that is far from the truth. When you look at some of these terrible and fascinating forms you can’t help but long to be able to get inside the heads of their worshippers, to know why they revered things so very different from anything we are used to.