I’ve gotten spoiled. Writing about the con carne topics is much harder than writing about the life stories and the off-the-cuff opinions. Meaty topics require research and fact-checking (and often I need to create the images). And I expect they’re also harder to read!
My intention here was always to write mostly about ideas with a fallback of writing about things and, to a lesser extent, writing about life (which is to say, about people).
Today’s post keys off a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon I saw a while back. At first the cartoon spoke to me, but the more I thought about it, the less I agreed with it.
It does have a point, but the thing about short, pithy statements is that life cannot be summed up or explained with a bumper sticker. Life is one of the most complex systems we know. It is endlessly variable.
The cartoon put in pictures an old bumper sticker:
My first objection is that it leaves out something that—at least these days—we talk about a lot. (For purposes of this essay, “talk about” and “write about” are synonymous.) Science and technical writers often write about things.
For the moment, we’ll assume that things are more interesting than people, but less interesting than ideas. I can already hear protests that people are much more interesting than things, but it’s possible we just mean people are more important than things. And I suspect it’s a matter of personal taste to some extent.
My second objection is that the old saying is full of shit. Some of our best stories are about people. (And talking about some things and some ideas can be boring. Plus, there’s that personal taste thing.)
Nearly all fiction is about people, but truly great fiction is also about ideas. Stories that are just about people can still be great fun. though. Most murder mysteries are usually just about people. (Oh, but what great characters people some of those stories!)
Good fiction uses a story about people to also examine the human condition. The best fiction speaks to the ideas that form our core values.
One of the things I love about science fiction is that great SF is “idea fiction” that can study very unique ideas. Science fiction is also rich in “things fiction” (typically “hard” SF is all about things; “soft” SF tends to be more idea-based; “pop” SF tends to fall in the “ripping good yarn” category).
There is a distinction to be made: fiction versus non-fiction. I suspect that bumper sticker refers to people talking about other real people: gossip. And I do feel gossip is the lowest form of conversation. I think it has the least interesting content, yet people seemed fascinated by the lives of others.
Just where is the line between a great biography and a TV Reality Show? Both are real stories about real people. (Well, the Reality Show is real people viewed through an extremely distorted and lurid filter—more of an Unreality Show.) What makes a biography of Winston Churchill fit for even the snootiest coffee table, while many people turn their nose up at those TV shows? (Others declare them as “guilty pleasures” which still points to their perceived lowness.)
Is it because Churchill was a great man, whereas Snooki is … in a word, not? (Both things are true, but are they the reason? What if we went back in time and did an Unreality Show starring Winston Churchill? Perhaps the real answer is that—if we tried that—Churchill would probably have us shot as enemy agents.)
Is it because the biography is a “serious” work intended to illuminate important things about our history, whereas the TV shows are time-wasting chaff intended to suck people in and sell commercial time? (I’m gonna say, “Yes!” on this one.)
What about jokes? They’re about people, too. Maybe we can lump jokes under fiction in general. We’ll call them short, funny stories.
It would appear that talking about people isn’t the problem, although perhaps how you talk about them matters. However you characterize them, Unreality Shows are hugely popular, and so are the “diary blogs” in the true tradition of the name, ‘web log.’ Say what you will, people are interested in the lives of other people.
Voyeurism or social bonding? Are they the same thing? It may be a matter of degree and perspective (and content and style).
Writing about things might be more a product of modern times. Technical writing is strictly about things, and so is a great deal of science writing.
Science deals with theories, which are ideas, so science is not solely about things. One can argue that writing about math is only about ideas, because math is almost entirely abstract.
In part, the difference between science and technology is the difference between ideas and things. Science starts by looking at things we don’t understand and seeks to find the ideas behind their behavior. Stuff (random things) fall as they do because of air resistance and gravity.
Once we understand the ideas behind air resistance and gravity, we can predict how any specific thing will fall. That’s science.
When we use our understanding, our science, to build things that fly (that don’t fall) or glide (that fall in a really great way), that’s technology.
In so far as technical writing is about technology, it’s about the application of the ideas of science to real world things.
And as anyone who’s familiar with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance knows, you can have ideas about things, too!
Writing about ideas goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. [All the good stuff goes back to the ancient Greeks. There's a joke about the philosophy professor who said, "Every time I think I've had an original idea, I find that some damned Greek had it first."]
Western white culture—northern European culture—descends mostly from the Greeks, but every culture reaches for science, philosophy and art along the way. Each of those three explore the world of ideas in different ways.
There is also religion, which I’ll mention now just in passing. (Soon I plan to write about the difference between Ideas and Beliefs!)
Science is one of several instruments of human culture that arose in response to the situation we humans have found ourselves in since prehistoric times: We, who can dream of infinite time and space, of the infinitely beautiful and the infinitely good, find ourselves embedded in several worlds: the physical world, the social world, the imaginative world, and the spiritual world. It’s a condition of being human that we have long sought to discover crafts that give us power over these diverse worlds. These crafts are now called science, politics, art and religion. Now, as in our earliest days, they give us power over our lives and form the basis of our hopes.
These are the ideas upon which we build society: Science, Politics, Art, Religion. (As Smolin lists them. I lean towards a triumvirate: Art, Science, Philosophy. The last one, to me, includes Religion and Politics.)
It’s not hard to see why many feel these are the highest topics of conversation. Admittedly, generally speaking, in many ways they’re the harder topics of conversation. The abstract often is more difficult to grasp than the concrete.
The thing is: you develop your muscles by working them—challenging them. Minds are no different. Brains are no different, even more so. The brain is just an organ like any other. The more you exercise it, the better it gets.
“Use it or Lose It!” as the saying goes!