Money Speaks Louder than Human Voices

March 28, 2017 § 3 Comments

“Everything has a price.” This phrase in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is not new, but it takes on a new meaning in the context of her novel (139). In today’s world, corporations dominate in every sphere from the economy to religion and politics. While Atwood’s world in which corporations have absolute control is unsettling, her ideas are merely an extrapolation of current times to the future. However, as Atwood shows, commercialism and commodification come at a high price to society and the humans that are a part of it.

Early on in the novel we learn that Jimmy (or later Snowman) lived on a company compound called OrganInc. The corporation controls everything in Jimmy’s life including his school and the rules he has to abide by, enforced through the CorpSeCorps. Later on, we learn that Jimmy and Crake attend what are similar to universities. These “universities,” particularly Crake’s Watson-Crick Institute, aim to generate profits as well, encouraging the very bright students to innovate and develop new technology, carefully securing their facilities, and minimizing interaction with the outside world. In Jimmy’s world, corporations control everything, and their motives clearly dominate.

The corporation-developed compounds seem absurd; however, in reality, they already exist. Massive companies like Amazon and Google have “campuses” that contain everything one needs to live off of. They include restaurants, gyms, childcare facilities, and even sleeping pods – all designed to keep you inside and focused on doing everything possible for the company. Beyond company campuses, universities today mimic those in Atwood’s story. As Vandy students, we even say that we live in a “Vandy Bubble.” Our lives all exist within the confines of our campus as we strive to learn and make new developments in all fields. We are not far off from the fictitious world that Atwood describes.

Images are renderings of future campuses for Google, Amazon, and Apple (from left to right). 

Why does it matter that corporations and technological research centers have such a wide sphere of influence? In a world where profit governs, everything becomes a commodity. This can easily be seen in Oryx and Crake with the story of Oryx. Not only is Oryx commoditized by the pimps that earn money for her sexual acts and pornography but Oryx is also commoditized by every viewer that watches the child pornography, including Snowman. In her discussions of her experience, Oryx has clearly been influenced by the corporation mentality surrounding her, as she states:

“They had no more love…but they had money value: they represented a cash profit to others. They must have sensed that – sensed they were worth something.” (126)

Do we only value human beings for the monetary value they provide? I hope not. Atwood shows a disturbing reality if corporate power continues on its current trajectory. The power of corporations to influence politics and culture even today has implications for cloning and other advanced technology. It is unsettling to think of the development of human clones by companies driven by their own bottom-line. Morality does not seem to have a place in this kind of world.

If we do consider these clones to be “human,” how do we prevent the corporate developers from treating the clones like commodities and not humans, especially when humans today are already commoditized? In the novel, Snowman compares the children in the pornography to “digital clones,” as they did not feel real to him (90). With this statement, Atwood warns of the commodification of both existing humans and potential human clones in the future. If corporations both govern and profit, we cannot prevent abuse and exploitation.

Atwood is not far off in her portrayal of the commodification of human clones. Human cloning has often been criticized for turning human organs into commodities due to their monetary value with cancer treatments and other diseases. President Bush famously rejected all human cloning, stating, “Life is a creation, not a commodity.” He is not alone in being concerned with this idea, as scientists, philosophers, and policy-makers have discussed the implications of human cloning for decades. The Presidents Council on Bioethics expressed the following:

“When the ‘products’ are human beings, the ‘market’ could become a profoundly dehumanizing force.” (The Presidents Council on Bioethics, 2002)

When corporate greed becomes entangled with the morality of health remedies, the potential commodification of humans and human clones is endless. Although Atwood’s fictitious world seems so distant, the reality is that it is much closer to present day than one would first think. From humans to clones to our independence and our value, Atwood shows that everything has a price, and the costs to society are high.

