On Growing Up

August 2015  |  Status: First Draft

When you are a small child, all the solutions to all the world’s problems seem to be as simple and straightforward as your model of the world is: why can’t the baker, who can always bake more bread, spare a loaf for the homeless man at the corner? Oh, he’s selfish? He just needs a mommy very very badly.

As we grow up, we begin to lose this innocence. We begin to learn about the complex socioeconomic forces that constrain everyone’s behavior. We realize that people are hypocrites, including our parents. We encounter assholes, sufffer at their hands, and by that experience confront the truth that our world is not a fair place. We learn to manipulate others with lies and misdirections. And our bigger and smarter heads can now furnish us with rationalizations for being assholes ourselves.

Children from poor, dysfunctional, or nonexistent families tend to learn these essential survival skills early on. Children from well-off families with overprotective parents might enjoy a few more years of blissful ignorance. But sooner or later, the world smacks us in the head, shatters our ideals, and demands that we adapt to its grisly reality. The baker doesn’t have an infinite supply of flour, you fool; and even if he did, he wouldn’t dare exploit it for fear of disrupting the delicate balance of supply and demand that keeps his business afloat.

The very banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt observed, makes it so unremarkable and easily rationalizable that we become accustomed to taking it as granted. A small percentage of any given population will remain imaginative enough to consider alternatives; but for the vast majority of adults, there is no “realistic” alternative. The deviants are shunned, ignored, persecuted, safely confined to art and literature, or given derogative labels such as “naïve”.

This process of resignation, of subjecting one’s imagination to “realistic” constraints, of giving up our freedom of the realm for the sake of the parochial peace of mind of not having to care too much — we call it growing up.

(Grown-ups also tend to acquire all sorts of interests that anchor them to a stable status quo, such as mortgages, stock options, and a family. Children, on the other hand, are often much more resistant to being uprooted and deposited in a different world, as lots of immigrants testify.)

People are not the only things that grow up. Societies do the same. It is not a coincidence that a large number of great thinkers were among the Founding Fathers of the United States. America stopped producing great thinkers in large numbers once it grew up to be a stable country. Similarly, academic disciplines tend to be a lot more imaginative in their early days when they have not settled into repeating a handful of dogmas; and technologies tend to be a lot more exciting while they are still new. After a while, they all grow up and become boring, predictable servants of the status quo.

The internet was still relatively young when I was a child, but it has grown up so quickly over the last couple of decades that it now feels much older than I am. Gone are the days when even well-respected political theorists could express their hope that the internet would promote freedom and democracy without sounding ridiculous. Yes, the internet did help bring about a couple of revolutions in North Africa, but only thanks to walled gardens who have strayed as far as they can from the original ideal of a distributed network that cannot be controlled by any single organization. Instead of being free to create and consume content on their own terms, almost everyone is now locked into proprietary platforms that dictate how they can share their work and suck up their personal information in exchange for the privilege of not getting on some three-letter agency’s watchlist. Even the more imaginative kids seldom do anything other than mashing up social this with viral that, because that’s what investors want to see. The internet wizards have finally grown up and realized that they need to raise capital and heed the whims of Wall Street and Washington, D.C. in order to pay rent in the Bay Area. Ideals are for children and philosophers. Real grown-ups know how to make compromises.

Fortunately, not everyone seems to grow up in the usual way.

In general, as you grow up, your model of the world becomes a more accurate reflection of the cold, ruthless world; and this gives you strong social, economic, and psychological incentives to resign yourself, take this world as a given, and stop wasting energy trying to imagine alternatives let alone implement them. But the former need not lead to the latter. Whether because of an innate stubbornness, an overabundance of imagination, a hyperactive mind, or a strong sense of justice, some individuals manage to resist all of the incentives above and continue to build a bridge — against all odds — between reality and their imagination.

Though the internet as a whole seems to have been gobbled up by a horde of trolls from the marketing, accounting, and legal departments, a few billy goats tread proudly upon the bridge, relatively unaffected by the banality of evil that pervades this toxic meadow. Wikipedia and Khan Academy are among the best things that have ever happened to the internet, and I would gladly see a hundred Facebooks burn if I could thereby produce another free/libre and open-source ecosystem like WordPress.

These projects embody the childishly innocent and simplistic ideal of spreading knowledge to every human being alive and enabling them to express themselves on their own terms, not someone else’s. They regard human bigotry, laziness, shortsightedness, and inefficiencies as obstacles to overcome, rather than as opportunities for monetization. In another generation or two, we may remember Facebook as little more than “the thing that came after MySpace”, but I doubt that we will be able to dismiss Wikipedia so easily.

Whenever you, as a grown-up, feel a need to justify your actions to a child by saying “you’ll understand when you’re older”, stop and ask yourself whether it really is wisdom that makes you different from the child. Or are you merely more cunning, better aware of moral loopholes, and able to rationalize almost anything in the name of “that’s how things have to be”?

Ask the same thing whenever you encounter something written by Richard Stallman or Cory Doctorow. Yes, they’re telling everyone to stay away from your cool gadgets and fancy apps. No, they’re neither ignorant nor naïve, and they’re most definitely not trying to get in the way of progress. Their idea of progress just happens to be different from yours.

Jesus famously said:

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)

This quote rings true on more than a theological level. As George Bernard Shaw put it:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Grown-ups have often trained themselves to be captives of the world as it is, whereas Jesus’ children and Shaw’s “unreasonable man” imagine the world as they hope it to be. By doing so, they help bring reality one step closer to their imagination.

Blessed are those who don’t lose this imagination as they grow up, who are able to juggle the terrifying inconsistency between ideal and reality — for they will find themselves building the world of tomorrow with their very hands. Woe, on the other hand, to those who glorify and rationalize the terrors of this world, discouraging men and women unlike themselves from trying to change it for the better. As they are so married to the present, they will soon become relics of the past. May the children of the future have mercy on their memory!