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Kill-Switch Tractors and Techno-Pessimism

photograph of combine harvester in field

On May 1st, CNN reported that Russian troops had stolen around $5 million worth of John Deere tractors and combines from the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Melitopol. At nearly $300,000 each, these pieces of farm equipment are extremely expensive, massive, and unbelievably high-tech. This last feature is particularly important for this story, which ended on a seemingly-patriotic note:

John Deere had remotely kill-switched the tractors once they became aware of the theft, rendering them useless to the Russians.

A remote kill-switch that thwarts invading Russian troops from using stolen Ukrainian goods is easy to read as a feel-good story about the power of creative thinking, and the promising future of new technological inventions. But some are concerned that the background details give us more reason to be fearful than excited. Notably, activist and author Cory Doctorow, whose writing focuses primarily on issues in new and emerging technologies, wants to redirect the attention of the reader to a different aspect of the Russian-tractors story. When John Deere manufactured these particular tractors, they had no idea that they would be sold to Ukraine, and eventually stolen by Russian troops. Why, then, had the company installed a remote kill-switch in the first place?

What follows in the rest of Doctorow’s blog post is an eerie picture. John Deere’s high-tech farm equipment is capable of much more than being shut down from thousands of miles away. Sensors built into the combines and tractors pull scores of data about machine use, soil conditions, weather, and crop growth, among other things, and send this data back to John Deere. Deere then sells this data for a wild profit. Who does Deere sell the data to? According to Doctorow, it was indirectly sold back to the farmer (who could not, until very recently, access it for free) by coming bundled with a seed package the farmers have to purchase from Monsanto. Doctorow goes on:

But selling farmers their own soil telemetry is only the beginning. Deere aggregates all the soil data from all the farms, all around the world, and sells it to private equity firms making bets in the futures market. That’s far more lucrative than the returns from selling farmers to Monsanto. The real money is using farmers’ aggregated data to inform the bets that financiers make against the farmers.

So, while the farmers do benefit from the collection of their data — in the form of improved seed and farm equipment based on this data — they are also exploited, and rendered vulnerable, in the data collection process.

Recent exposés on the (mis)uses of big data paint a picture of this emerging technology as world-changing; and not, necessarily, in a good way. Doctorow’s work on this case, as well as the plethora of other stories on big data manipulation and privacy invasion, can easily lead one to a position sometimes referred to as “techno-pessimism.” Techno-pessimism is a general bleak disposition toward technological advancement that assumes such advancements will be for the general worsening of society/culture/human life. The techno-pessimist is exactly what the name implies: pessimistic about the changes that technological “advancements” will bring.

Opposite the techno-pessimist is the techno-optimist. Nailing down a definition for this seems to be a bit trickier. Doctorow, who (at least once) identified as a techno-optimist himself, defines the term as follows: “Techno-optimism is an ideology that embodies the pessimism and the optimism above: the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better.” Put in these terms, techno-pessimism seems akin to a kind of stodgy traditionalism that valorizes the past for its own sake; the proverbial old man telling the new generation to get off his law. Techno-optimism, on the other hand, seems common-sensical: for every bleak Black Mirror-esque story we hear about technology abuse, we know that there are thousands more instances of new technology saving and improving the lives of the global population. Yet, tallying up technology uses vs abuses is not sufficient to vindicate the optimist.

What can we say about our overall condition given the trajectory of new and emerging technology? Are we better-off, on the whole? Or worse?

What is undeniable is that we are physically healthier, better-fed, and better protected from disease and viruses. Despite all the unsettling details of the John Deere kill-switch tractors, such machines have grown to enormous sizes because of the unimaginable amount of food that individual farms are able to produce. Because of advances in the technology of farming equipment and plant breeding, farmers are able to produce exponentially more product, and do so quicker and with greater efficiency. Food can also now be bio-fortified, to help get needed nutrients to populations that otherwise would lack them. These benefits are clearly not evenly distributed — many people-groups remain indefensibly underserved. Still, living standards as averages have increased quite radically.

