A Grand Unifying Theory of Every Problem Ever
Or, How Not to Sell a Fish Tank
Note: This post was originally authored on 2-26-2012 on a defunct personal blog.
All I wanted to do was sell a goddamn fish tank.
“This shouldn’t be that hard,” he thought, ignorantly. “The tank is in great shape and I’m happy to pass it on practically free. I’ll just post up on Craigslist and I’m sure I’ll be rid of it in a week or two.”
Flash forward four weeks and the digital dregs of humanity have taken their toll on my fragile mental state. Emails full of broken English and text speak (“u rdy 2 sell — gr8 — roflmaomg!”). No less than 5 confirmed appointments simply abandoned with nary a word from my Craigslist commerce counterpart.1 Frantic and frequent phone calls in the morning and midday despite the explicit indication that I am available in the evenings and weekends only.
No, I do not want to help you build your salt water bio-tank. No, I can’t help you move the tank into Nassau county. No, I won’t sell you just the gravel from the bottom of the tank. No, I don’t have a truck that you can use for transport. No, you can’t “try it out for a week to make sure it works.” No, I won’t accept a Bed Bath and Beyond gift card as a form of payment.
It’s a fish tank people. This shouldn’t be that complicated.
Now, it would be easy (and fairly standard for me) to go into a rant about how Craigslist is full of nothing but mouth-breathing mongoloids, desperately trying to claw their way past the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. But this whole debacle got me back to thinking about a theory I’ve been toying with for a while.
I’ve come to think that all (first world) problems are the result of our biology struggling to keep up with technology. Human evolution hasn’t really progressed past the hunter/gatherer stage. On the inside we’re wired to work in ways that would keep us alive in a Lord of the Flies type scenario. But on the outside we’re simply wired. We blew past the industrial revolution and now live in a world where we get annoyed when it takes our cell phone more than 3 seconds to connect a call.
And so here we sit, psychologically ravaged by the disconnect between what our brains think we need and what the world’s got to offer.
Getting back for a moment to my Craigslist encounter, we can now meet and market with anyone using nothing more than a mouse and keyboard. But human beings don’t work well that way. We don’t really trust (or care) about people we haven’t met face to face. Our biology still wants to barter at the local bazaar, establishing relational currency before trading the real stuff. But my little fish tank fiasco is just a microcosm of this problem.
In my day job I’m often called to pitch and present creative and strategic marketing services to some of the biggest media, entertainment and technology companies in the world. While we certainly close business remotely just about every major deal of consequence has required a face to face meeting. It grounds the conversation and cements the relationship. No amount of phone calls, emails or web teleconferences can replace the simple, primal security of a handshake.
I never cease to be amazed at how much an in person meeting changes the tenor of a business relationship; ask any executive in any industry and they’ll tell you the same — some things just need to be done in person. Extrapolate this out a bit and perhaps we see how the global economy came to a near crashing halt through anonymous securitization and predatory lending by over-leveraged and under-governed financial institutions.
The great paradox of the post-modern first world is that we live in an age where we have the best of everything, and it keeps getting better, but we keep getting unhappier. Queue the brilliant “everything is amazing and nobody is happy” bit by Louis CK:
Quality of Work / Productivity
The giant farce of our ever-connected, ultra-digital lives is that we are more productive via the power of multitasking. But we aren’t. We are however constantly bombarded by input and stimuli: new email, text messages, phone calls, gChats, voicemails, Words with Friends notifications, Facebook updates, Foursquare check-ins and on and on. Multitasking helps deal with this information overload, but it doesn’t make us better at actually doing things. Multitaskers are less effective at anything that requires focus (read: anything of value). These omnipresent sensory inputs flick an evolutionary switch in our brains that prioritizes surprises/danger over goals and tasks. As in, “it’s very important I stop building this hut and pay attention to that approaching mountain lion.” In modern life this translates to, “it’s very important I see who made my email ping and stop writing this proposal.” And so we grind away, rarely accomplished and often behind.
We’re all fat slobs, and it’s literally killing us; obesity is now the number one cause of preventable death in America. We diet. We exercise. We fill ourselves with self-loathing (and ice cream). But still we move the belt notch just one click farther to the left. Most of us live far more sedentary lifestyles than our ancestors, even with regular exercise, but our taste buds are screwing it up too. They are programed to really like fats, sugars and salts. These things were very difficult to come by 3,000 years ago, and in small quantities they were extremely useful. Our bodies evolved to enjoy these tastes so much that it was truly difficult not to eat them as much and as often as possible. Now we’ve managed to put those flavors in almost everything so we find it difficult not to eat almost everything as much and as often as possible.
So, this may get a little spiritual, but hang with me. It is my firmly held belief that people are most fulfilled when they are a part of something greater than themselves. This manifests itself in all kinds of ways: religion, great collaborative works, genuine political action, family, social justice and charity. In my experience these are the things that truly move people, drive passion and ultimately give us a sense of true purpose in our lives. Again, it’s easy to see biology at play here — we were wired to work together to achieve things we could never do on our own.
But there has never been an easier time to be an insular, selfish asshole.
My computer can play music specifically attuned to my particular tastes, my thermostat can learn my thermal-habitation preferences, I can create a personal information digest that never ever tells me anything I might not like (see: Filter Bubble). Hell, my phone will even call me “Rock God” if I want (*puke*). Not a lot of incentives to seek out and pursue something bigger than yourself here. And so we find ourselves with perfectly bespoke, incredibly empty lives.
I could keep ranting on this: the social dissonance of ATM machines, self-checkout groceries and Facebook birthday wishes; a tribe-mentality driven increase in cruelty and bullying stemming from the anonymity of a online interactions; the entitlement complex as a dark function of Darwinism.
But you get the point.
We’ve passed the tipping point. Human evolution can never hope to match the speed of Moore’s Law and I’m not really sure how we solve the problem.
Personally, I’m hoping for trans-human perfection via The Singularity.
1 I can only assume an untimely and gruesome tragedy has befallen email@example.com. My condolences to him and his family.