Three years ago, the American journalist Virginia Heffernan published an article entitled Why I’m A Creationist, which was pretty much what it sounds like. (“In New York City,” she wrote, that’s “like confessing you think Ahmadinejad has a couple of good points.”) As a strategy for making the internet hate her, it was effective: Heffernan enraged every atheist with a broadband connection, and earned the Twitter hashtag #WorseThanIsis. It was a terrible few days for her. Or not her, exactly, as she explained in a recent interview about her excellent new book, Magic And Loss: The Internet As Art. “Once I realised that @page88 [her Twitter identity] was having a freaking hard time… [I decided] that battle would have to be fought in this other world,” she said. “I happened to be in Florida with my cousins, so I decided that me, in this body, was going to have a good day.” She left @page88 to absorb the blows, and disengaged.
If you’ve been losing sleep recently – and it’s not inconceivable that the ongoing collapse of the postwar global order has been keeping you up at night – I have good news. With fortuitous timing, the Canadian cognitive scientist Luc Beaudoin has invented a new cure for insomnia, which he calls the “cognitive shuffle”. Essentially, it’s a method for deliberately scrambling your thoughts, so they make no sense. And since the world these days already doesn’t, what have you got to lose?
I became highly confused the first time I used the Amazon Echo, a voice-activated “smart home assistant” that sits in the corner and responds to the name Alexa – as in “Alexa, play some music!” or “Alexa, how many ounces in a kilogram?” Partly, this was because the only person I know who owns an Echo is herself called Alexa, and she was home at the time. But that aside, it’s hard to bark orders at a machine without feeling like the kind of obnoxious person who barks orders at waiters. That is, unless you start young. “We love our Amazon Echo… but I fear it’s also turning our daughter into a raging asshole,” the Silicon Valley investor Hunter Walk fretted recently. Alexa doesn’t need you to say please or thank you; indeed, she responds better to brusque commands. “Cognitively, I’m not sure a kid gets why you can boss Alexa around, but not a person,” Walk wrote. How’s a four-year-old supposed to learn that other household members aren’t simply there to do her bidding, when one (electronic) household member was designed to do exactly that?
Seen from a certain perspective, the last few months on planet Earth have been pretty unreservedly amazing. Nobody died from smallpox. Almost nobody contracted polio. Hospital operating theatres weren’t generally filled with the screams of patients undergoing surgery without anaesthetic, and no war claimed anything like the single-day death toll of the first hours of the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago this week. Britain decided the question of European Union membership via democratic vote, not armed conflict, and women were entitled to participate – an astonishingly recent state of affairs. Though we don’t have all the figures yet, it’s likely that gun violence in America continued its long-term decline and that extreme poverty around the world continued to fall. Oh, and that working people on both sides of the Atlantic enjoyed unprecedented quantities of leisure time. Even if you don’t believe in the inevitability of human progress – maybe things really will get worse again in the future – it’s hard to deny that we’re having a good run.
Somewhere around the 500th headline I read in praise of Hamilton, the universally acclaimed Broadway musical due in Europe next year, I was struck by a deflating thought: I’ll probably never see it. Not just because it’s virtually impossible to get a ticket, but because so many people – people whose tastes I trust – have raved about it that I now regard the prospect with annoyance. Two years ago, it was the Richard Linklater movie Boyhood, which I still haven’t seen; then Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which I still haven’t read. Straw polls of friends suggest I’m not alone in this reaction – call it “cultural cantankerousness” – which seems to affect books, films, plays, holiday destinations and restaurants equally. Increasingly, my first thought on seeing something described as a “must-read” is‚“Oh really? Try and make me."
In 1944, a British soldier fighting in Italy was knocked unconscious by shell fragments. That same day in Monmouthshire, he later recalled, “my wife was washing up after lunch. My daughter, aged two and a half, to whom I was only a name, was playing with some bricks on the kitchen floor. She suddenly got to her feet, went over to my wife, said ‘Daddy’s been hurt,’ and went back to her bricks.”
The first time I went on a silent meditation retreat, a few years back, I was terrified the experience might prove impossible to endure. The last time I went, the other week, I faced a different problem: I was pretty sure it would be deeply enjoyable and refreshing. You might be wondering why that counts as a problem. Here’s why. It was on the evening of Day One, watching the sun sink below the horizon, savouring the stillness in the air, that a thought first occurred: “Damn it, only a few more days of this, and it’ll be time to leave!” According to a cheesy old saying, there are two ways to be unhappy. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting it. The trouble with happiness is that the prospect of it ending makes you sad.
"We each have two lives,” a wise person once said, “and the second begins when we realise we have only one.” I can’t tell you which wise person, sadly; the internet attributes it in roughly equal measure to Confucius and Tom Hiddleston. (It’s not a very Confucian sentiment, so I’m going with Hiddleston.) But it hardly matters. It’s an aphorism, and like all the best ones, it feels as if it always existed, and only needed someone to discover it. Or rediscover it: judging by various new books and essays, this oldest of philosophical forms is making a comeback. Our era of dwindling attention spans and 140-character content-burps is generally held to be one of escalating stupidity. But it’s also ideally suited to aphorisms. So maybe we’ll end up imbibing some wisdom accidentally, too.