It is also clear that some of the most horrifying misuses of technology are not unprecedented. While many gasp at the atrocity of videos of violent acts going viral on message boards, human lust for blood sport is an ancient phenomenon. So, does techno-pessimism have a leg to stand on? Should the drive toward further technological advancement be headed despite the worrying uses, because the good outweighs the bad?

In his work Human, All Too Human, the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche penned a scathing review of what he took to be the self-defeating methods by which Enlightenment humanity strove toward “progress”:

Mankind mercilessly employs every individual as material for heating its great machines: but what then is the purpose of the machines if all individuals (that is to say mankind) are of no other use than as material for maintaining them? Machines that are an end in themselves—is that the umana commedia?

While there is no reason to read him here as talking about literal human-devouring machines, one can imagine Nietzsche applying this very critique to the state of 21st century technological advancement. We gather data crucial for the benefit of humanity by first exploiting individuals out of their personal data, leaving them vulnerable in the hands of those who may (or may not) choose to use this information against them. The mass of data itself overwhelms the human mind — normal rational capacities are often rendered inert trying to think clearly in the midst of the flood. Algorithms pick through the nearly infinite heap at rates that far exceed the human ability to analyze, but much machine learning is still a black box of unknown mechanisms and outcomes. We are, it seems, hurtling toward a future where certain human capacities are unhelpful, able to either be used fruitlessly, inefficiently, or else abandoned in favor of the higher machine minds. At the very least, one can imagine the techno-pessimist’s position as something nearly Nietzschean: can we build these machines without ourselves becoming their fuel?

Grief and Saint Augustine (and WandaVision)

image of failed tv signal noise

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for all nine episodes of WandaVision on Disney+.

In 2019, Martin Scorsese ruffled fan-feathers when he explained why he doesn’t watch the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema….It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” This particular sentence might sound odd to those watching the latest entry in the MCU: the 9-part limited series WandaVision on Disney+, which aims to explore experiences of intense grief and loss (even as it offers up yet another batch of costumed superheroes tossing about punches and witty one-liners).

First introduced in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Wanda Maximoff is a super-powered magic user who (along with her brother) betrayed her villainous compatriots to assist the Avengers in saving the world. In the same film, several magical items came together inside a high-tech regeneration chamber, creating Vision, an android who could fly, fire beams of cosmic energy, and alter the density of his molecules to phase through solid matter at will. Over the course of several films, the two characters grew close and fell in love, but their relationship ended tragically when Vision sacrificed himself (at Wanda’s hand) to prevent the death of half the universe at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.

As fans of the MCU know, the story is a little more complicated than that (for example: Vision’s sacrifice turned out to be in vain, though his surviving teammates later managed to undo most of the damage in Avengers: Endgame). But the events of WandaVision begin with Wanda racked with guilt over killing Vision and mourning her many losses: her parents died when she was ten, her brother died in the climax of Age of Ultron, her powers precipitated the catastrophe that sparked the events of Captain America: Civil War, and Vision (because of some time-traveling) actually died twice at the end of Infinity War. In response to all of this, Wanda’s reality-altering powers accidentally engulf the town of Westview, New Jersey, warping it into a pastiche of various television sitcoms that Wanda enjoyed with her family as a child. Within this waking dream, Wanda is not only reunited with a reconstituted (though memory-less) Vision, but the now-happily-married couple also welcomes the birth of twin sons.

(Explaining superhero stories always sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it?)

The point is that, in various ways, WandaVision seeks to explore the painful consequences of loss and other traumas. Rather than shying away from the psychological damage done to survivors of death and terror, the show centers the experience of several characters grappling with the pain of prematurely saying goodbye to those they love. Wanda’s grief over losing Vision is mirrored in the storyline of Monica Rambeau, first introduced in 2019’s Captain Marvel and now working as an intelligence agent. Midway through the series, the audience learns that Monica was one of the people who Wanda failed to save by killing Vision in Infinity War (but who was also resurrected five years later by the Avengers in Endgame). During the interim, Monica’s mother died of cancer — something Monica learns mere minutes after returning to life and mere days before encountering Wanda in Westview.