Sources:

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor, 2004. Print.
Arter, Melanie. “Bush: ‘Life Is A Creation, Not A Commodity’.” CNS News. CFC, 07 July 2008. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/bush-life-creation-not-commodity.
The President’s Council on Bioethics. “Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry.” Georgetown University, July 2002. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcbe/reports/cloningreport/children.html.
Cambria, Nancy. “Our 21st-century Prophet, Margaret Atwood.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. STLtoday, 26 Sept. 2015. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. http://www.stltoday.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/reviews/our-st-century-prophet-margaret-atwood/article_242b5f9b-3ac6-51e3-9024-e858d178f6e2.html.

Images source: http://www.geekwire.com/2013/4-tech-titans-building-campus/

A New Age of Artifice

January 23, 2017 § 5 Comments

In the fall of 2011, Duke University’s undergraduate literary journal published a rather unassuming poem entitled “For the Bristlecone Snag” (“The Archive”). To the journal’s poetry editors, the poem appeared to be a typical undergraduate work, comprised of several unfulfilled metaphors and awkward turns of phrase. What the editors did not know at the time of publication, however, was that this poem was not written by a human. Instead, it was written by a computer program (Merchant).

When I first learned about “For the Bristlecone Snag”, I was reminded of the writings of Alan Turing, a renowned English computer scientist in the mid 20th century. In his seminal article on the subject of artificial intelligence (A.I.), Turing articulates that the question, “can machines think?”, is “too meaningless to deserve discussion” (Turing 442). After all, he claims, we have no direct evidence that other humans can think, and we merely assume that they do based on their behavior. Turing argues that this “polite convention that everyone thinks” should apply to all beings that can demonstrate human behavior (Turing 446). It is from this line of thought that Turing conceptualized the Turing Test, an experiment in which a computer tries to convince a human of its humanity. According to Turing, if an A.I. can convince a human judge that it is human, then we must assume that the A.I. can think.

While the program that produced “For the Bristlecone Snag” did not complete an extensive and proper Turing Test, it did convince human judges that it was human. At the very least, the poem’s acceptance into an undergraduate literary journal reveals that literate machines can, and will, exist in the near future. The way is paved for more professional and accomplished artificial authors.

Indeed, even in the half decade since “For the Bristlecone Snag” was published, the technology behind artificial intelligence has improved rapidly. Watson, IBM’s “cognitive computing platform”, is a great example of this progress (Captain). In 2011, Watson defeated two reigning champions in Jeopardy, successfully interpreting and answering the game show’s questions. While this feat alone was a remarkable step in cognitive computing, Watson’s analytical abilities have since then contributed to over thirty separate industries, including marketing, finance, and medicine (Captain). For example, the machine can read and understand millions of medical research papers in just a matter of minutes (Captain). As intelligent as Watson is, however, he was never designed to pretend to be human. The chief innovation officer at IBM, Bernie Meyerson, believes ‘“it’s not about the damn Turing Test”’; his team is more interested in accomplishing distinctly inhuman tasks, such as big data analysis (Captain).

While IBM may not be interested in the Turing Test, other artificial intelligence companies have been working specifically towards the goal. In 2014, a program by the name of Eugene Goostman passed the Turing Test using machine learning strategies similar to those that drive Watson (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). The chatbot, or program that specializes in human conversation, was able to convince several human judges that it was a thirteen-year-old boy (“TURING TEST SUCCESS”). Given the success of Eugene Goostman, and the intelligent accomplishments of Watson, it is indisputable that the Turing Test can be, and has been, passed. Artificial intelligence is a reality. Machines can think.

As an aspiring writer and computer scientist, I can’t help but fixate on the implications that A.I. has for literature. It is entirely possible, even likely, that “For the Bristlecone Snag” foreshadows an era in which the most successful and prolific authors will be machines, an era in which the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature are no longer given to humans, an era in which humanity no longer writes its own stories.

Yet, this era of artifice should not be greeted with worry or anxiety. Art has always been artificial, a constructed medium for human expression. In the coming decades, we will author the next authors, create the new creators, we will mold the hand that holds the brush. Artificial intelligence should not be feared as an end to art, but rather a new medium, a new age of artifice.

