Vonnegut and equality in 2081

In 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote “Harrison Bergeron”. It starts with the line, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”

In the story, the government has taken steps to make everyone equal. If you are graceful, you wear weights around your ankles. If you’re beautiful, you wear a mask.

The government’s Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, will ensure you cannot use any of your outstanding qualities.

And if you are more intelligent, then:

“George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hanzel we’re watching television. There were tears on hazels cheeks but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about. On the television screen were ballerinas. A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.”

Vonnegut would have never guessed our ears would be plugged all the time with noise and headphones, in noisy offices, chattering co-workers, with email, Facebook, and Twitter.

They divert us all day long way better than Glampers ever could.

Reflections from the Lost Generation

People who were around 20-40 years old during World War I are what historians and Gertrude Stein dubbed “the Lost Generation”. In the early post-war years, many of the men returned jaded, displeased, and disenfranchised with the world as it was. Among 20 and 30-somethings, the roaring ’20s weren’t great and instead symbolized a lot of what was wrong with the world. Primarily the accumulation of wealth and materials.

Notably, the Lost Generation produced no “great” Americans in typical metrics of success. No presidents, no Supreme Court justices, few patents among its members, and no great cultural movements. There’s a reason your history textbooks can’t pin much on this group beyond Poodle Skirts. This just 20 and 30 years after the mind rush that was the Theodore Roosevelt presidency.

It wasn’t all lost, of course. Great American literature did come of this period thanks to the works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the production of books like The Great Gatsby.

I see a lot of parallels between that generation and millennials today. The wars are on decidedly different scales, but the listlessness and recklessness of both generations is palpable. If the Lost Generation made any lasting impact, it was making people understand the effect of war. How war could destroy men and their souls, particularly in the meat grinder that was WWI. Many would re-live that horror 30 years later in WWII.

I say all this to clarify my thinking on a much bigger warning sign from the Lost Generation. The 1910s and ’20s were a time of explosive economic growth. Like today, many of the gains were at the top, but unlike today crowds of people at the low end of income could rise up. And then it all came crashing down in the Great Depression. We’ve learned a lot from that time in how we structure our economic system and safeguards. We can only hope that was enough of a lesson.

It’s also worth noting the Lost Generation didn’t make much noise as brutal dictators in Europe took power. Like today, the fringes of our worse demons took over slowly, then quickly. It took a shockingly long time for the angels of our better nature to turn the tide.

History repeats itself, and American history has been remarkably repetitive on a generation-or-two cycle in everything from fashion to economic practice. With any luck, I’m wrong and millennials won’t be a generation whose only long-term impact is showing the harmful nature of military and economic warfare on groups of people who had no decision making power in the process.

I’ll be dead soon and once the memory is gone, what is there?

You might not know this about me, but I’m generally conservative about what I say and do. You might call this a character flaw.

I don’t like driving cars because the per-mile cost in sheer dollars seems too high to me. I don’t care to travel because eating out so often seems needlessly expensive. I don’t design aggressive and flashy websites for clients because it doesn’t seem helpful or necessary. I’m averse to paying for the most expensive dishes at a restaurant because I know I’ll be hungry again tomorrow. I don’t value those things.

It also informs how I feel about myself, and the value-less nature I take to my self.

I try to form opinions slowly. I tell people all the time I’m a “slow thinker” about a lot of things related to my life and work. Often I’m waiting for something to “feel right”, but I’ve never “felt right” about hardly anything. Some people say they have a “gut feeling” about things and I can’t remember a time I’ve ever felt a gut feeling about anything.

This is probably why I have a hard time getting along with people who move wildly from one trend or phase to another in hopes of increasing sales, getting more out of something, or chasing some improvement. My interest in history shaped my long-tail view that most things are fads or likely to be nothing burgers and everything requires more work and time than you think. “Settle down, no one cares about that right now” is repeated in my head half a dozen times a week.

This post is rambling, but my purpose here is to clarify thoughts about what it is I value.

I’m tired of my work. I don’t enjoy being on the Internet as much as I used to. I’ve tried to increase the distance between myself and Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter comments. I often post something here and think, “I’m sure a bunch of people will fall all over themselves to tap away some comment, but I’ll never bother to come back and read it.” If you’ve ever wondered why I don’t reply to something, it’s because I don’t have the energy to fuss over it.

But I increasingly don’t have the energy for a lot of things. I’m exhausted by constant conversations in my work about whatever the hell “Make it pop more” means. “It needs to be fresh and simple,” followed by a laundry list of features and what-if scenarios is another oft-repeated refrain in my inbox. There are four emails in my inbox right now about passwords people have forgotten they could just reset themselves. How this ended up how my day goes is beyond me.

When I think about what I ever wanted out of work and life is what anyone wants: the recognition that comes from excellent, world-leading work that is respected, successful, and functional. You might separate your work from your life, but I don’t. What you do is who you are, and you spend a lot of time doing your work.

Increasingly, the thing I’ve avoided for fear of being a “business failure” is the ability to quietly sit for long periods and think deeply about a client’s problem among a small team or by myself. Then produce a solution that is a home-run. It’s a struggle to do that when my phone dings constantly and emails pile in. Or when others don’t share the same gumption. I get up at 4:30 to get a head start on the day before everyone else, but increasingly people are just working around the clock in ways I can’t keep up. That stresses me out. I feel over-extended and unsupported.

I’ve privately and sometimes publicly alluded to my greatest fear: that I’ll be dead in the next five or ten years. My mom was 38 when her life was basically ended by a brain tumor. She died at 40. And from that stems my fear I’ll die with no significant work to prove my worth. I’ve even been reconsidering my wish to be cremated because the lack of a gravestone seems unsettling to me. I want to be remembered because once the last person with a memory of me dies, there’s no coming back from that. At least the gravestone marks my name.

I can’t get to a point where I can produce amazing, long-lasting work if every day is punctuated with people who need short term problems fixed like a printer making a funny noise or some customer on a five-year-old phone walked into an elevator and called to complain the website they were looking at didn’t finish loading (that legitimately happened). I don’t have time to care because I’ll be dead soon. I need to be more like Don Draper in Mad Men and treat these small problems like I do Twitter replies: “I don’t think about you at all.”