In the penultimate episode, an antagonist leads Wanda through several of her own memories, forcing her to confront many of the most traumatic moments in her life (including the death of her parents). During these flashbacks, a scene from the early days of Wanda and Vision’s relationship took the internet by storm: while comforting Wanda after the death of her brother, Vision encourages her that even within the waves of grief buffeting her in her loss, there must still be something good: “It can’t all be sorrow, can it? I’ve always been alone, so I don’t feel the lack — it’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve never experienced loss because I’ve never had a loved one to lose. But what is grief if not love persevering?”

As you might imagine, philosophers have some other answers to this question.

Sometimes, philosophers have discussed grief as a hindrance or distraction from the “proper” objects of our attention. Consider Seneca, the Roman Stoic, who advised the daughter of a dead man to “do battle with your grief” by considering the most logical approach to find peace after her loss:

“…if the dead cannot be brought back to life, however much we may beat our breasts, if destiny remains fixed and immovable forever, not to be changed by any sorrow, however great, and death does not loose his hold of anything that he once has taken away, then let our futile grief be brought to an end.”

Often depicted (not undeservedly, at times) as unfeeling or cold, the Stoics sought to control their emotions (and all other impulses) so as to live a life governed entirely by reason. This did not mean that the Stoics considered grief (or other emotions) inherently bad, but rather that they saw how emotional dysregulation of any kind could upset the careful balance of human psychology. Certainly, at its worst, grief can threaten to overwhelm us — just as Wanda Maximoff’s story depicts.

On the other hand, philosophers have sometimes described grief or sorrow as simply constitutive of the human experience. For thinkers like Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, the painfulness of human existence meant that sorrow and loss was simply unavoidable, so the strong must confront their grief and bend it to their will. For philosophers with a more religious or existentialist bent, the reality of grief might be borne from the sinfulness of a broken Creation or from the failure of free creatures to grapple with their own mortality. Consider how the 18th century philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard explained “My sorrow/grief is my baronial castle, which like an eagle’s nest is built high up on the mountain peak among the clouds. No one can take it by storm.” On these perspectives, grief is not something that can even possibly be dissolved, but rather must be harnessed and (hopefully) understood.

WandaVision’s treatment of grief is a line between these extremes: neither rejecting the emotion as inappropriate nor reveling in it as inevitable. It is a line akin to the picture found in the work of St. Augustine of Hippo, who describes in his autobiographical Confessions how the death of a loved one caused him such great distress that he nearly felt like he would die himself. Because of the love he felt for this unnamed friend (“I had felt that my soul and his soul were ‘one soul in two bodies,’” he says in, Augustine was devastated by his death; regardless of death’s inevitability, “The lost life of those who dies becomes the death of those still living” (IV.ix.14).

And although Augustine (much like his Stoic forebears) infamously sought to curtail the public expressions of his grief after his conversion to Christianity (lest he suggest that the state of a departed soul was not improved by its transition to the afterlife or, even worse, pridefully demand the solace of others), Augustine never argues that grief is, in principle, sinful. In a particularly vulnerable passage, Augustine confesses how, after the death of his own mother, he found a private place and “let flow the tears which I had held back so that they ran as freely as they wished” (IX.xii.33). His love for his loved one persevered (and, in fact, drove him to an even deeper love for God).

Ultimately, WandaVision ends with Wanda realizing how her uncontrolled grief has led her to hurt the people of Westview (something a more Stoic approach to death would have avoided). Tearfully, she accepts (along with Kierkegaard) the inevitability of her pain and chooses to free the town by saying goodbye to her imaginary loved ones. But, just as Wanda’s memories and magic remain within her, so too does her love persevere; in their final moments together, the dream-Vision encourages Wanda once again: “We have said goodbye before, so it stands to reason–” at which point, Wanda sobs “…we’ll say hello again.”

Saint Augustine would indeed agree; the only real problem with Wanda’s grieving love was how she chose to express it.

