I’ve been thinking about the end of this year and I imagine curtains closing—the velvet drapes sweeping to meet in the middle as it hides away the stage. But instead of the end of a play, it is the turn of the magician’s trick—the second act following the pledge, when the magician makes a promise. As the lights dim and the audience holds its breath, the magician prepares the next act, this third and final act, the reveal that upturns the spectators’ assumptions.
What the trick is, I don’t know. We started 2020 hoping that we will have a better year, the bookend to a decade that was in many ways crazy and exciting and sad: the rise of social media platforms such as Instagram and Tiktok (which was—perhaps—the death knell for bloggers-as-opinion leaders, to be replaced by social media influencers); the explosion of the #MeToo movement and “Black Lives Matter”, putting front and center social inequalities, except unlike before when we only had mainstream media to spotlight these issues, now everyone who had a mobile phone could easily pitch in the conversation; the age of disinformation ushered by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which also leads us to ask: are we actually free, or are we just biological switchboards that can easily be manipulated by pushing a few buttons here and there?
To say that 2020 has been a maddening year would be the biggest understatement ever. If anything, this year has only made us realize even more how interconnected we truly are—that a total stranger at a meat market in one part of the world would create a global catastrophe of pandemic proportions. When before it was easier to dismiss how our individual actions could create ripple effects, now big data provides us a bird’s eye view of our impact, at a touch of our fingertips. Of course a lot of nuance is lost when you only see things at a macro perspective, but what we can’t deny is that we—humanity—are responsible for so many awful things happening to this world: the widespread extinction of our fellow animals, coupled with the unprecedented ecological destruction because of our insatiable greed for energy.
Responsibility: a red button, a landmine. Who is ultimately responsible? On one hand, corporations and governments are massively to blame for human and animal abuse, as well as climate change; on the other, our individual actions are also spurring and enabling these things. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and most of the cheap luxuries we enjoy have a cost that we conveniently turn a blind eye on.
As many scientists and philosophers begin to sheepishly admit the absence of free will (despite how powerful the illusion of freedom is), how does humanity grapple with the question of responsibility? Are we ever truly free, or are we just passive observers, sailing through the tides of time as unwilling witnesses of a deterministic universe?
This idea doesn’t sit very well with a lot of people. At a superficial level it seems to tacitly permit the inequalities that many of us experience. But political philosophers such as John Rawls have argued about the moral arbitrariness of our social positions. Our positions in life do not exist in a vacuum, and our misguided wholesale faith and promotion of meritocracy (that our actions are wholly responsible for where we end up in, rather than the advantages that we’ve luckily gained—which is everything) only nefariously legitimizes social Darwinism.
(“I can’t be responsible for you,” the meritocrat says to his neighbor, “because the shithole you’re in is entirely your fault.”)
What amazes and terrifies me with the idea that we live in a deterministic universe is that the only thing stopping us from truly knowing the future is information. If you could essentially identify all the interactions happening everywhere, then you would know how the end of history will all play out.
(And who is to say that we are not living in a simulation where superintelligent beings are exactly trying to figure out what’s going to happen in their reality, by simulating their own universe and observing our simulation to know what’s going to happen in theirs? Mind-blowing—but very plausible: as eminent evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins said, “If humans can do something in science, they will. If I had the computational and economic power to simulate the entire evolutionary process, wild horses wouldn’t stop me.”)
I’ve been thinking about the end of this year and where we’re going. I don’t believe in an intrinsic purpose—a teleological narrative—to human history, but it is interesting to know where all of humanity—no, all of the universe—is headed.
But maybe my head is in the clouds. I couldn’t help but stare outside the gloomy sky of this London flat I am currently staying in, the sun almost out and it’s not even 4 pm. The whole country is currently in the strictest lockdown it has ever experienced, as its people live with the terror of a fast-mutating virus that has already sent this year to a grinding halt.
I pause and tell myself, can’t I just be caught in this wonder, an absurd appreciation of life qua life, without wondering when we’ll get to the third act, the grand reveal, the magician’s prestige? Is this view not enough? Must there be really more to life rather than a placid acceptance of what it is—for what it is?
(In case it wasn’t obvious: yes, my title is a cheeky reference to Netflix’s “The End of the F***ing World“, not coincidentally British.)