– Zach Gospe

References

Captain, Sean. “Can IBM’s Watson Do It All?” Fast Company. N.p., 05 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

Merchant, Brian. “The Poem That Passed the Turing Test.” Motherboard. N.p., 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

“The Archive, Fall 2011.” Issuu. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.<https://issuu.com/dukeupb/docs/thearchive_fall2011>.

Turing, A. M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind, vol. 59, no. 236, 1950,  pp. 433–460. www.jstor.org/stable/2251299.

“TURING TEST SUCCESS MARKS MILESTONE IN COMPUTING HISTORY” University of Reading. N.p., 8 June 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.

Craving Attention in the 21st Century: The Significance of Social Media and Science Fiction.

November 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

My newest insta pic only has 66 likes. Do you SEE that creative angle? I was lying on the grass (I was reading in the sun so I was not totally pathetic and desperate) for that angle. Do you SEE that slight color adjustment? Not too much, but just enough for you to truly appreciate that blue sky and green lawn. I had creative hashtags that would draw people in while also using some broader hashtags to appeal to a larger audience (#sky #scenic #nature). I even made sure to delete those hashtags after a few days (I definitely don’t want people to think I am desperate for attention). I might as well have put #desperate if I was being truly honest with myself.

** Username, location and caption have been edited out for my own privacy. **

** Username, location and caption have been edited out for my own privacy. **

My dad calls me pretty regularly, approximately 75% of the time for help with his phone, iPad or really anything that plugs into an outlet. My father is many things: an electrician, a carpenter, a chef, a jack-of-all-trades. Unfortunately, he is anything but technologically literate. Born long enough ago to have been drafted for the Vietnam War (He would probably be mad if I ever posted his true age for the world to see), he frequently recounts what he thought the future would look like and how hard it was growing up in the ancient days (He would probably claim to have walked six miles in the snow to school like any other stereotypical old people if he hadn’t grown up in Miami).

His dreams of the future saw technology revolutionizing the world, not supporting the rise of social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook that feed on the new generation’s narcissism and dependence on social approval for value.

For most of its existence, science fiction was a genre outside of mainstream consumption that depended largely on pulp magazines to cheaply circulate the stories. Unfortunately, the terms “science fiction” and “sci-fi” often conjure up judgmental images of young prepubescent boys on the outskirts of society. In a way, science fiction was for the socially inept or awkward. It was literature for cheap paper and obscure magazines. A positive change in the 21st century has been a larger acceptance of science fiction, largely due to blockbuster hits. Science fiction is becoming exciting, dramatic and mainstream.

But, becoming more popular and circulated opens it up for more influence from this new technologically narcissistic generation. I freely admit that I have been guilty of this exact issue. When I started writing for this blog I wrote from a creative part of my heart that simply wanted to entertain anyone willing to give my stories attention. I really didn’t use too many hashtags, just enough to convey what my story was about. I wanted creative titles that would confuse or intrigue the reader.

And then I realized I could see how much traffic my posts were generating.

Every week I checked to see if my stories, articles and posts had new views and comments. My hastags started to get more specific and numerous. My titles started to reflect more what someone would enter into a search engine. I noticed that the most “successful” post had a title along the lines of “the significance of . . .” and realized that people had a reason to type that into Google. People cared about that answer.

When I think of science fiction I think of it being a sort of social commentary that incorporates real issues with a focus on technology, space exploration and the like. That is what I had wanted to do but not what I ended up necessarily doing. I had let my own egoism and dependence on attention for self-esteem and value that I had strayed from my creative goals and aspirations. I was a sell out.

This is not to say that all of my entries have fallen for this social media pitfall. I poured my heart and soul into a blog post about the dangers of genetic engineering. I spent hours writing a story about evolution. But, I am human and I make mistakes. I look back on my blogging career and see those lapses in judgment where I sought attention for my articles.

Much of science fiction is about technology and yet I let the technology control me. I was no longer the one reinventing technology or predicting the social implications of existing technology. I was letting technology reinvent my creative process.