In an attempt to clarify his criticism of the MCU, Martin Scorsese later published an op-ed in The New York Times where he explained how he always believed that “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” To be blunt, on such a definition, it’s hard to see how the love and pain of Wanda Maximoff fails to qualify.

And, unbeknownst to Wanda, several lingering plot threads suggest that hope does indeed remain for a genuine family reunion, but fans will have to wait for future MCU installments to see what happens next. In the meanwhile, it stands to reason that we might all benefit from reading a little more philosophy (and not just the bits about “identity metaphysics”) to help us think through our own complicated experiences of grief (and love).

What Would Nietzsche Think of Sam and Dean Winchester?

image of the season 7 title card for the show Supernatural

[SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses several plot details of Supernatural’s final season.]

On November 19th, after more than fifteen years, the longest-running genre show in American broadcast television ended when The CW’s Supernatural aired its series finale. Since its premiere in 2005, the show has followed the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, brothers who hunt monsters and repeatedly find themselves fighting to stop the Apocalypse. Having defeated everyone from Satan to the Archangel Michael in previous seasons, the final chapter of the Winchesters’ story sees them squaring off against the person ultimately responsible for the suffering and evil they’ve challenged throughout the show: the Almighty God (who typically incarnates in the form of a bearded writer named “Chuck”). After learning that Chuck has secretly been manipulating them for the entirety of their lives, pushing them towards a confrontation where one brother shall kill the other, Sam and Dean reject this divine plan and set out to, instead, attack and dethrone God.

In the late 19th century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche told a similar story; in Book Three of his 1882 work The Gay Science, Nietzsche tells a story of a “madman” running through a marketplace yelling:

“God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?”

Ultimately, the madman realizes that his audience doesn’t understand, so he throws up his hands and shouts “I come too early! My time is not yet!” and enters the church to pray for the dead.

While his readers would later develop the concept in many different directions (both philosophical and theological), Nietzsche’s talk of “the death of God” is typically found within the more sociological portions of his work. In The Gay Science, for example, Nietzsche considers how art and poetry (and, perhaps, television shows?) can not only give meaning to an individual person’s life, but can help define entire cultures and collective ways of living. This is why Nietzsche’s madman talks about the burdens and responsibilities that come in the wake of “God’s demise”: whereas previous cultures might have been defined by religious values or practices, a post-religious culture would need to invent a new sense of meaning for itself.

So, for Nietzsche, the rejection of God entails the rejection of many other things, but this comes as both an exciting challenge and an opportunity: in the absence of divine expectations, people can pursue and enjoy their lives as they desire, free from the restrictions of the culture (and even the deity) who might prevent them from becoming the person that they would otherwise be. Without Chuck around to write the story, say, the Winchesters (and everyone else) could be free to write their own ending.

And to Nietzsche, to experience true freedom is to “no longer be ashamed before oneself,” living and expressing oneself fully in each moment:

“I want to learn more and more how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them – thus I will be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! I do not want to wage war against ugliness. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!”

This amor fati — “love of fate” — is a matter of a human saying “yes” to one’s circumstances without obligation, dread, or fear, no matter what those circumstances might be — something Nietzsche elsewhere calls “my formula for greatness in a human being.” (Of course, Nietzsche also has much to say about the role of one’s own strength and willpower in shaping one’s circumstances, as well as the conditions that prevent a person from being able to do so, but those are stories for a different day.)

At the end of the road, it’s unlikely that Nietzsche was thinking about God’s death in the same way as the writers of Supernatural — that is to say, he did not clearly think of it as a literal death of a literal deity. But this means that we can view the television show as a kind of a parable, aesthetically demonstrating familiar Nietzschean ideals of freedom, authenticity, and the power of humanity. The Winchesters’ fight to be free of God’s schemes is ultimately not that different from the fight to be able to genuinely express yourself — the fact that Sam and Dean do so alongside the Grim Reaper, the Devil, and the remaining Heavenly Host is just a matter of making exciting television. And, in a similar way, the amor fati doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen; instead, it’s a matter of, like the Winchesters, making the right choice about how to handle the bad when it comes.

