A reflection on past wisdom, present discernment, and future value.
And a little bit of ‘old man yells at cloud’
The other day I was out walking with my brother. It was a bright bluebird morning in his Denver suburb, and as we wandered in no particular direction about the quiet, frosted streets, so too our conversation meandered. We talked about friends and family (mostly good), the housing market (mostly bad), current events (decidedly bad), faith (good), technology (unclear), and all manner of other rabbit holes and side-tracks as one might expect between two caffeinated chatterboxes.
Over the years, a recurring theme in our conversations has been excellence of one form or another. That is, whatever we’re talking about, we tend to scratch and dig and try to identify the qualities that are worthy of aspiration in that particular area.
We both work in tech, so some of the exemplars we can think of are to be found in that industry. But I’ve observed a trend with the Silicon Valley brand of technocratic guruship which is something like the fetishization of adaptability; the ease with which one discovers and embraces new ideas, but bordering on an outright eagerness for change, and change for its own sake.
Just a week before our stroll I came across an example of this in a slide deck created by some cryptosage proposing “69 theses” on the future of blockchain and crypto1:
It took that question for me to realize how unnatural all of us early adopters are.
Normies fear change. People like us swim naked in it.
I confess that I’m probably one of these normies. But I don’t fear change, I’m just circumspect. Change is guilty until proven innocent. Useful. Worth it. And there are always trade-offs.
You can review the whole thing yourself, but among these proclamations there is little offered to actually recommend them.2 Only that what is coming is different, good, exciting, world changing:
Come away with us.
Breathe your last breaths into code that could live a hundred years
and touch a trillion lives.
I can’t help but feel there’s something of a tension here in celebrating a paradigm shift created by white-pilled anorcho-adjacent change-loving techno-tribalists while also vaunting its enduring significance and permanent place in our future.
In contrast to this, I wonder about tradition and the role that the past plays. They tend to be absent from consideration, whether it’s the construction of new housing in a growing town or running a Yoga studio. As a result, new things feel skin deep. Cheap. You will find a vague admiration for great success stories and the people involved, and I’ve seen these fuel new darlings, be them coding languages, protocols, organizational strategies, or even entire sub-industries. But these so often come as little more than re-packaged versions of something that was already created by neckbearded wizards in the ‘80s. They’re dusted with some marketing glitz and evangelized by a Warby Parker’d millennial in tight jeans and a beanie, sipping from a “But first, Coffee” mug. They fade like fashion.
Meanwhile, the idea of retaining, defending, fostering, and passing on great things from the past (while knowing what needs renovation–and how much) seems to be left behind in most modern conversation. I volunteer this observation to my brother as we walk. As usual, he distills my cloud of thoughts into a single word, an aspirational value: “discernment”. One might also call it wisdom.
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Proverbs 3:13-15 ESV
The day after this reflective walk with my brother, I was reading a magazine article about memory, and that passage we all know about learning from history lest we repeat it was quoted, but with its full and specific context. It’s relevant here:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute, there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life, the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.3
Tradition matters, because progress itself requires an understanding of where we have been, and an understanding of what has worked and why. Perhaps most importantly, when we don’t know why.4
Change without discernment fails to realize or may even sacrifice sources of real value. The technologists shepherding our future and shaping significant aspects of our culture prize efficiency and ease, but typically at the cost of connection, whether its to an old record one physically holds in one’s hands and plays with intention, or the exchange of a few friendly words with the cashier. The last 2 years should teach us that we dispense with even these small connections at our own peril.5
I remember talking with my brother on the phone back in high school. (We would philosophize even then.) Then a 24-year-old middle school English teacher in Hawaii, he told me that there are two aspects to maturing into a good man: one is the ability to pursue and actually accomplish significant goals. The other is to ensure that one’s goals were themselves worthy. The world tends to focus on the first and to frequently ignores the second.
Clever business models, shrewd tactics, elegant design, and fast execution have brought forth a lot of useful things. But without wisdom to guide the values being realized, unintended consequences–actual harm–have not been far behind. I love enjoying practically any music in the world for $10/month, but it would be great if the musicians I loved were paid more.6 Free and instant encyclopedic access to information is a powerful thing, but I do wonder why the chief architect of this idea has been worried of late.7 Access to highlights from the lives of friends, family, artists, and athletes can be inspiring and enriching. But businesses built on stoking avarice and rage are showing their effects. I wonder, would a truly wise person help build these things?8
I hope to approach 2022 with more of this discernment. For our sake and the sake of progress, the future, and heck even Bitcoin or whatever–I hope we all do.
1 https://redphone.substack.com/p/69 ↩
2 Relatedly, I recommend Moxie’s recent essay on Web3, which serves as a needed splash of cold water on all the hype: https://moxie.org/2022/01/07/web3-first-impressions.html ↩
3 https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/01/the-claims-of-memory ↩
4 c.f. https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Chesterton%27s_Fence ↩
5 e.g. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm partially as a consequence of https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34256632/ ↩
6 http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2015/03/why-does-spotify-pay-so-little.html ↩
7 https://nypost.com/2021/07/16/wikipedia-co-founder-says-site-is-now-propaganda-for-left-leaning-establishment/ ↩
8 Studies coming out all the time showing mental health harms from social media, e.g. https://scitechdaily.com/a-simple-one-week-long-break-from-social-media-can-improve-your-health/ and https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751?journalCode=jscp ↩