Essays on Technology and Culture

What Happens Now?

What happens now?

Writing about technology often means having a bent towards the future, extrapolating trends and thinking of what happens five, ten, twenty years from now. There’s precious little about the now, beyond what short term decisions a company can make to optimize for the five, ten, twenty years we look out upon. Then there’s a new gadget, an upgrade, a Touch Bar or a Surface Studio, and we’re all distracted by the shiny thing and What It Means for the Future.

But right now, none of that seems to matter to me. Computers will change, and how we use them will change, but figuring out the details is unimportant. Someone will figure it out, and it’ll be obvious and simple in hindsight. We’ll all nod our heads and stroke our chins, and go “Of course. It was there all along. How could we have missed it?” The pattern has held, and the pattern will continue to hold.

It’s not boring as much as it is predictable.

What’s on my mind is the unpredictable. What’s unpredictable is the short term. Forget five years from now. What will happen five months from now? Five weeks from now? That has a lot more urgency in my mind, and not a damn bit of it has to do with any new product announcements from any company in the entire space of technology. Even if it came from the mouth of the reanimated corpse of Steve Jobs himself.

All it take is one small event, a butterfly flapping its wings, to change a weather system on the other side of the world. It seems hard to understand, but once the effect is under way, it eventually hits a critical point where you can identify it, extrapolate from it, and plan for the hurricane or typhoon bearing down.

What happens when that small event isn’t so small? What if it’s a seismic shake-up of cataclysmic proportions? What happens when you didn’t see it coming? When you knew, as clearly as you know the sun will rise in the morning, that it wouldn’t happen, that it would be the complete opposite?

This is where I find myself. This is where millions of people, in the United States of America and abroad find themselves. We wake up in a new reality where the very bedrock assumptions we’ve made about how the world works are replaced, and now must build a new understanding starting from first principles. The task is daunting. Almost impossible. Where do we even begin?

We begin with questions.

These are my questions. What happens now? What happens to me? To the people I love? My friends, and my family? What do we need to do just to survive long enough to understand what has happened? How can you rebuild, when you don’t even have stable ground to use for a foundation? This is uncharted territory. So far off the map, that the damn map is only good as a firestarter.

This is not my world. This is not my country. These are not my people walking the halls of government, dancing in the streets, looking for the next suspicious looking person to beat down for their differences. Yesterday was different. Now, I wake up a stranger in a strange land, and the first thing on my mind is survival. Survival for myself, for the ones I love most, and—time permitting—those other lost and confused members of my tribe. These woods are dangerous, and we have no idea how far we must go before we reach civilization.

How do we survive?

I don’t want it to be this way. I want to carry as many people as I can with me. I want to be strong, be the leader, and say that I know what to do, I know where to go, and that I can take you there, no matter who you are, whether you’re in my tribe, or not. I want to extend the olive branch to the other side, and find out they’re just like me. In time, perhaps I will be able to do some of that, but for now, I need to find my footing in this new world. I need to survive long enough to make peace.

And bear in mind, we’re talking about a group where one of the leaders thinks it’s okay to electrocute me until I’m straight. They may be as afraid of me as I am of them, at least deep inside, but right now, they’re the ones with the big sticks, and I am the asthmatic fat kid with the glasses. My one defense is that maybe they’ll find another target. But there’s enough of them it seems that there is no escape from the pain.

The dream of every bullied child, I expect, is that one day the tables will be turned. That it will be them who has the power over their bully, maybe not physical power, but certainly power nonetheless. The dream is not necessarily to wield that power as a cudgel, nor is it to use that power to forgive. It is only to know that the balance has shifted, and for your tormenter to know it too. The rest comes down to our personality.

Will we become what we hated?

Empathy is a skill. It is honed through practice. You can empathize with your tormenter, but only the most skilled at empathy will be able to do so while they’re being stretched out on the rack. Do you feel you have that level of empathy? Meditate on it, practice empathy, and goodness, and mindfulness in your daily life. Maybe you’ve got it down, but I think the rest of us—myself included—need a lot more work at it. Lord knows we’ll get plenty of opportunities to practice in the next four years.

But we developed empathy for a reason. It is essential to our survival. We build our groups, our tribes, our families on empathy. Empathy ends wars. To look at another human being and have even the tiniest sense of how they must feel, and to feel it too, this is the greatest gift of human consciousness. We fracture, and we other, when we turn off our empathy.

Or, perhaps, when we fracture and we other, our empathy is turned off for us. The jury is still out on this. Freud called it the Narcissism of Minor Differences. Whatever mysterious mutation in our synapses that allows us to bring others into our tribes can also be used to create arbitrary dividing lines on the smallest of differences. Everything from skin color to religion, from gender to weight, from preferred entertainment activity to which side of some arbitrary line on a map you were born on. You don’t so much pick a side in these divisions as have it picked for you. The consequences of it will rule your entire life, and woe betide you should you ever dare to change sides.

Which puts us to where we are today.

Our minds, our empathy, our common humanity can be hacked by the clever among us. They can create new divisions where none existed, or stoke up the enmity that had burned out between divisions. They create new tribes, blinding their members to some of the minor differences in order to sick them upon another, arbitrary tribe who until the attack begins, never knew they were a tribe to begin with.

History is ripe with these demagogues. It is also ripe with leaders who use those same mental tricks to do the opposite: to bind fractured communities together, to build new, stronger tribes where a mess had been before. The latter is so, so much harder to pull off, because despite what the optimists among us believe, our tendency is towards smaller groups that are hostile to outsiders: “Let ’em all to go Hell, except Cave 76!”

We fracture. We heal. But how do we get from the former to the latter? Beats the hell out of me. That’s why I’m up at one in the morning, typing this out when I should be sleeping. That’s why I’m worried about survival for myself, and those I care most deeply about. Because I am afraid. I’m afraid, I’m in the dark, and the wolves are howling. I’m afraid because I don’t know what comes next. I ask questions because I have no answers, and all the answers offered up aren’t any good.

Yes, dawn will come. The light will return, and things will be okay. In time. How much time? I don’t know. How bad will things get before then? I don’t know. Will we pass the point where there is no return? I don’t know. What will I do until then? I don’t know. That’s the problem.

It’s the uncertainty that kills me.

I need solid ground beneath my feet. I need clear vision. I have none of these, just fear, and unease, and the very real sense that things are only going to get worse before they get better, because that’s how it always happens.

For any of that to change, I need to know one very important thing.

What happens now?