So, in a time when spandex-wearing protagonists dazzle movie theaters and television screens with their superpowers, Supernatural’s heroes are just a couple of normal guys driving around in their dad’s old car. After fifteen seasons of vampires, magic daggers, time travel, and demon blood, the story of Sam and Dean Winchester (and, for that matter, Chuck/God) proudly ends in a profoundly human (all-too-human) place.

A Time for Re-Imagining

photograph of empty New York City street at dawn

As coronavirus continues to change the world, and as some places begin to contemplate tentatively easing distancing measures, the implications of this event for societies everywhere are still being shaped. We are learning how to comprehend and respond to this new challenge.

What can we understand about the character of this new, unanticipated world, and what can we decide about how it takes shape from here?

It seems that we are being shifted, by big political, social, and environmental forces, into a new way of being. What we can understand and what we can decide about it will depend upon what we can imagine.

Fredric Jameson said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Interrogating this idea yields different possible interactions between acts of imagination, the end of the world, and capitalism. If the point was a rhetorical one, it was also always a serious charge: that capitalism may be such a reckless, powerful force because it is simultaneously ruinous and desirable. It may now seem not so much rhetorical as a statement of fact. If we can truly imagine the end of the world more easily than the end of capitalism, this is a grave fact. They are of course connected–we are forced to imagine the end of the world because of our failure to imagine the end of capitalism. If the operative concept here is not capitalism, but imagination, then the problem surely is that we have failed to sufficiently imagine both the end of the world and the end of capitalism.

The global pandemic has been a massive disruption to global ‘business as usual.’ But the climate and ecological crisis is still bearing down on us. So what does this global disruption mean for us in the era of climate and ecological emergency, and what are we going to do next?

Rebecca Solnit writes in, Hope in the Time of a Crisis, that, in the altered reality brought on by global pandemic, we are “adjusting to the profound social and economic changes, studying the lessons disasters teach, equipping ourselves for an unanticipated world.” Our task, she writes, is to “understand this moment, what it might require of us, and what it might make possible.” I think we could reflect on Rebecca’s questions in the context of the role of the imagination in comprehending and solving the bigger crisis we face (and, therefore presumably imagining the end of capitalism).

We appear to be entering a paradigm shift–a process which was beginning, I think, before the pandemic but which is now, as a result, accelerating. This is a time of great existential danger, and of great change; the social, political, and moral concepts within which we operate are at issue in fundamental ways. We need to redress these failures of imagination to critically examine the concepts with which we have become used, in the current status quo, to order our world.

Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to understand how scientific work is conducted at any given time and how science/scientific knowledge progresses, especially through big, revolutionary discoveries.

A paradigm is the prevailing conceptual structure within which scientific work is practiced; it is the whole set of assumptions according to, and by virtue of which, the scientific activities of experimentation, theory-building, evaluation, and verification take place; and which, taken together, constitutes the ‘world view’ in which science operates. The ‘everyday’ activities taking place within the overarching set of assumptions, Kuhn calls ‘normal science’. Normal science works within and further articulates or elaborates the paradigm. Anomalies can exist, but they are small or disparate enough not to put pressure on the whole system.

There is a clear application of this concept to a social paradigm, where a set of prevailing concepts, norms and values–which might be political, moral, economic etc., constitute the paradigm in which ‘normal life’ is conducted.

As with scientific paradigms, if anomalies multiply or magnify, if experimental outcomes, or experiences, can no longer validate the core assumptions, the integrity of the conceptual structure is weakened. When the overarching set of norms or concepts is put under strain, a crisis can emerge in which it is apparent that the paradigm is no longer supporting, or supported by, normal science or normal life. The resolution to the crisis is a shift to a new conceptual structure–a paradigm shift.

A ‘scientific revolution’ takes place when the old conceptual structure is replaced by a new one.

A crisis in the conceptual system of our social paradigm has been coming for some time, and gathering pace as we see the realities of the climate emergency begin to unfold; the conceptual system of, the (let’s call it) neo-liberal capitalist, neo-colonialist paradigm, has been experiencing pressure and disruption as normal life comes increasingly to seem impossible within its conceptual structure. The global pandemic has created a rupture in the system, so significant that normal life will not be able to resume.

