Published on 2024-01-09

A few days ago a Real Person reached out to me in response to something I published last year on my gemlog (if you're reading this, hi!!) and said something that really got me thinking. It was in response to this article:

Studying computer science at the end of the world

Revisiting that article, I guess my "thesis," if I had one, is that the value a CS degree, and subsequently, most of what I was envisioning for my future at the time, was deeply in question due to climate change. The central problem being that computer science tends to be a field that looks forward to the future, and the more I learn about this world, the less convinced I am that the computer scientist's future exists.

As I understood it, they had the opposite problem: Their field tends to look backwards; a discipline that investigates a world that may soon cease to exist.

I was reminded of a story I once read. I thought it was in Italo Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveller," but I revisited that book this evening in preparation for writing this article and I couldn't find it. Maybe I just made it up, or maybe it's in some other book I read a really long time ago. And for that matter, I can feel myself inserting more details every time I try to recite it. But anyway, it went something like this:

There was a man. I don't think he was given a name. He worked as a researcher and professor of literature at a small university. He specialized in the literature of a culture that existed in a country that existed for less than a century, between the fall of one of the vestiges of medieval Europe kingdoms and the country's later absorption into the Soviet Union. During its brief existence, this country and its culture had a rich literary tradition which the professor really loved.

However, there hadn't been a substantial effort to preserve the culture's literature. Most of what remained existed at this university for study by the professor and his dwindling colleagues. Fewer students were taking his courses each year. There was no interest in protecting the cultural heritage of this people who were completely lost to time.

I don't really remember if the story had a "point." It might have just been a sort of atmospheric, slice of life thing. What actually stuck with me was the feeling of claustrophobia I got from his situation. The professor was virtually the last bastion of this culture. This culture, whose lingering memory would soon be devoured by time, just as its people were. You could really sense that the professor and his few colleagues could feel the absolute limits of their passion's existence. It would die with them, disappearing forever.

I think I now understand why this somewhat aimless story stuck with me all these years. It describes something very particular I find myself feeling quite often. One that I don't really have the language to describe.

It's the feeling you get when experiencing an outcome that:

  • was not avoided at great expense to you
  • could have been avoided, but was not, in large part due to forces larger than you
  • asks of you to be steadfast, or stoic, or otherwise unaffected
  • often reflects a much larger problem; one so large that you feel hopeless in the face of it
  • perhaps should have always been expected, even if you had hope that it wouldn't come to be

Maybe this feels familiar to you. I don't know exactly how to describe what it feels like. It makes me feel empty. Gutted.

The word I've used in the past to describe it is "foreordination." It's not perfect, but I think the idea such an outcome is "ordained" suggests that the decision comes from a "higher power." That it is "foreordained" indicates that on some level, it was always going to be the way it is. Personally, I have this intuitive idea, however toxic it may be, that we should naturally be at peace with things that were always destined to be; to refuse, or to be upset, is a larger reflection on you than it is on the forces that lead things to be the way they are.

This, of course, is absolutely untrue, but in practice, this is often how I feel expected to act: to be steadfast, stoic, unaffected.

This, I think, was the world the professor lived in. Everything he cared about was fated to disappear. The world he lived in fundamentally did not care about this people he loved; they had no desire to learn their lessons. To most normal people, they were an inconsequential blip in the complicated history of Europe, existing only in the negative space between two great empires.

This is the part where I should probably recognize that this is bad, and suggest something better: some way around it, or something to do about it. I don't really have anything to offer, unfortunately. There are still many forces I feel powerless to face in life, and they have all sorts of consequences that, for the most part, I just have to live with.

If nothing else, I think there is a lot of value in giving these things language. A lot of my writing is just that, I think. I don't try to write "arguments" very often. When I do, I usually focus more on making light of some unique perspective, rather than trying to persuade people to believe anything in particular.

What matters to me the most, I feel, is creating a context where these things that otherwise might not make sense, can feel real in a meaningful way.

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