So, maybe some of you will have some sort of homework assignment that asks you to discuss the significance of social media. Or, maybe the significance of science fiction as an “emerging” genre. So, you guys hop on the computer and search “the significance of . . .” in a search engine and my article pops up. I hope you all click on the article and read it. Not for views, comments and likes, but maybe to learn from my own experience and realize that technology is a tool that you use, not a tool that uses you.

– S. Jamison

What If Our Spaceships Can Make It, But Our People Can’t?

October 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

Matt Damon. Need I say more? Some say that love is moving past physical attraction and toward a gradual love of the person’s personality and quirks. I sat in my movie seat smiling when he smiled, laughing when he laughed, and really worrying for him when his potatoes froze. The Martian might as well be a love story up there with The Notebook and Titanic. I wouldn’t mind living on Mars if it were with him.

Ahem. Anyways. Once I overcame my beating heart, my brain finally got enough blood to do some actual thinking and processing. I heard prior to seeing the film that producers collaborated with NASA to make the film more realistic, and with that in mind, I spent the movie scrupulously analyzing and critiquing every little detail. Was Mars’ atmosphere really thin enough for Mr. Damon to cover the nose of his ship with a tarp and blast off the planet? Could the soil on Mars, when enhanced with a few human contributions, really support plant growth? Could Mars have such violent storms if it has a thin atmosphere?

And then it hit me. Say all of the scientific plot points were plausible and accurate with sufficient scientific developments. Say everything I doubted, questioned, and critiqued was suddenly true without a scientific doubt. Would Matt Damon’s character have the psychological health and mental endurance to thrive through such an ordeal?

Researchers with Georgetown University, among other research facilities, have investigated that concern and found that a combination of alienation from relationships on Earth, cultural differences, language barriers, differences in personal values, restriction to small facilities on the space crafts, and other physiologically influential variables can lead to the gradual physiological deterioration of those onboard. And in a series of studies conducted by both government and independent space exploration organizations, researchers often found negative consequences of long-term space travel, including suicidal thoughts and tendencies, decreased group cohesion, sleep disorders, irritability, and changes in appetite.

So what does all of this mean for Mars and the future of long-term space exploration? It means that human development may not keep up with scientific development. I say “may” because, for all I know, there could be incredible advances in psychology and medicine that overcome the negative consequences of extended space exploration. But from where we stand right now, Matt Damon probably wouldn’t be so positive and clear minded being stranded on Mars.

And for our relationship’s sake, I really hope science can figure a way around human psychology. I can’t spend my life with a negative and depressed person, so I guess time will tell if we make it or not. I mean that both in marrying Matt Damon and society making it to Mars without killing each other.

– S. Jamison

TimeEscape

October 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

A line of characters flooded the screen, alternating as my friend shifted her position in my keyboard. My book report was pulled up in Microsoft Word, the cursor blinking frantically as it tried to keep up with my friend’s sabotage. I just laughed as I pushed her off, then entered my newest discovery into the keyboard, taught to us only a week before in 5th grade computer class:

Ctrl+Z.

I was fascinated by the concept of that combination of keys. I could make the most impulsive of edits, write the most ridiculous statement, and delete entire chunks of my paper without worrying about any long term consequences. If I didn’t like the result of my action, I could just push those two keys- Ctrl+Z- and everything would be as it should. A fresh start. Slate cleared. Back to whatever square I chose I wanted to resume work from. I didn’t have to worry about reconstructing any past reality or losing anything to time and effort, because with those two keys in my hand, I could take myself back to any foundation, given I had built the foundation before.

Ctrl+Z.

What a tool.

Hooked as I was on the thrill of “Edit-> Undo,” I was a little taken aback when I realized that this handy shortcut didn’t apply to social interactions. It was irrational, I know- but after a week of riding the high of Ctrl+Z, I had somehow assumed that the same rules that applied to my word processor could apply to real life. And when they didn’t, I was not so much alarmed as unsettled.

I always knew Ctrl+Z was a function of the digital realm. But nonetheless, when my confession of a crush to the boy I liked was met with a blank stare, I found my thumb and forefinger twitching, pushing at the keys that weren’t there:

Ctrl+Z.