If the breakdown of one conceptual structure is going to be followed by the adoption of new or re-ordered foundational concepts, we have to be able to imagine a new reality capable of replacing the old one.

A core part of this is the concept of value itself. The current socio-political paradigm, and its attendant economic paradigm, tends to be constructed around the economic unit as the fundamental anchor of value. Therefore, in our society economic values have been taken as foundational. But economic rationalism only serves a very shallow concept of well-being. Solving the climate crisis will require a renegotiating of these fundamental concepts of value, and will require a grounding of value in environmental and social goods. Solving the climate crisis calls for a ‘re-evaluation’.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy is instructive here: the re-valuation of values must occur when the realities that hold them in place shift. A restructuring of the moral, social, political concepts of value that hold our worldview, of the norms and practices in which we operate in normal life, is needed if and when the ground shifts.

Nietzsche endorses a kind of radical acceptance, which I read as a moral orientation to the world, and as the antithesis to resignation. We can take control of our destiny but only if we let go of our illusions. The point for Nietzsche is that we orient ourselves within the world as we find it.

Letting go of illusions is difficult, and the neo-liberal, colonialist/capitalist paradigm is largely built upon them. It is difficult to shake off a worldview in which we have been comfortable, and the fact that so many of us recognize this while also recognizing that it is ruinous, is disquieting. And there are two distinct failures of imagination at issue here–the failure to imagine the worst excesses and also the solutions to climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world into a dramatic encounter with large-scale response to an existential threat of global proportions and it is instructive. There are things happening right now, which would have to happen to address the climate emergency. A new paradigm that was post-carbon, post-capitalist, post-emergency would necessitate a general powering-down of life, slowing of travel and activity, shrinking of production, contraction of the economy around sustainability rather than growth.

Events that create an interruption to normal life, a disruption which can not be adequately described or accounted for within the conceptual structures that ground the norms and habits of normal life, bring us glimpses of something else: of what altered reality looks like, forcing us to confront the adequacy of our understanding and actions. An episode such as the global shutdown offers an opportunity to reflect upon what is really important. And these glimpses, these reflections are vital for the task of re-imagining.

Graduation: A Moment of Upheaval

photograph of graudation programs on rows of empty chairs

Even in normal circumstances May represents a moment of disruption and distress as seniors transition out of college into the post-grad life. At this time last year, some would go straight into their careers, some prepared for graduate school, some planned to move out of the country to teach English, and some yet took a break and tried to figure out their next move.

The Class of 2020 will see their college career end in an unexpected and abrupt way. And while they will be robbed of the many meaningful farewell moments of the final weeks, the Class of 2020 will experience what every preceding graduating class has experienced: the end.

Despite the variance in circumstance, our feelings before we set off are likely the same: sadness about the end. Seemingly just as the seeds of relationships and daily routines took root, watered by the unique sense of community and stability only offered by a university campus, the hoe of finality came down and tore those roots out. We will never live that life again.

In the waning weeks of any usual last semester, seniors conduct final run-throughs of their favorite social rituals, staples of their college lives that would soon no longer be. There is a mad scramble to fit in as much as possible into those waning weeks and days, as if four years had not been enough time. Then names are called and diplomas were given.

Once the moment is over, it is over. No member of the Class of 2020 can ever retrieve it, revisit it, or relive it outside of their individual memory. Realizing that, of course, is what anchors you in the feeling of sadness and longing.

Be it the loss of a relative, the severing of a relationship, or the end of a fun vacation; big or small, tragic or happy—some things stay with us and encumber our progress forward through time. After an experience such as that, we jostle with some variation of the question: How do I find satisfaction in the present again? The answer, obviously, does not lie in longing for the past. Yet we do.

Certainly, we do ourselves a disservice by not moving forward. But what role should the past play in our present life? What relationship with our past to we owe ourselves?

