In some ways, modern life is debilitatingly easy.
If I start entering random letters into my address bar, the results are illustrative of this. From the well-worn motion of pressing Ctrl+T, then a single letter (and maybe nudge the down arrow a few times), then enter, here are some of my possible destinations:
- Not one, but two video streaming services on which algorithms tell me what to watch, in case I was having trouble.
- Not one, not two, but three social networking/messaging services through which I can share perfunctory interactions or else browse the idle thoughts of a number of people, almost all of whom probably have pretty similar opinions to me. At least, they appear to be annoyed by the same things.
- A handful of news outlets, which definitely have pretty similar opinions to me, otherwise I wouldn’t be reading them.
- Two separate services through which I can spend money to avoid having to cook or walk to a place where cooking is being done.
- Amazon. Although, I am pleased to report that AngryMetalGuy.com is above it on the predictive list. That being a site where a group of reviewers spare me the effort of discovering new metal bands for myself.
Et cetera. And no, this isn’t going to be a variation on ‘modern technology has made us all lazy and ignorant’ – laziness and ignorance have never needed the help, and I wouldn’t want to offend them by implying otherwise. Besides, I’m saving all of my incredibly original Black Mirror fanfic ideas for another day. What is true is that our comfort zones are now more comfortable than at any point in history, with fewer occasions than ever when it is necessary to leave them. They are also outfitted with systems of distraction whose specific purpose, more or less, is to keep us there. These, as it transpires, are simply too effective and too numerous. Without even trying, you will probably never run out of things that you know for a fact you will enjoy. The wealth of available content is such that anybody can just flop into their niche and remain there for life. Which is to say that that the creators and distributors of entertainment are doing their jobs extremely well. There’s nothing inherently sinister about that – it’s just that one side of the bargain is being held up with such oppressive competence that it actually becomes detrimental to the deal as a whole.
In no particular order, here are three of the things that I fear the most.
1: Intellectual stagnation.
2: Leaving these last gasps of relative youth with nothing to show for them, then entering the mire of adulthood having involuntarily shed all the supports of earlier life, thereby being condemned to navigate a bitter, futile existence without so much as a compass until liberated by the kindness of death.
(The conventional joke would be to have number 3 be something cute, like ‘Spiders’, but I like this version more.)
Having ready access to unlimited, safe, challenge-free diversion is therefore terrifying. There is no more effective way to induce stagnation and hamper efforts at improvement than to repeatedly hammer somebody with comfort. Indeed, even as they see themselves succumbing to your ceaseless discharge of formulaic Sci-Fi shows and RPGs, their panic will likely manifest itself only in yet greater consumption of those chosen poisons. The same goes for just about anything in life – not just Netflix and video games. Although those are two good ones.
At the risk of sounding like a schlocky motivational speaker, comfort is laid across a bed of quicksand. You can stroll across from time to time, but if you find yourself sinking then it’s important both to escape and to conduct that escape in a way that won’t actually trap you further.
All of which is my clumsy, distracted way of saying that most people ought to push themselves more. Specifically, me. I need to challenge myself, even in ways that are entirely petty and mundane. The alternative is a kind of wretched living death, but with a really nice chair and a lot of naps.
Some people are able to expand their boundaries using an arcane combination of willpower and confidence. I don’t have any of those things. Instead, like most people, I will be relying on the illusion of accountability.
A popular method of weaving that illusion is through contracting somebody to join you in the endeavour, in the hopes that your bond of solidarity will prove stronger than your basic torpor and cowardice. It might. In any case, however, there is no buddy who is as reliable as the uncaring void of the internet.
Therefore, I’m doing it here. Every week I’m going to set myself a small, pointless challenge or activity, something that I would never otherwise do, and every week I’m going to report back on how the last week’s effort went. The results might be interesting or entertaining, or they might not be. Unimportant. As a feeble act of defiance against the descent into honeyed oblivion, hopefully it will work.
This week’s goal: Draw a convincing approximation of a human.
To illustrate exactly how pathetic the ‘challenge’ is allowed to be, here’s one that a significant portion of people seem to be able to do with no effort whatsoever. I am not one of those people. Here is a self-portrait of me, aged 3 or 4 (somewhere in that region). I’m sorry to announce that my abilities have not improved much since. Further apologies for the low quality of photography, although I suspect a clearer image would only be more traumatic.
Drawing, as far as I can tell, is sorcery. It involves tapping into some innate well of mystic power to which I have no access. People who are proficient at arranging lines such that they resemble things often claim that their abilities are the results of ‘hard work’ and ‘practice’. It is my firm belief that this is one of those areas in which diligence can make a skillful practitioner out of a competent one, but where the gulf between incapable and capable simply cannot be bridged. All past attempts have resulted in swift capitulation. But, foolishly, I’m still going to try.
Communication sometimes feels like you’re conducting a sequence of jailbreaks, where your ideas and emotions are the inmates and your mind is the prison. Your success in these attempts will often be determined by your command of the various methods through which internal concepts can be externalised with acceptably minimal loss of information. Those methods are dizzyingly numerous, but they are far from equal in their application. Body language, for example, is very good at conveying social discomfort but would be a poor choice for your comprehensive history of the Punic Wars. For that, you would probably want prose writing, which is pretty versatile but noticeably inferior to more specialised options when the latter are in their element. For example, suppose you wanted to show what somebody looked like. You could probably muster up a decent written description, but its communicative effect would be dwarfed by that of a competent drawing.
But imagine, if you could only draw a convincing approximation of a human. A whole new universe of possibilities. Really, though, the aim is just to give up after a week rather than after an hour.
We’ll see how it goes. That’s all for now.