I couldn’t edit this unfortunate moment out of my past, couldn’t insert myself back into an earlier version of my life’s document, the one where he didn’t avoid eye contact every time we passed in the hallway. Just like everything  else in the real world, I was bound by time–that immutable, stubborn dimension that refuses to yield to all of human ingenuity, that force that turns into bold, permanent marker the marks that we’d rather be in pencil. There is always the possibility that you can cover up the Sharpie-mask it with the paint of reconciliation, or hide it underneath the tarp of loaded silence.

But no matter what you throw over it, the Sharpie always remains, bleeding through the medium to remind you that yes, this happened. You messed up. You will have always messed up this moment. There’s nothing you can do about it.

Science fiction’s answer to this kick in the brain, this blow of helplessness?

Time travel.

Novels like Timescape take our worst fears–that we might irreparably damage our world, whether that world be the world of individual humans or the literal world of humanity–and puts a bandaid over them, then tucks us into to say goodnight and tells us that everything is going to be okay, because somebody will fix it. Somebody will hit the undo button. The irreparable will become repairable, and we can throw away our tarnished slates and start again.

Time travel grants us control over the fourth dimension and releases us from the chains of time, thereby releasing us from our mistakes. We are fascinated by it because we so deeply want it to be true–to imagine that we can go back and make things right before they ever went wrong.

But at the same time, it’s these wrongs that make us who we are. All of those “character building moments” would be lost if we indulged in easily-accessible time travel-we would never learn anything, because there would be no significant consequences for our actions. Perhaps more importantly, all of the good, unintended consequences of mistakes would be lost. The world would stagnate, because all of the rich innovation that arises out of failure would be lost.

We can’t predict the long term consequences of our actions. Our mistakes can be our biggest triumphs.

However, as Timescape notes, sometimes our triumphs–chemical developments and more efficient methods of manufacturing–can be our biggest mistakes, leading to our downfall–the dismal world Benford describes. And it is this possibility–that we could, as a species, ruin the world–that is the most terrifying to us, because it means that we would tarnish every blank slate born into our mistakes.

Furthermore, it is this possibility that is terrifyingly real.

Gregory Benford might not have the means to time travel in real life, but his fingers are desperately twitching at Ctrl+Z anyway–and as a result of this twitching, typing out a great novel of warning. This book is Benford’s best version of a tachyon, a message to the present urging change and a greater consideration of the future–

because the future will soon become the present, and when it does, we can’t just hit
Ctrl+Z.


Celeste Graves

What Do We Sacrifice For “Perfection”?

September 29, 2015 § 1 Comment

It looked like any other hospital waiting room. Well, any other hospital waiting room in the year 2050. I’ve been told that you weren’t kept behind bars like a common criminal. I’ve been told the doors didn’t always have locks on the outside. Hell, I’ve even been told the rooms had chairs to sit in. . . . I’m pretty sure most of those are myths though. I guess it really doesn’t matter how the rooms might have been though. I’m here now and that is all that really matters.

Eventually they come for you. You don’t know when it will be. You just don’t know . . . but they come eventually. People leave one by one. Where they go I can only imagine, but I guess I will find out soon enough. No one really seems to be nervous and I guess they don’t really have a reason to be. We aren’t here voluntarily. We don’t have a choice, an escape, an alternative. You just accept your fate as it comes.

There was a general trend in the room. None of us looked old than five or six and most of us had obvious defects. You were snatched up as soon as something seemed off with you. For some they were born lucky. Infants with a clear disorder were treated on the spot. They won’t even remember the treatment. Not all of us were so lucky. The boy across from me sat drooped over in his wheelchair. His legs looked frail and thin.

He will walk soon enough. Everything will be fixed soon.

How I found myself in this mess was entirely different. You can’t tell something is wrong with me just by looking at me. The moment I was born my parents could sigh in relief that they would never have to turn their child over to the state. I am more sorry for them than I am for myself as I sit here. I’m an anomaly. It all started when I was three or four and I insisted I was a girl. “But Michael, you’re my baby boy,” my mother would insist. She would force trucks and army men into my hands to play with. She dressed me exclusively in blue. She put me in karate and never let me have girl friends. I was defective.

