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15. Finding ease in our future of unnerving worries and infinite possibilities

Listening to a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, the extent of the Internet’s impact on the way we do everything became a tiny bit clearer.

As all of us who do anything know well by now, the impact of networked technology — the Internet, and all the countless pieces of software and hardware and apps that have been piled on top of it — has been felt in every facet of our lives.

Whether that’s the contactless payment technology we’ve been encouraged so strongly to use to limit the possibility of spreading COVID-19 by cash money, to the Zoom meetings and WhatsApp calls that have become so commonplace for work and family communications this past year, to using Uber Eats to get a delivery of McMuffins in the morning, to using Google Maps to never ever ever get lost, the Internet’s tentacles have found their way into our every waking moment.

Balaji Srinivasan is a (presumably wealthy) Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, having started, grown and sold a number of businesses. He’s also someone who courts plenty of controversy, particularly in the old media and legacy institutions that he predicts will collapse.

In this interview with Ferriss, Srinivasan laid out a bleak future for many established institutions, including everything from universities to banks to governments.

I don’t think many institutions that predated the internet will survive the internet. It is this universal acid.

Srinivasan expanded on one of what he calls his “laws of Internet physics”, namely that by the very nature of how it works, the Internet has the capacity to send us to the extremes.

One of my laws of Internet physics is the Internet increases variance … You go from 30 minute sitcoms [in the old world] to 30 episode Netflix binges or 30 second YouTube clips [in the Internet world]. You go from a stable nine-to-five job to a 20-something billionaire or a 40-year-old failed son who’s made nothing of themselves. You go from a standard taxi ride, to Uber which has very long trips and also very short ones.

[W]hen the Internet disruptor comes in, variance increases, there’s more downside and more upside, more amazing outcomes and more really bad outcomes in all kinds of ways. Why does that happen? The Internet, because it connects people peer to peer, it removes the middleman, it removes the mediator, it removes the moderator, it removes the mediocrity.

In his poem “The Second Coming”, WB Yeats reflected on the state of the world, afflicted as it was by World War, by war and revolution and chaos everywhere, and the end of the world as he knew it.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This poem was published in late 1920 (100 years ago almost to the day), and the encyclopedia Britannica outlines some of the thinking behind it:

Yeats believed that history is cyclical, and “The Second Coming” — a two-stanza poem in blank verse — with its imagery of swirling chaos and terror, prophesies the cataclysmic end of an era. Critics associated the poem with various contemporary calamities, such as the Easter Rising of 1916, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the rise of fascism, and the political decay of eastern Europe.

What does all this mean for us, now, as we look at the world around us in 2021 — at our own possible cataclysmic end of an era — and figure out what we might do next, how we might respond to the unpredictability that lies in every direction, all of the time?

In the work-from-home reality so many people now find themselves in (some of them permanently), the upside (“I can do my job from anywhere!”) comes with an equal and opposite downside (“Someone anywhere can do my job…”)

Add in the reams of startups making rapid breakthroughs in everything from robotics to artificial intelligence to task automation, and we can be forgiven for feeling a lump in our throats at the prospect of our experience and skills — the things that make us feel useful, that add up, rightly or wrongly, to a large part of our identity — being replaced by cheap labour in the Philippines or by computer code in a Texas server farm.

Such uncertainty is unnerving. We are hard-wired, deep in the biology of our ancient brains, to seek safety, security, belonging.

Pema Chodron, the brilliant Buddhist teacher, offers some hope of easement amid this storm.

In her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, she wrote:

Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that.

It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

That last line is stirring. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

Discovering what the truth is, that feels like a lifelong journey to the heart of ourselves.

Life-changing truth-teaching

Life-changing truth-teachers will show up, and most of them we will not think of as life-changing truth teachers until the teaching is softly, quietly done and the change has already taken place. (Hindsight, as the old saying goes, is 20-20 vision.)

The most life-changing teachings might just as easily come from situations or experiences as from people.

Perhaps all of us are going through a life-changing teaching moment just now.

Something we might be tempted to do, that we can be forgiven for doing, is something we must find a way to fight against.

Lowering our head beneath the stormy waves, holding our breath with all our might and hoping that at some point, a month or a year or more from now, we might surface back into the open air into the way things used to be, that is an exercise in self-endangerment.

We cannot hold our breath. We must breathe.

The world offers us possibilities that can unnerve us, in every direction we look.

That seems to be the way it’s always been and always will be.

If we really think about it, safety and security are only ever really possible in the past.

We might look back and remember with some fondness the happy times we once had. But in remembering the safety and security we had back then, we must recognise, too, that our view of that safety and security is distorted by the fact that we are looking back, and we can’t really feel the fear or anxiety we felt back then.

If we have doubts, uncertainties, insecurities, fears right now, we must at least be open to the possibility that way back then, we also had different doubts, uncertainties, insecurities, fears, and it’s hard — maybe impossible — to access those fears long after the events we feared either never came to pass.

Or, if they did come to pass, we realised they were not as wholly insurmountable in reality as we had made them in our minds.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.