September 17th, 2005


Times when people annoy me #176234

I can't remember the name of the company, but I think it was one of the natural gas providers - they'd had a profit announcement, and it was around £100million. And they'd just put prices up, because petrol/gas prices have been rising worldwide, so they have to pay more to buy it in the first place. So, of course, there was cries of outrage from all over, that they were making 'obscene profits' _and_ putting their prices up.

Then, further down the page, there was the number of customers.

Twenty million.

So they made £5 off of each customer in a year.

Well, yes. _That_ sounds completely unreasonable.

I'm not willing to pay £5 to the people who supply me with a service for a whole year.

No, not at all.


Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart have suggested that rather than being called Homo Sapiens (wise man) we should instead be called "Pan narrans" - the storytelling chimpanzee. Recent genetic results would tend to also place us extremely closely (within 1%) with Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus, the two other strains of Chimpanzee currently in existence.

In many ways the name Pan narrans clearly highlights a problem I see on a frequent basis. On the one hand we are animals, creatures evolved to fit a series of niches over millions of years, with brains and bodies tuned for various strategies that worked well enough for our ancestors to propagate. On the other hand we tell amazing stories to help the world make sense to us - spinning everything from simple dramas about not trusting Uncle Bob with the whisky bottle since the incident last Christmas to hugely complex mathematical epics concerning the origins and fate of the universe.

There are certain kinds of stories that particularly appeal to us - ones with a clear Right and Wrong, ones where the hero (or heroine) succeeds against tremendous odds (whether success be in vanquishing an enemy, getting the perfect job or finding their One True Love), ones where everything goes wrong - but only so the hero can learn from the experience and come out of it a better person.

There are, of course, other stories - ones where everyone dies, ones where nobody learns anything, ones which deliberately play against type, or where the point is that there is no point (see Andy Warhol's films for one example of this last type). These, however, tend to be less popular - they don't comfort people, and their appeal tends to be towards those people who are either interested on a meta level (i.e. with the fact that the stories themselves are being played with) or who find it impossible to suspend their belief enough to enjoy stories which tell them that everything is going to be alright.

Sometimes we tell stories so simple, reassuring and hard to disprove that they become insanely widespread - helped by the fact that people will try very hard to believe something if it means they can stop thinking about something discomforting. Religion, for instance, deals fantastically well with the worries of meaning and death - meaning is gained from God's will, and by following God's will we will all be rewarded after death.

The problem being that in our modern secular world, people still feel this instinctual need to make their life into stories, and we've done a pretty good job of weakening (and in some case removing) several of the threads that were most commonly used to construct those stories. This problem isn't helped by the fact that we are surrounded by more stories than ever before - TV, books, comics, movies, theatre, radio - all pumping out vast numbers of stories, the vast majority of which reinforce the feeling that things will turn out ok, that life has meaning, that the world has patterns we fit into, that there is something more.

All of this leads us to feel that our lives are lacking something because they aren't leading anywhere, that there is some grand design, if only we could see it (and the corrollary - that there are people out there controlling this grand design and excluding us from it), that some day we will understand and find something meaningful that will suddenly let us know exactly what we need to do to be happy.

It took me a few years to realise that my search wasn't going to turn anything up, because there was no intrinsic meaning or grand design. Reading between the lines of Dave Sim's insanity, it seems that he too was looking for meaning, but when he realised that the direction he was heading in wasn't heading for a pinnacle of epiphany but rather for the blank freedom of nihilism he ran screaming to unquestioning belief. Some people find meaning in helping others, in children, in achievement or in the search itself. Others do without meaning, either finding other ways to keep themselves happy, or anaeshetise themselves against the lack they feel.

The problem comes when people want something more - and don't realise that this something more is going to have to come from within. We define our own meaning - we write our own stories - we find our own path. Living for someone else's meaning is going to bring you as much happiness as attempting to enforce your meaning on others will bring to them.

Stories can help you deal with life, but they aren't real. We're not the centre of the universe, the centre of the only story, headed for revelations and a nice conclusion that wraps things up. We're monkeys, surviving any way we can, mucking about in the middle of a chaotic planet in the middle of nowhere. We're not special, and expecting the universe to treat us as so is just going to lead to disappointment and a constant sense that things aren't going the wya they're 'supposed to'.

"Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why." - Kurt Vonnegut