But medicine can fix all of that now. I am told that after the surgery I won’t even remember wanting to be a girl. I will be my mommy’s strong little man after all.

And with that, they came for me.

——————————————————————————

            I deliberately chose something that would offend or shock. Being transgender is not a defect. It is not something inherently wrong with the person. It is not something to treat. So why did I chose the issue of being transgender as the main driving force of my narrative?

To make you think and question.

Medicine and genetic research has come leaps and bounds from where it began. Thus far, the progress has been something that I support wholeheartedly. Stem cells have incredible potential to change the world. Finding a foolproof cure to cancer would revolutionize the world. But where do we draw the line?

Something I think about is where genetic engineering must stop. My fear is not so much what we as human beings can create, but rather how we choose to use that technology. My greatest fear is that we find ways to change things that are simply hard to understand or not the “norm.”

I have incredibly strong friends who have a wide variety of sexual orientations, gender identities, disabilities, you name it. They are the strongest people I know and I know that they wouldn’t change who they are if given the chance. Nothing is wrong with them. They are unique and beautiful. But as someone who loves them all deeply and unconditionally, I fear that less tolerant people will try to change them. I used to paint my friend’s nails at sleepovers just to take it off in the morning before returning home. Thankfully, Claire*  was able to transition to the person I had always accepted her to be when she moved out of her house. I know her parents would have changed her to accept being male, the sex she had been born with, if given the chance.

I hope I did not offend you, but I do hope I shocked you. We need to think about the limits to genetic engineering. Not the scientific limits, but the moral and ethical limits. Just because something may be possible, doesn’t mean we should necessarily do it. I don’t really know where we should draw the line in the sand, but I hope we can start the dialogue.

Maybe this story can be the pebble that creates waves.

*Name changed for privacy. 

  • S. Jamison

On Physics Tests and Roses

September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

I was miffed.

“The names of the scientists are going to be on the test?”

My honors physics teacher, who I regarded as a generally reasonable man, had lost touch with reality and was resorting to the lowest of low testing methods: rote memorization without purpose.

Memorizing formulas was one thing–those were tools, mental shortcuts we employed to cut through a problem in a timely manner. P=mv, F=ma, W=mg–these facts were full, bloated with the theorems my teacher wrote out on the board when introducing the concepts to us.

But Rutherford, Hooke, Bernoulli–these were empty signifiers, a collection of letters that did no more to better my understanding of how things move about in space than watching Jeopardy did. In my mind, these names were trivia, and nothing more.

Rutherford, Hooke, and Bernoulli may have lived rich lives–to their contemporaries, peers, family, and friends, their names must have been loaded with connotation, each utterance of “Rutherford”–or perhaps, “Ernest”–conjuring up memories and feelings. But to the high school science student, “Rutherford” was associated with one thing: the discovery of the nucleus. We did not have the privilege of knowing Rutherford as a person, only the privilege of knowing his discovery.

And if that was all “Rutherford” boiled down to in our heads, what was the use of knowing that name? His life could have been interesting, but to feign the resurrection of his existence, to pretend that we were paying homage to him by remembering those empty letters when all we understood of them was the discovery, not man, attributed to them, seemed superfluous, almost irreverent. I had a deep appreciation for Rutherford’s gold foil experiment, not for him. I couldn’t have. I didn’t know the guy. I had a lot to thank the guy for–we all did, as students standing on this giant’s shoulders–but the rote memorization of his name didn’t do anything for him.

“These men devoted their lives to these discoveries,” formerly-reasonable physics teacher droned on. “We owe it to them to remember their names.”

But did we? The man was long gone–what did it matter to him if, 75-odd years after his death, students drew a line from his name to the gold-foil experiment on the page of a test?

Hypothetical #1: Suppose Rutherford’s last wish was to have his name go down in history for making a meaningful contribution to science–which element of that wish, the remembrance of his name or of his contribution to science, really matters?

