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Social Conscience

Sometimes I feel like a less-than-stellar human being. At the leading crest of a rich history of people who have done shit, my participation in life is—what is the word I’m looking for—well, kind of pathetic. Think about it for a moment. Throughout history, people have fought rebellions for freedom, made great speeches, invented the Pop Tart and fireworks, killed, healed, sought through science or story to explain natural phenomena, did massive amounts of blow and explained the human psyche, and survived. Close your eyes for a moment, and let us consider the life of the earliest man you can imagine. What do you see? Some fur wearing humanoid critter of sinew and muscle spearing a huge wildebeest, cooking it over a roaring blaze, huddling with one another in caves and crude tents to stave off the cold.

Fast forward to early civilization. Wars and culture. People struggling to survive only slightly less than those cave-and-tent bound Neanderthals and still making the time to invent the basic tenets of science, philosophy, and art. Forward further to medieval times, how do you picture their lives? Knights in armor in a near constant state of battle with foreign armies or local brigands. Peasants farming arable land for some meager living. Kings enjoying the good life in between massive wars or turns of church. What about the revolutionary war-era US? A nation of people fighting against nature and a massive kingdom to survive. More recent, the “wild, wild west” where men were men, women were men, and everyone was more of a bad ass than you. Then today, you fought with the toaster that yet again burnt your fucking Pop Tart, traffic that almost made you spill your cappuccino on your dress slacks, a job that stresses you out because your boss is mean to you (not mean like “I’m a fucking saber-toothed tiger and it’s you or me kid” but that “I’m going to say passive- aggressively mean things around you and you can’t respond because you need the money you make at this job to support your Internet porn habit and your wife’s Pottery Barn habit and the kids’ Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! obsessions” sorta mean), then you drive home and watch Fight Club and romanticize the notion of punching your boss directly in his snarky little snout.

It’s hard to feel like a “real” person when you think of it like that. I mean, in the time it has taken me to write this much, somewhere in time some ancient dude with less of an education than my oldest child discovered fucking FIRE. While I'm typing this, someone somewhere is going to cure cancer, repair the economy of a third world nation, find an awesome new sex position, break RSA encryption in 15 seconds with a quantum computer, or some other world-changing IMPORTANT thing. I, meanwhile, will have another mildly interesting arrangement of electrons. It is hard not to be humbled by how small a footprint I am leaving in this world compared to the footprints of those that have come before me. I have tools, education, and opportunity the likes of which the people that unlocked the secrets of the atom could scarcely imagine at my disposal; and I use it as a conduit for porn, stolen music, news (but pretty much only entertainment news—I can tell you what Neil Gaiman’s thoughts were for the last week, but I couldn’t tell you what happened in Afghanistan or England at any point in the last month), and my own over-valued thoughts. Ouch!

Clay Shirky talks about cognitive surplus and I can feel that resonate somewhere deep within me. Just because I don’t dump my surplus on a television or World of Warcraft doesn't make my waste of time any less real, so I wonder how much of my empathic feelings toward this notion of a surplus is mere wishful thinking. How much of this is me saying “Yeah, I’m not fucking lazy, I’m RESTING before I make HUGE SOCIAL CHANGES!” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think a part of me feels like I am biding my time, setting things in motion that will ensure my part in the next revolution; industrial, political, or otherwise.

You know what, I’m right. My thinking in the start of this post couldn’t be more misleading. I picture all of these “great people” from history doing “important things” and I feel worthless because my life is less a struggle. What a fucking crock! How depressingly self deprecating. I am all for self deprecation, it’s what I do; but when I start to believe it, it’s time to re-evaluate. Early man didn’t innovate very quickly because he (or she) was trying to survive. It’s hard to invent the telescope when that saber-toothed tiger from before is literally about to eat your ass (not “eat your ass” like analingus, but “eat your ass” like “rump roast is tasty, and I’m beginning there before I eat the rest of you, you puny bipedal thing”). The pace of innovation has improved exactly because we have time to burn because sudden and preventable death is remarkably less prevalent at each stage of social improvement. No more huge snakes dropping out of trees on your head in 1st century Rome. The wild west no longer had to concern itself with the bubonic plague. With notable exceptions, most of us don’t have to worry about being gunned down en masse by brigands on horseback. No, we have to worry that our cable went out and the local Outback undercooked our steak.

I also mis-characterize those great minds that have invented or discovered major things. Many (dare I say most?) of these people did what made them famous by accident. Not that their discovery or invention was by accident, but the dramatic social changes that followed were not part of the original program. Galileo didn’t push heliocentrism because he wanted to turn the church, science, and the world on its ear. He liked looking into the heavens and wanted the science to be correct. Jainic (and later Dalton, Avogadro, and Einstein) weren’t trying to change the way we produce energy or fight wars in a desire for social or lifestyle change as much as they were pursuing knowledge and interesting science. Newton was simply trying to explain how things worked. Freud was just trying to see how much blow he could fit in his nose. Torvalds was merely doing his homework. Lerdorf wanted his website to be different. For every scientist, inventor, or theorist out there that is actively trying to generate societal change, there are a dozen that will stumble upon that change by merely doing what they love.

So when I do what I love, and do it with gusto, I’m doing my job. It is unlikely that the things that I do are going to have a lasting impact on the world; but the important bit is that what most people do won’t have any lasting impact either, and most of the people that I can think of that have had that kind of long-term affect did so by accident doing what they enjoyed. There was no need for a grand plan. So I’ll keep doing what I do. Hey, maybe something I write will spur a though in someone’s head and they will go out and find a better way for men to wax their genitals or electrically shock their children. Who knows, maybe my love for bringing geeky, brilliant people together socially so that they can be casually-genius in finding new ways to have fun will translate into something world-altering. It is possible that me being a foul-mouthed chucklehead will result in something amazing for someone else. I don’t have to worry about it, I just have to keep doing what I do best and feel comfortable that time will tell what it was that sparked the next big thing.

So, for now, I’ll just have to be happy being brilliantly foul-mouthed, relatively entertaining, outspoken, bright, focused, and driven; and if the world suddenly needs someone to program a swearing machine with absolutely no filter...I’ll be there!