On reaching 53
I've been lucky enough recently to enjoy a numerologically entertaining sequence of birthdays: 49 (a square birthday), 50 (a birthday with a zero at the end) (and which is the new 40) (which is in turn the new 30) (etcetera), 51 (which is three lots of seventeen, on which basis I concluded I had now been a teenager thrice over) and 52 (a full deck, natch, as well as a whole year of weeks).
And now - 53! A prime number!
All birthdays prompt some sort of reflection, of course: and appearance of the phrase 'prime number' prompts - for me at least - two.
Firstly - am I prime? As in: am I in my prime? Is this the prime of my life?
And - secondly - why am I writing this down? More particularly: why am I writing this down in the form of a blog?
As to the first - who knows? There's a possibility that I am at (or close to) some marvelous point of inflexion, where the plateauing upward curve of my experience intersects the steadily declining curve of my faculties and that I am - presently, here, now - in some sort of optimum state.
On the other hand, it could be that the finest years are behind me; or that they are yet to come. I suspect the answer will elude me forever, and that it in any case depends on some metric of performance that is itself subject to infinite revision. Prime in what regard? I shall at some future point say: prime in respect of the agility with which I am using this walking stick.
Which is all by way of saying that the first question is not especially interesting. The second, on the other had, is vexing. What is this - this - for?
I conclude it's a mix of ego and maths.
In the absence of ego - that is, of the belief that I have something worth saying, and the belief that I ought to be saying it in a format that makes it possible for people to hear what I say - I should keep all this stuff to myself. It is only my ego that needs some sort of affirmation (the affirmation that comes from somebody reading something you've written, or enjoying it, or paying for it, or admiring it, or whatever) and it is only by putting things into the public domain that such affirmation can be acquired.
It is possible that it is not a purely egotistical motivation. I have at times wondered whether it is some sort of duty; and I have had one or two people close to me over the years argue this very point. You, David - they would say - see things or understand things that others may not. You have a responsibility to write it down, a responsibility that may be ethical or political, but a responsibility nevertheless. Your ego may be in the mix: but that's understandable, and in any case secondary. "Ain't no-one gonna listen if you haven't made a sound".
So, if I'm generous to myself, I say: yes, there's some duty/responsibility; but there's certainly some ego, too (I just plain enjoy it when the analytics show that something has been read a lot).
I think there's something else in the mix, though, and that's the issue of time. But that intersects with the maths, so I'll come back to it shortly.
The maths? Well, it's just a numbers game, isn't it?
Approximately the entire world is now a writer. Some people write novels, and some write accessible non-fiction guides to some feature of the modern world. Some people write articles for newspapers, opinion pieces for magazines or synopses of their research findings for learned journals. Some people write letters, some people write emails, some people write blog posts, some people write poetry. (I'm pleased to note that I've written at least one of each of these) (though I'm a long way shy of Perec). But EVERYONE now writes messages (or posts or tweets or grams, whatever). Everyone now writes things every single day.
I read recently that, so far, there have been something in the order of 130 million books. Ever. In total.
And this is nothing, of course. Every day, billions of people (I am not exaggerating) and millions of businesses/governments/NGOs/universities (ditto) produce an additional volume of written stuff that defies imagination. No matter how much or how fast you try to absorb information, you fall further behind with each passing second. While you read this humble sentence, uncountable gigabytes of something else happened somewhere else.
Which has - for present purposes - two implications.
Implication #1 is that the chances of any one of us finding something good, or something that we like, or something revelatory, those chances are tiny and shrinking rapidly. It is increasingly like being in Borges' Library of Babel, the library of all possible texts: you know that, somewhere in the library, there may be the most sublime insights achievable by the conscious mind; but you know, too, that the probability of finding such insight is infinitesimal - because the library is many times larger than the known universe...
Implication #2 is that, should you have the kind of ego/responsibility construct that needs to believe that (some) people will read what you have to say, you are in deep, deep trouble. The probability of any given word written actually being read by more than a single person is...
...(as Dennett might put it)...
So - why bother? Given the maths, you surely have to have a pretty distended ego (or sense of your own responsibilities) to keep putting it out there?
Either that, or a sufficiently well-developed sense of the ridiculous.
Anyway, I think the answer is - as I hinted above, and following W V Quine's lead - time. In time, the AI's will mine, collate and interpret everything. We already know that everything ever to appear in hyperspace exists forever and that, soon (if not already) everything pre-web will soon enough be fully loaded. And whilst it may be beyond individual human minds - and even beyond contemporary algorithms - to find exactly what you are looking for (because, if you don't know what you seek, how can you know?) there will surely come a time (perhaps it is close) when the code will understand the meaning that you seek. Once it's done that, it will be able to draw upon the totality of human experience to provide you with precisely that mix of thoughts and sources you need.
Here! You need two paragraphs of Aristotle, one from Julian Barnes and three from Aphra Benn!
Or: right now, given who and what and where you're at, you need these words from Helen (Canada, early 90s), Rowena (South Africa, 2011) and Abena (Nigeria, 2021).
And so forth.
Which means (finally): I genuinely hope, dear reader, that you enjoy this in the here and now - I'm doing my bit to be a good grain of sand - but I'm writing, too, because if it ain't out there, it won't be in the mix. If I don't write it down, no-one will ever be able to find it. Not even me.
Am in my prime? I neither know nor care. Why am I writing this down? Just in case...