I Don’t Understand Anything Anymore

Collage of images of flower sprouting star imploding cell dividing and lightning
APR 20, 2022 9:00 AM

The sense of overwhelming muchness is chaotic and confusing. That’s all right by me.

I USED TO think “I don’t understand anything anymore” was old-people-speak—right up there with “Who the &@^%* are all these people?” and “Get the &@^%* off my lawn!”

Today, I hear it even from the young, a kind of universal mantra of malaise. We feel at a loss even though we don’t understand what we’re losing, try to make sense of things that can’t make sense, wondering how we got here, where “here” is, what’s up with that anyway? “That” could be war or coronavirus, climate or the proper way to address people, how to be good, whether to be good, the promiscuous proliferation of podcasts, avalanche of apps, swell of streaming services, firehose of fitness tools, flood of bottled water brands—the copious stores of stuff that overwhelm our feeds, inboxes, attention spans.

“Who ordered this?” asked the physicist II Rabi in the late 1930s, when elementary particles seemed to be appearing out of nowhere far faster than theorists could explain.

I sometimes ask myself that when I find a grinning package on my doorstep I can’t remember wanting, or why. When shopping is friction-free, it’s easy to slip. When reaching vast audiences or bombing cities is a no-brainer, anyone can do anything and probably will.

Not understanding makes bad things happen. When we don’t understand why lightning strikes or ships sink or babies die, sacrificing virgins might seem a viable approach. As the Roman Lucretius wrote some millennia ago, “The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening in the earth and sky with no discernible cause.”

Nobody understands war, so we’re left with what looks a lot like virgin sacrifice. Try anything and everything. Threats and peace talks, economic aid and sanctions, arms and disarmament; we give and we take away, stumbling toward some often obscure goal with the accuracy of a kid trying to pin a tail on a donkey. We’ve managed to dodge nuclear war for nearly eight decades, but we haven’t the slightest idea what parts of our elaborate (and contradictory) rituals work, so we don’t dare abandon any part of them. As one prominent bomb scientist put it at the dawn of the nuclear age: “Fear becomes the cocked hair-trigger of our silos that could start the futile agony of a World War.”

That was nearly 80 years ago. Nothing has changed. I don’t understand why.

THE ANTIDOTE TO fear is understanding. But I don’t think anyone understands much anymore.

Myself, I don’t understand getting old—why I’ve acquired a diameter where my waistline used to be (it’s going around) or why people tell me I’m not really old. I am old! So what? I’ve got great company. Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle, in their late eighties, still working nonstop to protect the Earth and oceans. Think of Harry Belafonte (95), Yoko Ono (89), Rita Moreno (90), Willie Nelson (88), James Earl Jones (91), Norman Lear (99), Gloria Steinem (88), Noam Chomsky (93).

FEATURED VIDEOUnderstanding Algorithms With Sinead Bovell

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I admit my feathers got ruffled at first when people stopped telling me I didn’t look my age (75). When I whined to a friend about this, she suggested I tell people I’m 85. Works like a charm!

My young friends tell me that one reason they feel like they don’t understand anything is that there’s too much of everything to understand.

Science shares your pain.

Consider the astronomers and physicists who’ve harvested such an abundance of data that their signal/noise problems are out of control. Imagine what it’s like to know that the vast majority of the treasures obtained by your gazillion-dollar particle accelerator or telescope will never be looked at by anybody! Cosmic-scale FOMO!

Most of the information won’t get past the first or even the second or third round of automatic filtering systems, which behave like bouncers making sure scientists don’t waste time on anything that’s not important. How do they know what’s important? Ah, there’s the rub.

AI can assist, but the answers that machines give don’t help much if we don’t understand how they came to that conclusion. (Show your work!) This worrisome hitch is explored in a remarkably readable 60-page paper by quantum chemists Roald Hoffmann (Nobel laureate) and Jean-Paul Malrieu. Answers aren’t the same as understanding. One illustration they cite comes from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—about the military’s need for “explainable” AI. Modern weapons are designed to think for themselves, but their usefulness is severely limited “by the machine’s current inability to explain their decisions and actions to human users,” the DARPA paper explains. That makes it difficult for “future warfighters” to trust them.

We all depend on AIs (willingly or not) to distill signal from noise in every aspect of our lives, helpfully narrowing our choices of news, footwear, political opinions, TV shows, word choice, friends. The “noise” is everything else you never see, everything else you never know you never see. Toss the bathwater, never mind the baby.

Separating signal from static is tricky, though. Is that crystal clear blue sky “noise”? It is if you’re trying to see a star. We sense there’s so much more out there. There is! It’s unnerving.

