Photo by howzey on flickr

R.I.P Google Reader, Hello Mortality

The Impermanence of Technology and Our Fear of Death

Today, Google Reader was killed.

I remember when I first heard the news that Google was planning to shut down the service. I was shocked and dismayed. For the better part of seven years, I’ve relied on Google Reader to serve up valuable content each day, all in one place. I had worked it into my daily productivity routine to stay on top of trends, find interesting things to share, and as a jump off point for my writing and research.

Then, unexpectedly and without warning, I was told it would go away.

Across the web, there has been much discussion about Google’s decision. It’s been polarizing. As Sarah Perez writes for TechCrunch, some view it as the worse thing ever, while others have met it with feigned indifference (I say feigned because if you’re writing about why you don’t care, I’d venture that you actually do care—or at least for the ideas surrounding it).

Always down for a meme.

But today, with Google Reader officially dead, with “all subscription data…permanently, and irrevocably deleted,” I’m less concerned with Google and their decision as I am with the implications of our response to the loss of the service.

We’re all heroes?

I had my friend Colin over for a backyard fire the other night. Colin is always great for deep, thought-provoking discussions, and this night was no exception. As the night hours waned on, we found ourselves talking about death and the human quest for immortality.

Colin told me about Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, a book I haven’t read (but now need to) and was only vaguely familiar with. The insights he shared were fascinating. As I understand it, the basic premise of Becker’s book is that human civilization is a constructed defense mechanism to distract us from the reality that we will all die, that nothing is permanent. Basically, society as we know it, according to Becker, is simply a survival mechanism.

Talk about a foreboding cover.

According to Becker, we overcome the dilemma of mortality through “heroism.” Through what he terms “immortality projects,” we strive to create or become involved with things that we think we will last forever. By doing so, we become “heroes,” part of something that will never die and is eternal.

Even heroes die

The problem, of course, is that the things we invest ourselves in and associate ourselves with are impermanent. When those things fail us, they create a crisis and remind us of our own mortality.

If Becker’s thoughts are right, this presents a big problem in today’s society. As digital tools become more and more integral to our everyday existence, the rate at which they whither and die also increases. There’s always a new iteration, always something new that replaces the old. And as digital technology moves forward, some of the things we’ve viewed as permanent are dying.

For instance, there was a time in human history where a book was crafted and made to last. Theoretically, a writer could live on for thousands of years through a well-made book, and we associating ourselves with the writer, could live on too. Now, we consume books on Kindles and Nooks, each word passing into nothingness, pixels scattered in the digital wind at the touch of a screen, a screen on a device that will also die or be obsolete within a few years. And each time this happens, if Becker is correct, we are subconsciously reminded that we too will fade away in a breath, erased from history and existence and replaced by something new that will also fade away.

Remember when this was cutting edge?

Of course, most of us will deny such silly philosophies because they aren’t consciously experienced. But, if we look at our behaviors, we may see that Becker was onto something.

Better living through technology

Getting back to Google Reader. Here was an extremely useful service that we never knew we needed until it was invented in 2005. Think on that, some of us are freaking out over a service that is less than a decade old. Yet, we’ve attached ourselves to it as an integral part of our lives. We want so desperately for it to live on.

And we’ve done that with so much of our new technology: email, smart phones, the Internet itself. Each of these things we lived blissfully without until we didn’t. Why should the passing of some of these things cause a crisis? Is it because they disrupt our lives when they die? Or is it because we try to live forever through them, as Becker would state? It’s a question worth pondering.

Eat, drink, and be merry

The impermanence of life is not a new topic. James the Just wrote, “What is life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”

And the writer of Ecclesiastes hits the nail on the head of the futility of fighting the inevitability of death through our work: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.”

So, where do we go from here? How do we cope with the reality of impermanence? The writer of Ecclesiastes has something to say on this as well.

Eat, drink, and be merry.

“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your had finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”

The meaning of life, as the writer of Ecclesiastes muses, is not found in the things with which we attach ourselves and the work we invest our lives in, but in the experiences that they produce. When we view what we have in life as a gift to be enjoyed for a time, rather than an existential defense against death, we become free to enjoy them while we have them rather than cling to them desperately as they slip through our hands.

Impermanence and death are an ever-present reality. When we accept this reality, rather than fight against it, we are free to enjoy the portion that we are given. We will not have these things in death, so we must enjoy them while we live.

Today, I read all the same feeds I had on Google Reader on Feedly instead. I enjoy it just as much as I did before, with a different technology. Feedly will most likely die someday too, as will I. I can fight this, or I can embrace it.

Love these guys and don’t appreciate them enough.

When I go home today, I’ll see my wife and my kids, and I can choose to let the reality that I will one day die, and the frustrations associated with that reality, spoil my enjoyment of what I do have right now, today, in my life, or I can choose to instead embrace them with joy and a merry heart.

One is vain striving for immortality. The other, an embrace of the gifts I have been given in my mortal life. One leads to frustration. The other to acceptance. I think I’ll choose the latter. Which will you choose?