Monday, January 30, 2023

Lay of The Landscape

For many years I had a bad sense of direction when thinking about how to get from one place to another. One way I learned to cope with that condition was to embrace getting lost as a learning experience and develop a “feel” for the organization of the places around me. By focusing on exploration instead of going somewhere, I became aware of the many ways that places are connected as a landscape instead of as a network of paths.

When someone would tell me how to go someplace, or how to achieve a particular objective, I would use their procedure to imagine a landscape being revealed. What my guide considered useful features along a chosen path, I found to be slivers of visibility into a system-as-landscape that the path and its endpoints were likely just a minor part of. 

If I was responsible for achieving a particular objective, and therefore forced to limit my exploration, I would focus on how being at that end would look and feel, discovering what variables most clearly de-fined it in a way that could be experienced through translation into ideas that made intuitive as well as abstract sense. In many cases, “navigation” involved changing the configuration of a system either directly or by integrating myself into it, where the feeling was largely one of artistically sculpting experience until it matched my definition of the system’s end state.

Often in my careers as a test engineer and technical writer, I was tasked with helping others achieve a given objective; and my exploration expanded to include the people I was helping, as part of the inhabited space. Understanding it as the flip side of being helped, where I had to translate what others shared with me, either by communication or shared experience, I included helping their translation as part of my personal interpretation of the task (a service I greatly appreciated when people would do the same for me). 

I became more conscious of these facts as a consequence of trying to distill a lifetime of experience into a framework for dealing with multiple existential crises that threaten both personal and societal longevity. My personal longevity crisis is simply one of age: biological breakdown is inevitable and imminent for someone this close to his life expectancy. Society, which I think of as the whole of organized humanity, is facing a limit to lifetime that is more self-imposed than inherently inevitable. If the whole of experience is a landscape, the part we share, as well as our own lives, has a rapidly approaching edge. Death defines the space beyond the edge, a world without us.

Taken as merely a region in a vastly larger landscape, our experience may be unique, but it is hardly special in any universal sense. As co-creators of our experience with its many components, we arbitrarily assign value to both it and parts of it, with differences in value a function of how we choose to define it. Large differences in value create contrast in our minds, which we associate with degrees of “specialness” of the underlying experience. Since value is purely arbitrary and we can’t physically access the full range of experiences it would take to define a common standard, we can either acknowledge or deny the limitations of our experience and perception of it. 

At some deep level, I think I have always distrusted people who act certain that where they want to go is the right way to go. That attitude suggests a belief that their experience and their judgment are innately more valuable than the experience and judgment of others. Alternatively, I have no problem with someone who has learned enough to make more useful guesses about how to get somewhere as long as they are honest about what they don’t know and can’t do; and are willing to learn and adapt, encouraging the same for those they might lead. People I trust the most, and who I’ve chosen to emulate, are willing to challenge what they know and what they value, learning and testing both of these by getting more experience and engaging in respectful collaboration with other people. In short, I tend to distrust those who deny limitations and trust those who acknowledge them; but overall, in the spirit of acknowledging limitations, trust is always provisional - especially trust in myself – which might ultimately be the reason I got lost so easily.

Self-confidence is, literally, trust in yourself. With it comes a sense of power and focus that encourages action. The opposite is what I feel as fear and disorientation that elicits indecision to the point of paralysis. An early lesson I learned from my father and later proved for myself through living was that trust must be earned and its basis always tested through observation. This lesson demands a range of caution that accompanies every action and is proportional to uncertainty that never falls to zero (which an honest person knows is impossible) and has an upper limit that enables learning through experience. 

Discomfort is always present but doesn’t have to be intolerable. I discovered what can best be described as fun fatalism: playfully creating new experience that reflects my chosen values that will be frozen in space and time beyond the boundaries of my life wherever and whenever those boundaries might be. The discomfort of provisional trust in myself thus became comparable to the aching of muscles that are stretched will per-forming one’s favorite sport, which in my case is exploring the lay of the landscape of my limited existence.

Note: This post was updated on 2/4/2023 with the image above. It depicts relationships of variables in my Timelines model: population (yellow), remaining nature (green), and happiness (red), as functions of habitat density (horizontal, left to right) and waste per person (depth, close to far).