This afternoon I read a sci fi short story entitled “The Gold at the Starbow’s End” by Frederik Pohl (1973). In it, a scientist devises a plan to strand eight people on a spacecraft bound for Alpha Centauri on a contrived mission to colonize a planet that doesn’t really exist. He does this because he believes that if you put humans into a situation away from distractions and modern convenience and allow them to focus solely on solving difficult problems that the results will be profound and sufficient to change the world. The story, in its detail, is fairly preposterous but I think that there may be a hefty thread of truth winding through this concept.
If you look at our modern workaday world in historical context, we’ve got some amazing advantages over our forebearers only 100 years ago. We have more leisure time than any group of humans ever. Our access to information is mind-boggling; if you want to study the mating habits of Nicaraguan sea turtles you can have access to that information in under 60 seconds. While disposable income varies wildly, the internet allows us to obtain just about anything you can imagine. We are the most intellectually empowered species in the history of this planet.
But what do we actually do with all that power? There are, of course, the elite few who are putting their brains to the proverbial grindstone and pushing to make the world a better place but it seems that for the vast majority of us (and I do not absolve myself from this one iota) we go to work at jobs that don’t really challenge us and then come home to lives that don’t really put us to the test or stretch us as people and simply float by on a cloud of recreation waiting for the next life event to come to pass. In every sense of it this is a terrible waste of an amazing opportunity.
Speaking personally, I look back on previous versions of myself (at times represented in this blog) and I yearn for that person that I used to be. I was far from ideal to be sure but I did more. I wrote more keenly; I thought more profoundly. Perhaps not with so much wisdom as I might hope for now but there was an energy that I haven’t found again. Ironically, I’m much more empowered in every sense than I was 10 years ago yet I’ve still lost something.
Looking at the world as a whole, I believe that collectively we have all the energy both mental and physical to solve all of our problems 1000 times over. What we lack is leadership and direction to point us in the right direction and when humans lack direction, leadership and inspiration the collective psyche devolves to watching cat videos, random complaining, and heavy drinking. I can’t deny that I’ve certainly frittered my share of hours away and dream keenly of what better use they could have been put to.