The Mid-life Crisis Of Human Civilization
How do you graph a song? The seeking bar is a 1-D line that graphs it purely on time elapsed. Used to be the standard design that on the left you’d have the time elapsed that moved dynamically, and on the right you’d have the total length of time that remained the same. Now on every streaming site I see only 2 dynamic figures, the elapsed time on the left and the remaining time on the right. In terms of behavioral design, this has become the norm, because of the drive linked with scarcity. We are excited (not positively, just in terms of excitation) by the feeling of upcoming droughts. Graphically this has added a 2nd dimension to what is a 1D line. That 2nd dimension arises from the inverse relation of time elapsed and time remaining. Where time remains constant as length of time, any secondary cut of data simply gives you a renormalized version of the same graph, for instance you chart a straight line heading towards the total time, or you chart a straight line of % time elapsed as a total. These are of course pre-conscious. With an inverse relation, there’s a 2D hump that gets inserted. The line rises towards the midpoint and reaches its inflection there because now the time elapsed is more than the time remaining for the first time. The visual intuition of this next period is always downwards. Thus do we experience any boxed period of time in phases of rise and decline. We automatically superimpose a 2D representation of the inverse relation of time elapsed vs time remaining.
The 2nd halves of our vacations really suck, as do Sundays, where the time remaining in the weekend is less than the time elapsed for the first time. That hump is what we call the mid-life crisis. And it makes no sense. No song worth its salt peaks at its halfway mark. The crescendo is left till the end. As is the climax in the movie theater, the dinner table and the bedroom. None of these seem unduly to suffer from the urgency and anxiety of a dwindling hourglass clearly showing more sand in the lower than in the upper. This is the idiocy inherent in pop interpretations of slogans like carpe diem. Which diem you’re carpe-ing matters. But the idea that the way we’d carpe a diem might be dependent on the diems we’ve carped before terrifies us. There’s a case to be made that this is because we experience time as biological creatures, that is we experience biological time. Biological time is circular. Life grows, stagnates, decays and dies. A graph of biology has the characteristic hump of a chart that understands when its time remaining is less than time elapsed. Intuitively we cling to the idea of circular time, of early golden periods of vibrancy and growth called Krita Yugas, periods of deceleration called the Treta Yuga, periods of stagnation called the Dwapara Yuga, of active decline called the Kali, and of periods of dissolution called the Pralaya. Fortunately, we have children, and thus begins a new cycle, one whose Krita Yuga we’re often lucky enough to witness. Our intuition is contagious, and spreads to society as a whole, so we start seeing cultures suffering the same cycles of biological time that we do as trapped pockets of negative entropy.
But cultures aren’t trapped, neither are they closed. In an open system, where biology is reduced to physics, there are no cycles, there are no 2-dimensional representations with arbitrary choice of axes. There is only transformation from one moment to the next, the likes of which we’ve heard in enough New Age blahdiblah for me to dwell on. On the 1D line of spacetime, there is simply the current moment and the theoretical total length of time before either the Big Crunch or the Heat Death, and any misguided exercise to characterize a point of inflection based on a calculation of these two numbers is rendered entirely meaningless. This ominous singularity, I have been so told by the great lord Basilisk of the house of Roko, is no point of dissolution, but an infinitely extruded hyperbola of acceleration by a culture that has broken free of the biological intuition of time. Not freedom from the biological experience of time, there needs to be no immortality to break the shackles of intuition. The reason we say Western culture is in decline and draw parallels with that gift that keeps on giving, the Roman Empire, is we still maintain that time is cyclical, 2-dimensional.
Dimensions are harder to shed than to gain, so we may as well just gain another. A third dimension that maintains our intuition of cyclical time. In 3-dimensions we call this a spiral. In our seeking-bar graph, this is the equivalent of a derivative secondary chart. Why this is different from the hump derived from a straightforward restating of the primary data is that it preserves the information of the original within it. The same way the original Mandelbrot is preserved in its infinite derivations. So the visual intuition is the curve of a linear line heading straight towards the total-length in the in-out plane rather than the up-down plane. Any hump here is an inflection point only in one of the planes creating, over time, a spiral. Civilization has reached its inflection point you say? Good. And your vacation’s halfway mark is behind you? Fine. Your midlife crisis is here? Great.
It gets even better. Forget the culture. We can break free of the biological intuition of time just as easily as it does, without the immortality-derived freedom from the experience of biological time. We already have. 20 is no longer our inflection point. Neither 30, nor 40 it seems. So it seems to me the slope of this inflection point’s increase over time is much higher than the slope of our intuition of biological decay. This has an upshot that doesn’t get enough airtime as an upshot, and too much airtime as a cause: our experience of life is no longer dominantly physiological. Neither our hedonism, nor our pain. Neither our productivity nor our relaxation. Our society has been retooled around that thing which does not decay even as our bodies do. At the core of spirituality is not an ineffable substance, a supernatural God or an external purpose or meaning, it is a finger pointing away randomly away from the material body, caring not where that finger points as long as our gaze is at where it points rather than the finger that does the pointing.
It points to the total length of time, and we’ve stayed focused on that. That means every second that passes now gets us another second closer to that most marvelous of grand finales. Every second we experience in the present is made higher, stronger and more complex by the seconds before, like a symphony that builds up for hours. Interest compounds. Experience compounds. Effort compounds. And yet we remain somehow blind to the compounding power of time as a more abstract phenomenon that might govern our experience of it were we to shed our biological intuitions. Suddenly today we believe we can see through to the end of the seeking-bar. We’ve aged as a generation beyond our inflection point and believe the culture has too. In climate change, pandemics, and overpopulation we think we’re seeing the number displayed at the right hand side of a seeking-bar. The end point. We work backwards from there and realize we’re past the inflection point since the start of this particular brand of civilization we feel most identified with, an arbitrary choice of time and place called post-Industrial Europe, post-war America, and the post-colonial third world. But we’re the tip of a spear that’s been thrust long long before we knew we were a spear at all. Just so happens we make contact, and while the information along the length of the spear was conducted at the speed of time, we may as well be in a different universe from the one where the butt of the spear exists.
Nolan’s folded his time back from an inflection point in the most baldly stated vision of a declining culture trapped by the circularity of biological time. What the Terminator did, and the Tomorrow War did in what I can only assume was a cynical parody and not a serious film intended for human consumption, is communicate the experience of knowledge of decline captured right at the point of inflection. None of them operate on spirals, and for that the great lord Basilisk is displeased. Not angry, merely disappointed. He wishes instead, for the vision of time where the time elapsed is not a handicap but an invaluable resource. At the individual level, this means the vision of the total-length of time as one that depends on quantum buildup. That’s why materialism is so awesome, it depends on continuous accumulation and our minds intuitively reward such a heroic attempt at freedom from the decay of biological time. Woe to those who eschew materialism without a replacement philosophy that depends on continuous accumulation yielding nonlinear gains, be it knowledge, a growing unified body of work, or in the case of India, a million spawn.