History is important in that it allows us to learn from past mistakes, to build on the knowledge gathered by our predecessors.  We learn nothing from the man’s name.

Hypothetical #2: Suppose Rutherford made his meaningful contribution to science in order for his name to remembered, and that was his true last wish.

As unlikely as this scenario is, it begs the question: why do last wishes matter?

Last wishes matter only insomuch that some actor in the present derives utility from them. That actor may be the person making the last wish, comforted by a notion that they have the power to make an impact after they expire. It may be a relative or close confidant of the deceased, comforted by the notion that by honoring the last wish of their loved one, they’re salvaging a part of them by keeping a bit of their corporeal desires alive.

Or it might be a high school science teacher, seven decades after the last wish was made by a man he never met, comforted by the notion that it is important to remember the name of the deceased. He draws reassurance from this via a loosely-drawn syllogism, buried within the depths of his subconscious: if people considered remembering names important, then people might remember his name–and through every utterance of his name that occurs after his death, he might live a little longer.

This syllogism is buried in the back of most brains.

When I was thirteen, someone asked me the name of my great grandfather. With a shock, I realized that I didn’t know it–and I was terrified. Had he lived 80 years to only be forgotten by his great granddaughter, his existence fading into nothingness? Would I be doomed to a similar fate, forgotten by descendants, my life fading into

meaninglessness?

For that is the most grim notion of all–the notion that the sum of our actions, struggles, relationships, passions, and toil could amount to nothing. Welcome to life, the zero-sum game. Prepare to be overtaken by suffocating depression.

So we erect monuments to individuals, we pepper college campuses with statues, we catalogue gratuitous details of our fellow humans’ lives that far exceed the amount needed to learn anything significant from their experiences. We honor last wishes and memorize Rutherford’s name. We fight the idea, voiced by Andres in Mayflower II, that we exist merely to produce replacements: we strive to prove that we, as individuals, matter–to exert some semblance of control over that great leveling force, the eraser of our identities, the zero-sum despot known as death.

Because when death strikes, our voices are silenced. We can no longer fight to preserve our individuality. Thus, we preserve the individuality of others, rewarding innovation, breakthroughs and fame–and, in turn, striving to accomplish something notable enough that our successors will do the same for us.

Tooth and nail, blood and sweat, we claw our way to meaning.

But this  logic is flawed. It’s driven by a desire to be more than just a blink in the timespan world–to last beyond the 80-odd years granted to us by nature. But even if we accomplish something notable enough to warrant a statue, that statue is just a pebble thrown into a canyon. After thousands of years, stone erodes. Names are forgotten. And thousands of years are mere blinks in the timeline of the universe.

Ultimately, we all fade.

But not to meaninglessness.

Our lifespans may be naught but flashes in the perspective of the universe, but in our perspective, they are everything. They are our own universes. They matter, if only to us and our contemporaries. And they will leave legacies, if only ones that are accepted as assumed, attributeless characteristic of the future world. Our very state of existence implies this.

Those who do not know Rutherford’s name still benefit from his breakthrough. Perhaps more significantly, they benefit from all of the miniscule steps taken by nameless shadows of the past that enabled Rutherford to make his breakthrough. The tiniest fraction is still part of the sum–and, as Bradbury notes in A Sound of Thunder–the smallest butterfly a factor in the future of the world.

And it’s okay that we are ultimately all fameless fractions, our limits approaching zero. Long after we die, we’ll–you know–still be dead. And it won’t matter if there’s a hunk of rock out there with your name on it, or a group of students reciting your name to their teacher. With the eclipse of our personal universes comes the snuffling out of our pride and vanity. We’re gone. Dust in the wind.

And that thought is empowering.

If we narrow our perspective to the timeline of our own lives, instead of trying to grasp the strands of infinity, every action becomes more meaningful. With the recalibration of our viewpoints comes the revitalization of the “small things.” Stop and smell the roses. Appreciate the feeling of the sun on your face. Write a thank-you card. Hug someone.

Accept that all of these actions will inevitably be forgotten. But in the present moment, they are
everything.


Celeste Graves

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