: Harmless Untruths (weblog)

Just a drop of water in an endless sea

September 3rd, 2009

The internet may be a timesucking black hole, but I prefer it to some of the alternatives (like tv) because at least you can feel you’re wasting your time in a productive sort of way. The internet, if you sort of squint at it sideways, suggests an infinity of patterns — harmonic resonances of information and insight — dazzling multidimensional arrays of facts and ideas and multimedia extravagance.

So you tunnel through layers of meaning, right-clicking madly. You know that everything you find has been written or created by somebody else, but maybe nobody has looked at these things in quite the same way, or found the same striking juxtapositions. You right-click further…

I am listening to a live recording of the band S PRCSS, singing about the Sphinx’s nose, while reading articles about national politics, but something (the Sphinx’s nose?) compels me towards wikipedia to do an apparently pointless investigation of the history of cities throughout human history. And the wikipedians have composed a pretty fascinating list of the largest cities throughout history.

I like this list a lot. The first thing it does is provide a pretty good overview of human history, at least from a narrow, power-politics point of view. Thousands of years of Mesopotamian, Chinese, and especially Egyptian cities! I’ve always thought the ancient Egyptians were especially interesting, with their incredibly long-lasting empires and civilization. Then, aside from a few big cities in other parts of Asia, it’s all Rome and Constantinople for a while, until the Arabs come along and turn Baghdad into the center of human civilization.

Then it’s like, China (particularly Beijing), Constantinople, China, Istanbul, China, and so on for, like, most of the last millennium. Not until 1825 did London surge to the top, beat out by New York in 1925. Then Tokyo since 1965. It’s hard not to draw some historical parallels from those dates and cities. Hard not to think that the lowly U.S. of A. had its moment in the sun for about forty years and has been fading ever since. Forty years — a blink of an eye on this kind of scale.

In 1180, a city in Sri Lanka called Polonnaruwa was the largest in the world with a population of 250,000. Never heard of it — have you? I would venture to guess though that those 250,000 people did not care much about what was going on in the history I grew up learning… Crusades? Thomas Becket? Frederick Barbarossa? Whatever.

The world has grown smaller since 1180, but it’s hard for me to believe that the 32 million in Tokyo today care much about what is happening here in the United States. Why would they? Surely they are not concerned about what some senator from Iowa thinks about healthcare. There are billions of people right now who are happily ignorant of Iowa’s senator. So should I care about him? I dunno. I can’t help but feel like these things are important, but then I think about humanity on this kind of massive scale, and my concerns fade.

So then I think about stoicism again, which is basically the “Dust in the Wind” philosophy, so I shift over to youtube to find the most ludicrous versions of “Dust in the Wind” that I possibly can. It’s a tough call! It’s a really easy song to play on guitar, one of the first songs most people ever learn to play, and it also has this sort of tragicomic seriousness that lends itself to very very serious renditions. I mean, this song is deep.

Here’s a good example:

In the end, though, scrolling through the endless variations on “Dust in the Wind” makes me feel pretty excited about this ever-changin’ world in which we live in. Stoicism basically tells us to stay engaged with the world, but to not get too stressed about petty details like Iowan senators. Things will pass. In a thousand years nobody will know about soft rock songs, any more than I know about ancient Sri Lanka, but they are great while we have them. So I will continue to enjoy them while they last…

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