Envying the Forgetful Cattle

In his On the Uses & Disadvantages of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche writes that humans are jealous of animals’ happiness:

“Consider the cattle, grazing as they pass you by: they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn till night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy nor bored. This is a hard sight for man to see… he cannot help envying them their happiness.” 

Of course, sometimes we would all prefer to eat, rest, digest, and leap about but what Nietzsche is asserting is that the cow is happy because it retains nothing of the past and anticipates nothing of the future.

Nietzsche expounds: “In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness […] it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget.” The ability to forget is the key to happiness, or so the German Existentialist would argue. But Nietzsche notes that is impossible for people to do. He observes a human “cannot learn to forget but clings relentlessly to the past.” A person’s fixation with the past ends up defining the present moment, preventing the person from enjoying it and thus ensuring that it is wasted.

And so are we destined to be like the man he describes in his passage?

“Then the man says, ‘I remember’ and envies the animal, who at once forgets and for whom every moment really dies, sinks back into night and fog and is extinguished for ever…”

Perhaps some would argue that we should strive to be more like the forgetful cattle and simply, however contrary to our human nature, live in the present at all moments; thus, never longing for the past and never being anxious about the future. Perhaps then we can be happy again. But however appealing the happy life of leaping about and grazing may sound, it is absent of many qualities that characterize a good life.

Remembering a “Moment”

Noted screenwriter Aaron Sorkin delivered a commencement address from Syracuse University’s graduating class of 2012. Among many insightful anecdotes and useful pieces of advice, he said the following, contradicting Nietzsche’s prescription:

“Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it. When you aim high and hit your target, when just for a moment all else disappears, and you soar with wings as eagles. The moment will end as quickly as it came, and so you’ll have to have it back, and so you’ll get it back no matter what the obstacles.”

The past plays a central role in Sorkin’s prescription. There will be a moment that will end as quickly as it came. It will die, sink back into the night and fog, extinguished forever. But you will have to have it back. And it is in pursuit of reliving that fleeting moment when you hit your target that will give your life purpose. Sometimes it is those fleeting moments, which exist longer in the past than they ever could in the present that drive an individual, motivating them to move through time.

Indeed, the past plays an important role in our lives. Yes, the beast may lead a life of happiness but it will never remember what made it happy. It will never know ambition because it will never remember what it wants. It will never remember the moment that it realized its passion. It will never remember the moment it fell in love. It will never remember the long-standing joke between friends. In short, it will never long for anything because it will never remember what it would long for.

Happiness may arrive when the past is forgotten. But it entails the loss of meaning, purpose, passion, desire, and sustained relationships. We owe ourselves those things, too.

Moving On

Our relationship with our own past is one of the most important relationships we will have in our lives. Understanding how to forge a good one and tend to it properly is key. We should not aspire to be like the forgetful cattle because they know no motivation for today or tomorrow. But we should not allow the past to shackle us either. Temporally, there is no going back. Time moves forward, and the longer it takes us to realize that the longer we will have wasted the present moment. It is good to move on. It is right to move on. You should move on.

But you should not forget the moments that make it hard to move on. It is those moments that are often worth contemplating but not seeking out to relive exactly. It is those moments that can provide a standard for what we desire from the future, even if it cannot be a carbon-copy of those moments. Indeed, it is only because of past experience that you know what you like and what you don’t like.

Whether its a traumatic experience, like the passing of a friend; or a good experience, like a fun weekend too short; or a bad experience, like a poor performance on the ACT; or a memorable experience, like the laugh produced by a joke, which soon becomes recurring between friends: past moments inform what we seek in the present and future. But moving on can overcome the often crippling longing for the past.

Yes, it is time to move on. And that means acknowledging a moment has gone and will never come again. But it also means striving to find another moment like the one that makes it so difficult to move on and being grateful you had such an experience.

Moral and Existential Lessons from “Chernobyl”

Photograph of Pripyat ferris wheel from inside abandoned building

HBO’s five-part mini-series documenting the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster in the Soviet Union is powerful because of the existential and moral messages it conveys—critical messages for our time.

