My average post is about 870 words long, so based on my somewhat admittedly limited math skills, that means I’ve written just a smidge over 1 million words in the last 18 years. If I were writing a book, that would have been 1.71 books the length of “War and Peace” -- or 10 average novels.
For those of you who have been following my output for some of or all of that time: First, I thank you. Second, you’ll have noticed a slow but steady editorial drift towards existential angst. I suspect that’s a side effect of aging.
Most of us, as we age, grapple with the nature of the universe. We worry that the problems that lie in the future might be beyond our capabilities to deal with. We fret about the burning dumpster fire we’re leaving for the next generation.
Typically, we deal with this by narrowing our focus to the things we can control, zeroing in on achieving order in our own domain. For the average aging guy, this typically manifests itself in obsessions with weed-free lawns, maniacally over-organized garages, or driveways free of grease spots. I aspire to achieve at least one of these things before I die.
But along with this obsessive need for order somewhere in our narrowing universe, there’s also a recognition that time is no longer an unlimited commodity. More than a few of us older folks become obsessed with creating their magnum opus.
Take Albert Einstein, for example. In 1905, which would be known as his annus mirabilis (miracle year), Einstein produced four papers that redefined physics as we knew it. One of them was the paper on special relativity. Einstein was just 26 years old then.
As stunning as his achievements were that year, it was not what he wanted to leave as his definitive legacy. He would live another 50 years, until 1955, and spent a good portion of the last half of his life chasing a Unified Field Theory that he hoped would somehow reconcile the explosion of contradiction that came with the emergence of quantum mechanics. He would never achieve this goal..
In an admittedly limited but interesting analysis, author and programmer Mark Jeffrey visualized the answer to the question: “At what age do we do our greatest work?” In fields like mathematics and physics, notable contributors hit their peak in their mid 30’s. But in the fields of philosophy, literature, art and even architecture, the peak of those included came a decade or two later. As Jeffrey notes, his methodology probably skewed results to the younger side.
This really comes down to two different definitions of intelligence: pure cognitive processing power, versus the ability to synthesize input from the world around us and -- hopefully -- add some wisdom to the mix. Some disciplines need a little seasoning – a little experience and perspective.
This difference in the nature of our intelligence really drives the age-old debate between hard sciences and soft sciences, as a post from Utah State University explains:. “Hard sciences use math explicitly; they have more control over the variables and conclusions. They include physics, chemistry and astronomy. Soft sciences use the process of collecting empirical data then use the best methods possible to analyze the information. The results are more difficult to predict. They include economics, political science and sociology.”
In this explanation, you’ll notice a thread I’ve plucked at before, the latest being my last post about Elon Musk: You’re born with “smart” -- but you have to accumulate “wisdom” over your life.
Now, I certainly don’t intend to put myself in the august company quoted above. My path has been infinitesimally consequential compared to, say, Albert Einstein’s. But still, I think I get where Einstein was trying to get to when he became obsessed with trying to (literally) bring some order to the universe.
For myself, I have spent much of the last decade or so trying to understand the thorny entanglement of technology and human behavior. I have watched digital technology seep into every aspect of our experience.
And I’m worried, because I think this push of technology has been powered by a cabal of those who are “geek smart” but lack the wisdom or humility to ponder the unintended consequences of what they are unleashing.
If I gathered even a modicum of the type of intelligence required to warn what may lie on the path ahead, I think I have to keep doing so, even if it takes another million words -- give or take.