The beauty of being alive.
And the fragility of humanity. Or why things matter.
I am sitting alone in my room. It is dark outside and my speakers play some soft and mellow music. FKJ, beautiful piano, with some techno mixed into it. The video is from one of my favorite performances, where FKJ plays in the middle of the Salar de Uyuni - a large flooded salt flat in Bolivia.
The sun sets in the background while he is playing, and a clear body of water stretches beyond the horizon, mirroring the sky. Music and scene are wonderful. They match and complement each other.
One day I want to go to that salt flat, but I wonder when that will happen. Because currently, I am sitting in my room, with my mind wandering, enjoying a warm cup of tea. It is late at night.
My mind drifts away from the book I was reading just moments ago because it is late and I can not properly concentrate anymore. There is a soft dullness spreading in my consciousness. A dullness overcomes my body as time passes. I am closing my eyes, following the music and trains of thought ebb into and out of awareness.
It is a wonderful moment.
Those moments, where you think about your life and reflect inwards. Where you don't want time to continue. The moments where you are in your room alone at night, listening to some music that you enjoy. The moments where you simply stay. Relaxed and calm. Happy. Content.
Lost in a beautiful state of consciousness... Those are the moments I live for.
Sadly those don't last forever until the usual questions pop up: What am I doing with my life? Where do I want to go? Why are there so many awesome things? How can I not want to try them all? How can I decide what to invest my time into?
Only yesterday I started building a Minecraft-like game, learning another technology (three.js) to do so. Why am I doing it? My mind searches for the monetary gain that the activity could produce, but the truth is, there is probably none.
Many of the things I do have no monetary value attached to them. Yet they are more valuable than money could ever be. I do them because I enjoy the activities themselves. For the quality of experience they give, for the states of consciousness, they lead to. That is the whole point of doing them.
Nobody pays me to read, nobody pays me to learn, nobody pays me to maintain my body and nobody pays me to take photos. But my mind still worries about getting paid... I want to be paid, and I don't want to struggle for money in the future, but I never stop to think about why that is the case.
The Value of Money.
Why do I want to have money? What is the value of it, when everything is going to be over in the end anyways? Won't I always have enough to live? And isn't that reason enough to not worry about it too much?
I want to create something of beauty, something that I can enjoy, something that I am proud of having done.
Working at Klarna is not that. It is a means to an end - I am doing it because I want to see the number in my ETF account grow so that I can retire early and do whatever I want to do with my time.
After hours I will read, and gorge my brain on things I enjoy. Only to start the next day again, working my life away at something that I deep down don't care about at all. I work on something that makes people spend their money on mindless shopping...
Is that what I want to do? The answer is no.
But I digress... The name of this article suggests I will talk about two things: The beauty of living - and the fragility of humanity. So.
The Beauty of Living.
Beauty is everywhere around us. When we look at the world and try to understand how it works and make some progress in doing so that is just wonderful.
The exhilaration I can feel when I understand something new while reading a book or watching a lecture. That feeling, that moment... is just pure happiness. Bliss. These moments are what make life worth living.
Layers Of Complexity.
The wonders of knowledge and how this world works and how massively complex it just excites me every single time I stop to notice and think about them.
Simple facts become magical mysteries.
The fact of how I can just listen to music... without even thinking about the fact that there was a microphone involved somewhere along the way. A device picking up vibrations from the air, which somebody playing an instrument caused. And then turning them into patterns of electric currents, which can then be stored as tiny bumps on a magnetic metal disk.
A disk that is spinning around rapidly while a small arm darts back and forth across the metallic surface, changing its polarization corresponding to the currents picked up by the microphone... Forming little bumps in the metal, encoding the information that makes up the patterns of the vibrations picked up earlier.
Then those bumps can be read and transformed again later. On the computer of the artist, where they are read into its internal memory, processed, and eventually sent to a server somewhere to be stored there.
Stored, so that my computer can request the data from that server to play back the music. How my computer can even know that there is this piece of music, how there is a physical connection... Think about it, there is a network of wires and antennas connecting the two machines!
Photons that dart through the glass fiber cables, communicating my intention to listen to the music. The server, which "knows" how to answer that intention by looking at the bumps on the magnetic disc. And sending the information encoded within them back across the wire, as patterns of photons.
As an answer that eventually reaches the wifi router in the next room, which re-encodes the signal again, changing it into electromagnetic fields and waves to send a message across the room.
A message that then hits the little antennae on my computer, where the signal gets decoded again into the format specified by USB 3.0.
And then put into the motions of electrons across wires, to currents that can be picked up and processed by my computer. This in turn means millions of extremely tiny transistors, small electronic switches, are manipulating the behavior of yet different currents. And at some point, those currents drive my speakers to reproduce the specific frequencies and patterns of sounds that were recorded.
Which they do by using a membrane very similar to that used for the recording but which can be moved by an electro-magnet by precise on-off switch timing, so that it can generate similar pressure differences in the air, like those that were picked up at the beginning of the chain somewhere in the Salar de Uyuni.
Waves that then travel through the room towards my ears where they get funneled into a narrow space, leading to a fluid with small hairs on the walls of the canal, to vibrate in a very specific manner, leading to the bending of those hairs.
Hairs that bend are attached to little tiny nerve cells. These nerve cells, in turn, produce an electric signal when the hairs bend. A signal that is then put into the brain. Which decodes the information in those electronic potentials and translates them into sounds and mental representations of melodies.