It doesn’t help that the whole “how things work” aspect of most things is hidden behind digital displays. I had a come-to-Jesus moment recently when I got a new digital thermostat and the technician told me to just discard the old one. Surely he jests. An analog thermostat is a thing of beauty! A small spiral of melded metal strips unwinds (or winds) as the one material expands more quickly than the other due to the increased jostling of its atoms—in other words, heat. The tiny winding metal snake flips a tiny plastic lever, which completes (or breaks) a circuit. Heat doing its thing!

That I understand.

My analog watch (analogously) clocks time directly; time is motion in our world, the rotation of Earth, its regular-as-clockwork orbit round the sun. What does your digital timepiece measure? Quantum jumps of cesium atoms absorbing microwaves (at a frequency of 9,192,631,770 cycles per second, if you must know). This has nothing to do with the human experience.

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The meaning of time is lost in the measurement. Besides, at some point precision measurements run into the uncertainty principle, which tells us you can’t know everything—certainly not at once.

Now isn’t that a relief?

UNDERSTANDING HOW THINGS actually work explains so much of why too-muchness is so disorienting.

It’s just not natural. Nature relies on physical and biological thermostats to detect when things get too hot or too big or too much. Stars that get too big for their own gravity collapse and are reborn in ever-evolving forms. Predators and prey keep checks on each other over the long term to reach a balance sustainable to both. Our microbes, electrolytes, blood sugar, cell metabolism—anything can kill you that’s too much or too little, so balance is essential.

Ursula Le Guin, reflecting on age among other things, described a questionnaire she received from her alma mater, Harvard, on the occasion of the 60th reunion of her graduating class. (Of course, her college was Radcliffe, she points out, the product of gender exclusion, a “detail” Harvard overlooks.) One query asks: “What will improve the quality of life for the future generations of your family?” The second choice is “economic stability and growth for the US.”

“That stymied me totally,” Le Guin wrote. “You can’t have both.”

Growth is good to a point. Beyond that, it leads babies to obesity, multiplying cells to cancer; it leads us to ignore the well-known fact that organisms and societies have an optimum size, can only exist in homeostasis with the earth, oceans, atmosphere. What’s more, she points out, uncontrolled growth as the single survival stratagem is bound to fail if only because it limits our ability to adapt, to consider alternatives.

The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (who knew a thing or two about war and peace) wrote a morality tale titled “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It’s a great story, so spoiler alert: In the end, the answer is simple and unsurprising: 6 feet.

Nature doesn’t generate fresh spreads of stuff from whole cloth. It recycles: water, air, mountains, energy, matter.

When old(ish) people like me attain too many years to sustain, we get recycled too. My atoms will form new collectives, use good old E = mc2 to turn energy into matter, who knows what? Nature will decide what it needs to keep things in balance. Death is life’s thermostat shutting down your circuits.

You could argue (and I will) that the confusion and chaos of overwhelming muchness is caused in part by lack of functioning thermostats. The settings are stuck at more more more. More precision, more speed, more land, more people, more bathrooms, more bounty, more booty, bigger bonuses, more stuff to binge. We’re bursting at the seams.

And let’s not forget more friends, more likes, more followers, more opinions. When did crowdsourcing (more voices) become accepted as the best way to get accurate results? As opposed to, say, informed voices? Experienced voices? I don’t understand that.

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I don’t understand why “winners” are so often defined as those who have, simply, more. Or why winner-take-all is even a thing. Nature isn’t a zero-sum game. The winner who takes all leaves nothing. What sense does that make?

One thing I love about science is that much of what’s true, what’s interesting, makes no sense (to us) at all. All of life encoded in some silly spiral ladder of molecules that spells out how to grow, when to stop, whether to flower or swim or study the universe? Give me a break. Curved spacetime doesn’t make sense; time dilation doesn’t make sense; quantum mechanics isn’t even supposed to make sense.

So what? They work. Just like evolution. Maybe understanding is knowing what works and what doesn’t—including what works to tame pandemics, put a lid on global warming, better manage war. It is clear that what we are doing isn’t working.

But understanding is more. It’s a basic need, like breathing, an urge that all (human) beings share. It’s not information. It’s not description. It’s not even explanation. It requires imagination, awareness, recognition. It’s a feeling as much as anything. I like how it feels to comprehend, in some rough sense, how DNA makes tulips out of dirt and sun. what makes the Milky Way’s arms spiral, why rain falls but clouds and airplanes (generally) don’t.

A lot remains uncertain, ambiguous, unknown. That’s fine. I can feel lost and still remain connected, still admire, acknowledge—give my regards!

What if the antidote to fear isn’t understanding?

What if it’s appreciation?

What if it’s beauty?

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KC Cole is WIRED’s senior senior correspondent and the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, a national best seller.




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