Casting Off The Conversations
October 09, 2020
That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto
During the pandemic I’ve had more time, not less, to spend on personal projects. Previously, I found it hard to find the time, which more often went towards the work commute, socializing after work, among other things. This is one positive of an otherwise unequivocally bad situation.
I’m extremely fortunate that my life hasn’t been disrupted that much by COVID-19. With the ability to work from home I can avoid taking public transit along with many other situations that would involve subjecting myself to potential infection.
As a result, some of the the ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a while actually have a chance to become reality. And as I’m wondering about future projects to tackle, I’m thinking about where ideas come from at all.
A software project that is useful to nobody but yourself is not very interesting. Being beneficial to others, at least in theory, is a pretty important criterion for deciding what to make. And in my experience, so much of what I believe might be useful to others comes from in-person conversations with coworkers and friends. But this is exactly what our gradual reorganization of society is eliminating.
Perhaps this is sounding overly dramatic, but I think we can all agree that the quality of conversation that you can achieve over Zoom or Slack is pretty lo-fi compared to the real thing. Not to mention the fact that Zoom calls don’t arise as spontaneously as natural conversations do. There is still some mental overhead that needs to be reckoned with there - I’ve never heard of ‘water cooler’ Zoom calls. But maybe you know something I don’t :)
The point is, as a society we’re probably paying a price whose real impact has yet to be felt. Although there isn’t really anything I can present in the way of evidence, it seems to me that great ideas come from chaos. Random encounters with strangers on the street, that conversation with the person in the checkout line, that thing your coworkers were talking about, that thing on her desk, the jacket he was wearing, that time the fire alarm went off in the office… these moments become the fodder used by our idea engine to create the future.
I’m reminded of Asimov’s short story, “The Fun They Had”, published in 1951, about homeschooled children in the year 2155 finding a ‘real’ (paper) book. From the book the children learn about the deliciously bizarre education system of bygone years - where schools were housed in buildings instead of in one’s home, where all children learned the same material, and had a teacher made of flesh and blood. With classes running remotely now, we’re well on our way to the world in the story.
Following the COVID-19 upheaval, other aspects of our lives are sure to start resembling science fiction as well. On one of his podcasts, Eric Weinstein mentions his wife’s belief that COVID-19 just accelerated all aspects of the future that were being held back. In his conversation with guest Balaji Srinivasan they discuss many reasons why that might be the case and what we have to look forward to. To give one example, Starlink + drone delivery + remote work + telecommuting via VR means we can live far away from the downtown core while enjoying an affordable lifestyle of comfort and abundance.
In a lot of ways this prospect is extraordinary, and yet I can’t stop wondering what we would be missing out on. I wonder what happens when we trade away the raw, ineffable experience of in-person conversations and group gatherings. The comfort of one’s home might lose its glamour when we find ourselves pining for the spontaneity of a real human connection.
Of course, being able to reason in this way comes from a place of privilege. I reminisce about my social life while plenty of people face serious financial hardship. It’s absolutely not my intention to trivialize these problems. It’s just that I suspect society has a vested interest in having people walk around outside and bump into each other.
In the end it’s all moot since we’re in the timeline that has COVID and are unable to glimpse any other. So, let’s do what we can to make the best of it and help bring about an evenly distributed future. What more worthwhile pursuit can there be?
Asimov, Isaac. “The Fun They Had.” Fantasy and Science Fiction, Feb. 1954, pp. 125-127.
Weinstein, Eric, and Balaji Srinivasan. “35: Balaji Srinivasan - The Heretic & The Virus.” The Portal, 21 May. 2020, https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9yc3MuYXJ0MTkuY29tL3RoZS1wb3J0YWw=/episode/Z2lkOi8vYXJ0MTktZXBpc29kZS1sb2NhdG9yL1YwL19yMzZaM3NYWndUbTI5WUs1Mk1xdWxVYUZDUnFvY3VzUl80WFg4dEFKa3M=.