State of the Blog 2022
I’ve heard it said that media pundits have about 150 commentaries in them, then just repeat themselves. Though not in that league, I also struggle to keep fresh. Five years into this blog, I often hit upon a subject for a new post, then realize I’ve written about it before. There are virtues to repetition — not every reader has seen the old posts, or remembers them — but if you continually hammer on the same subject you risk boring your audience. I have my themes, which, like a classical composer, I reprise from time to time, often in the key of risk management. But I try not to play the same tune in every performance.
That said, I think the moment’s right for a re-statement of my opening post.
I call this blog Element of Uncertainty for two reasons. First, because I don’t assume I’ve finished learning, and I try to stay open to new truths. Second, and more important, because uncertainty — or, more precisely, vulnerability — is our ultimate shared reality, and much, perhaps all, of what we do is meant to protect ourselves from each other and the random, indifferent universe.
We are vulnerable because we have needs. We have environmental needs like oxygen, clean water, nutritious food, shelter, and warmth. We also have psychological needs like purpose, dignity, social context, a sense of safety, and stability. Even if all these needs have been met our entire lives we’re vulnerable, uncertain, because at any moment we can be harmed through injury, illness, humiliation, betrayal, or malice.
Our self-protective strategies take infinite form, but borrowing from the late UC Berkeley economics professor Carlo Cipolla’s brilliant, irrefutable, and only somewhat tongue-in-cheek paper The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, they can be lumped into four categories:
- Smart strategies reduce the vulnerability of ourselves and others.
- Selfish strategies reduce our vulnerability but increase the vulnerability of others.
- Masochistic strategies increase our vulnerability but reduce the vulnerability of others.
- Stupid strategies increase the vulnerability of ourselves and others.
Sadly, according to Cipolla, “Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.” How do we fight so much stupidity — and selfishness?
My best answer: we reduce the suffering of ourselves and others.
If we reduce suffering only for ourselves, we’re being selfish and part of the problem. But how broadly should we define others? It’s impossible for any one of us to save the world — it’s barely possible to help our friends and family sometimes. Still, we should do as much as we can for as many as we can as often as we can, despite the compromise, contradiction, and error that brings. (One clarification for any nihilists reading this: reducing suffering doesn’t mean killing the sufferers, it means ameliorating the conditions causing their suffering.)
This solution is old in the sense that it echoes the Buddha, Hillel, Jesus, and other revered spiritual leaders who lived thousands of years ago, but new in the sense that, bolstered by Enlightenment philosophy, it’s only just begun to effectively resist authoritarianism (in brief, aggressive loyalty to a strong or wealthy leader, and the dominant form of human organization for eons). Existential risks such as nuclear war, climate change, and weaponized biotechnology and artificial intelligence have rendered authoritarianism an outmoded survival strategy. But fear, anger, and resentment remain potent emotions; cynical leaders remain eager to exploit those emotions for personal gain; and the horrors of twentieth-century fascism and communism are fading from memory. So authoritarians are gaining influence across the world — a threat not only to peace and freedom, but to planetary life.
Those are the main themes of Element of Uncertainty. Can we overcome our worst impulses? I’m not optimistic. But pace Cipolla, I think there are more smart individuals in circulation than most of us believe, and surrender to the darkness at this stage would be stupid. So let’s watch history unfold together, and thank you so much for reading!