Melodies that can affect my mood. Melodies and music that can make me happy. The magic of sounds gives me goosebumps and leads me to wonder about the beauty of the universe.
Grasping what FKJ wanted to express with his music... and in doing so transcending yet another level of complexity, beyond what notes and melodies are, vibrations in the air, into what they represent for us humans.
Translating everything back into the realm of human feelings and emotions, where they came from.
Isn't that magical?
Thinking of it that way it seems like simply listening to music, a pleasure of mine is pure, utter, complete magic.
And I think it is not just this that is pure magic and wonder if looked at closely with a lot of attention to the details going on.
But everything in this world is like this. Similarly beautiful and complex. Similarly magical.
Beauty and complexity are everywhere.
And then there is the aspect of reflecting on these kinds of thoughts... Of sitting down and thinking deeply about them.
The idea that I can turn around and look at all the phenomena happening around me... That I have the resources and information in my hands to understand all this magic behind what is going on in this world.
I think that is what I enjoy most. Unwrapping layers of complexity, trying to understand how this mysterious world works. Somehow that just makes me incredibly happy. There is a sense of childlike wonder when I approach the world like this. And it makes me smile every single time.
The wonder of the fact that I am here, alive and able to think and understand the world around me... that is the beauty of life.
How I can extend little tendrils of thought into the world. Tendrils probing, looking at things I know and yet don't understand. Being able to use the knowledge that people before me have gathered. Their knowledge, built up over the centuries, I have at my fingertips now, to understand more about reality than almost every human that ever walked upon the earth. I think the feeling this thought excites in me is what's called bafflement. But at the same time, it makes me very happy and excited. And curious.
Listening to music like this and losing myself in thoughts also makes me want to create. It inspires me to create something of beauty myself.
Not necessarily music, but anything ... Websites, code, game projects, blogs, books, paintings, photography... whatever. It does not matter. As long as it has the intrinsic quality of beauty.
I just know that I want to create things like that because that's what all the understanding is about in the end. To understand means being able to create. To understand is to know the elusive idea of the quality that is described so beautifully by Robert Pirsig in his book 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.'
The Fragility of It All.
All this beauty and the quality of being alive however have a very dark cousin. We can lose it all. The Buddhists and Stoics figured that out centuries ago.
Wonder is perishable.
But because the quality of experience is so miraculous, I want to protect it. I don't want to lose my mental state. I cling to it with all my might. Not wanting to die. To not exist, to not be able to enjoy those moments that I love so much.
And I think that in that lies the main fragility of humanity. That our lives are perishable, that our mushy insides age and someday, eventually, die. How we are so close to gods, but yet are food for the worms. And that the beauty we can see and manifest in this world is someday going to end.
I think that the nature of the universe only allows intermediate solutions to this problem to be found. But at least we can find those intermediate solutions. Because we can think! We can invent! And we should do so.
Technology can enable us to protect that beauty. The beauty of our raw ideas, our understanding of the world. We can take the patterns we see in the world around us and persist them across time into the future. Not indefinitely... but for as long as possible.
Technology - decreasing the fragility?
That's what technology can do for us. It can enable us to share the patterns we create for longer and longer times. Furthermore, it allows us to make more intricate patterns. It allows us to increase the amount of beauty in the world by both creating new types of beauty never seen before and by preserving and protecting the patterns we have already created.
And it can help us not perish because some fluke cosmic incident wiped us out. Things like asteroid impacts or gamma-ray bursts are pretty lethal to a civilization's creations that do not have the technology to protect against them...
Technology allows us to gain a deep understanding of the world. An understanding that we can use to solve the fundamental problem of our fragility. But it can also enhance that problem gravely. Atomic bombs and other weapons of mass destruction are products of technology as well. Technology. A double-edged sword that can be used to destroy and protect.
When I look at the state of the world I can not help but feel that humans are, much like me, too wrapped up in the state of affairs they and others have already created.
We are too busy living our lives to realize that we are losing the very beauty we are trying to protect. And we lose it both in the long and short term.
What are we doing?
Instead of focusing more on preserving and producing more intricate patterns, we get comfortable in our lives. We earn money to survive, and give away our precious time, mindlessly.
Because we care more about food and our immediate rewards and life's necessities than we care about the long-term future of humanity. About the future of our ideas and the beauty, we could create in this world.
Because in the end - even though we think it is about beauty, patterns, and the long-term survival and prospering of humanity as a whole - a part of our brain, very strongly disagrees.
That part of the brain screams. Hey! There are more pressing problems... Like how we pay our rent at the end of the month and what our neighbors think about the old car we still have. Or what kind of suit and tie to wear at work. And it demands that we solve these problems first before we can return to our dreams of creating patterns of intricate beauty and helping to preserve those and ourselves for eternities. Those puny future problems can be solved at a later time the voice says... Now... Now there are important things to attend to, it nags us.
Usually, this voice wins the argument.
And so we mostly follow in the footsteps of what most people did for as long as people existed. Instead of creating patterns, finding ways to escape the fragility of it all and developing our understanding of the world, we get lost in the struggle of our version of daily "survival".
Being stressed about bills we have to pay and the dentist appointments that we have missed, keeping our small jobs and small minds and never getting around to doing what we are truly here for.
And what a world we miss because we do that.
Maybe we shouldn't.