Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The cow is better than you

Working the 9 to 5 grind at a desk for any length of time is almost guaranteed to, sooner or later, result in the question: “Is this really my life?” And unless this distraction prevents you from palming off work to somebody else, it may lead to other equally disturbing questions — disturbing in the sense that there are no immediately obvious answers.

Some such questions may take the following forms:

  • What is the point of it all?
  • Is this really what we were intended to be?
  • What have I ever accomplished?
  • When was the last time I was proud of something I did?
  • Why, oh why, oh why?

These and endless variations thereof are the lament of every person whose life mostly consists of getting up earlier than they would prefer, donning a corporate noose and fighting traffic to sit in a cubicle and drip-feed themselves coffee all day just to stay awake. It’s galling to contemplate a millennia of our ancestors fighting their way up the food chain, exploring the world, building great civilisations, just to end up here. It seems that a wrong turn was made somewhere.

You know there has to be something amiss when important decisions are entrusted to computers (at great cost in time, effort and money), while the people who use and build these systems are often treated like automatons. We repetitively enter the same data, and perform the same processes day after day.

Sometimes I wonder if perhaps the cows have got it right, and there’s just as much satisfaction to be had by grazing in a field and farting all day long. Is that any less useful or purposeful than what most people occupy their lives with? Whenever I bring up this observation, the prevailing opinion is that of course humans are more important. We contribute more to society. Or we have more potential.

My response to that is in the form of a question: We all consume resources from the moment we are born until the day we die. In between, what do humans do that makes us so special among living creatures?

Let us put it to the test, by comparing my life as a middle-aged man working in the IT sector to our humble aforementioned cow. I write software for a living, but what does that ultimately mean in the grand scheme of things? By the time I retire, my life’s work will have been made obsolete and replaced by something newer and shinier, and it will almost be as though I never did anything. No evidence of my toil will exist. My contribution to anything permanent or even lasting is more-or-less nil. Just like the cow eating grass, the grass grows back and will do so long after it dies. In both cases our lives’ work has amounted to nothing in the long run. I have contributed nothing more of meaning or substance than the cow. In fact, unless I can keep the emissions from my car and my electricity consumption to under what the cow will expel from its poop chute (which I am certain that I don’t), I am considerably behind in the net total.

The bottom line is that humans almost always take far more from the Earth than they give. This thought continues to bother me, perhaps mainly because I know that I am part of the problem. Granted, I am only a very small part of the problem but the point still stands. I know this and yet I don’t do anything about it because I am far too invested in the little world I have created for myself: a bubble consisting of a family and a means to feed that family. Would I stop tomorrow if I knew that my lifestyle is killing penguins? Undoubtedly no. “But honey, think of the penguins” probably wouldn’t cut it when we’re homeless.

Value and worth, then, must be found elsewhere because there seems no mileage in thinking that we as humans are the most important species in any way that is not imagined, arbitrary and self-serving. I can turn business requirements into software and Buttercup can’t; but does this make me more valuable? She can produce milk that feeds not just cows but people as well, while I have never produced a drop of milk in my life. Her contribution to society sustains life whereas I can only potentially make my employers a bit more money.

See what I mean? Buttercup wins. Flawless victory.

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