The explosion takes place in the opening moments of the first episode. Right out of the gate, there is a clear juxtaposition between the childlike naiveté demonstrated by the control room operators on one hand, and the microcosm of the universe that is the nuclear explosion on the other. For many of the characters, the magnitude of the event is, quite literally, beyond comprehension. At one point, a disbelieving middle manager orders an employee to climb to the top of the tower and stare directly down at the ruptured core. We are reminded of Nietzsche’s admonition that, “if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” He turns back in a silent report on what he has seen—his face like a Munch painting, signs of deadly radiation damage already clear.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus describes the absurdity of the human experience. There are moments when this absurdity hits us with full force—the universe is not the kind of thing that cares about the desires of human beings. Camus describes these moments of recognition, “At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for rationality. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.” At Chernobyl, rather than silence, the indifference is signaled by a ceaseless, pulsating hum.

Camus also describes absurd heroes—people who, in full recognition of the absurdity of their situation, respond to that absurdity authentically. The miniseries tells the true stories of the truly stunning number of people who were willing to charge into situations in which completion of the required task was unlikely and death was seemingly certain. In this way, it is an inspiring tale of human resilience and spirit.

In fact, despite the existential premise, much of the story motivates the intuition that, despite our insignificance from the perspective of the universe, the choices we make now really do matter now, and that virtue should be pursued and vice avoided. Chernobyl was a disaster of unimaginable proportions, but were it not for the actions of those who gave their health and even their lives in the service of others, it could have been much worse. The series highlights the value of courage as a virtue. It also explores the perils of blind ambition as a vice. The accident happened as a result of decisions that had foreseeable bad consequences, but those involved in the bad decision-making valued their own promotion over the safety of others.

Some of the most significant lessons from Chernobyl are epistemic—they have to do with how we form our beliefs and what we regard as knowledge. The tragedy of Chernobyl highlights the consequences of confusing power with expertise. This message is always important and is especially salient today. Chernobyl demonstrates how dangerous fallacious appeals to authority can be. Sometimes, powerful figures are presumed to be truth tellers or experts simply because they happen to be in power. Attaining knowledge can be hard work, and we should respect the process. This doesn’t mean that we should blindly accept the pronouncements of anyone with a PhD, but we should recognize that, for example, physicists know more about nuclear reactions than government bureaucrats. Similarly, climate scientists know more about global warming than presidents or the CEOs of oil companies.

Viewers are left with a better understanding of how dangerous it can be when people are put in charge of things that they know very little about. Powerful positions should not be doled out based on nepotism or on past support or level of loyalty, but should instead be based on knowledge base and experience level. Lack of qualification is easily obfuscated when times are good. Perhaps these appointments should always be made with the understanding that times can get very, very bad extremely quickly.

The series also speaks to the peril to which wishful thinking can give rise. Some beliefs are comforting, pleasant, and familiar. These aren’t good reasons for thinking those beliefs are true. When lives are on the line, it is important that we believe and act on what the best evidence supports, rather than believing whatever our strongest desires motivate us to believe.

Finally, the series is about the importance of speaking truth to power. Truth telling is important because lies have consequences—especially when those lies are about the finer details of nuclear power plants. When the government is the body doing the lying, the effects are vast. Speaking truth to power is about more than consequences however; it is also about dignity and authenticity. A person exercises autonomy of a crucial sort when they refuse to abandon their responsiveness to reasons when faced with the coerciveness of power. Such an act makes the statement that facts don’t cease to be facts because they are inconvenient for the powerful. 

We learn from Chernobyl that the consequences of letting lust for power and the fear of looking foolish can be, in the right circumstances, complete global catastrophe. There are forces that dwarf the significance of fragile human egos. Perhaps those forces should properly humble us, as we do our best to understand them.

Arrival, Nietzsche and Choosing Your Life

Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Arrival and Passengers.

If you were to see your life unfold ahead of you, with all of the triumphs but interspersed with the tragedies in all of their grittiness and grief, would you choose to experience it, in all of that detail? Not just in spite of the inconveniences and harms, not full of regrets, but could you wholeheartedly say “Yes!” to the life that will be, or has been, yours?

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