The Meaningful is greater than the Improbable

In Kevin Kelly’s recent article The Improbable is the New Normal, he points out how we can now see amazing things every minute of the day.

Every minute a new impossible thing is uploaded to the internet and that improbable event becomes just one of hundreds of extraordinary events that we’ll see or hear about today. The internet is like a lens which focuses the extraordinary into a beam, and that beam has become our illumination. It compresses the unlikely into a small viewable band of everyday-ness. As long as we are online – which is almost all day many days — we are illuminated by this compressed extraordinariness. It is the new normal.

He’s right. The ubiquity of video cameras mean Youtube is the largest event filter in history, allowing us to create an endless playlists of amazing things.

That light of super-ness changes us. We no longer want mere presentations, we want the best, greatest, the most extraordinary presenters alive, as in TED. We don’t want to watch people playing games, we want to watch the highlights of the highlights, the most amazing moves, catches, runs, shots, and kicks, each one more remarkable and improbable than the other.

This is not true for everyone. Highlight reels get boring, fast.  They show people we don’t know doing things in places we’ve never been. We have no emotional stake in what happens. The lack of contrast with the ordinary makes each clip less potent than it would be on its own.

Amazing things can be meaningless. The spectacle of a stranger has no personal significance.

But watching your son play in his first high school basketball game, or your best friend get up on stage at karaoke for the first time, even if neither results in any performance worthy of anyone else’s interest, will mean a great deal to you. Someone you care about will have done something that mattered to you and to them, transcending any universal evaluation of how probable it was or wasn’t.

For many people the video they care about most is meaningless to the rest of the planet. And same goes for their memories too.

I am unsure of what this intimacy with the improbable does to us. What happens if we spend all day exposed to the extremes of life, to a steady stream of the most improbable events, and try to run ordinary lives in a background hum of superlatives? What happens when the extraordinary becomes ordinary?

It’s possible it has little or no effect. For decades television has been a box of improbable events, churning out endless scenes of unlikely situations, played out by absurdly beautiful people. Mostly the effect has been nil, or worse, has drawn many people to spend much of their free time watching more television.

It’s meaning that matters. An endless hi-def video stream of amazing things may have zero effect on our courage to decide what has meaning, and to get off our asses to do something about it.

2 Responses to “The Meaningful is greater than the Improbable”

  1. Sean Crawford

    One of the reasons I enjoy young adult novels is that events that may seem trivial to an old grown up are full of anxiety and meaning to the young heroes. And if they care, I care.

    I read somewhere that Kurt Vonnegut had said that everyday life suffers by comparison to life in the media. Apparently he had drawn two lines of excitement levels on a graph, one for real life, one for lives of media characters. This was before the Internet.

    Ah, meaning… Scott, maybe enough time has gone by for you to re-run your review of Victor Frankle’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning.

  2. Steve

    This is an absolutely wonderful counterpoint to the quoted article. Sometimes the more things change, the more they really do stay the same.


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