Seeing the Future in the Dark

I have always had a sense of novelty when it comes to using a dimmer. I think it is because I was only first introduced to the non-on/off type of light switch relatively later on in my childhood. It must have been in a hotel or somewhere cool that led me to associate it this way, and we have a few in our family home which we moved to when I was in the 5th grade, so it must have been sometime before then that I first used one. Regardless, it seems preferable to me to have options between having the lights all the way on or all the way off, so I have always enjoyed that opportunity as it is afforded by the dimmer.

It seems intuitive to me that most people are like me in that they enjoy the opportunity to have options between two extremes. If you put 100 people in a room with an on/off light switch and asked them to vote their preference, you would force people to choose an extreme and end up with a majority voting to have the light either on or off, and the outcome would be based on majority rule. If those same 100 people in that same room, however, had a dimmer, they could vote in a variety of ways for a variety of options and the consensus outcome could be to have the lights at any level in between off and on. It seems likely that more people would be more pleased with the outcome that way.

The real world works more like the room with the dimmer. We have complex means by which outcomes are selected and people's preferences exist all over the spectrum. There are people at both extremes who believe we should have the lights all the way on or all the way off, but the vast majority of people see that the best solution lies somewhere in the middle. In an effective voting system, that is where the outcome would land. It would change gradually over time as the people would be conscious to move slowly enough not to trip any unforeseen adverse effects that may be experienced by moving too quickly along the path of attempted progress. Along the way, there would be regressions in the opposite direction too of course, likely in the form of reactions to those unforeseen adverse effects that despite general caution would inevitably be triggered.

In the real world, the tug of wars between extreme progress and the status quo, anchored by entrenched interests and pulled the other way by extreme regress, rage on for every issue across the board, and the ribbons on the ropes representing the current statuses of the issues lie somewhere in between extremes, with both sides tugging at the rope until they cross the threshold and win the war. The war is won when the middle has been pulled far enough to one side that the old extreme becomes the new norm, and a new war has formed. This does not happen overnight. It happens over the course of weeks, months, years, decades, and centuries, even millenia. The time it takes to resolve depends on the power and the reach of the impact of the issue. A battle over local library hours in a small township, for example, will not last nearly as long as the ongoing battle between science and religion.

For the sake of the comparison I am about to make, let us now disassociate the traditional positivity and newness associated with light and the corresponding negativity and oldness associated with dark. Let us instead assume that the light room represents the old world and the dark room represents the new world. By definition, if the dark room is the new world and the light room is the old world, we are as a matter of fact transitioning from the light room to the dark room. The only question is how we will get there, and at what speed. If we are in the room with the dimmer, the transition can happen at any rate over any period of time depending on how the people in the room see fit, but the room will eventually be dark, and they will have arrived in the new world that many had long envisioned. If, however, we are in the room with only an on/off switch, the lights must turn off at some individual instant. In that case, the people's eyes will not have the luxury of being able to adjust over time. They will at first be shocked and almost entirely unable to see, but just for a moment before their eyes will quickly adjust, as eyes always do, and as humans always do. The transition is more sudden and instantaneously scarier without the dimmer, but it is quicker with the on/off switch, and it forces us to adjust faster.

In the last few weeks, the world has figuratively turned off the lights. The people are in shock, but they are quickly adjusting. And the good news for those who don't is that we will soon return to some form of light. Many already realize that it is impractical to stay in the dark. We are not ready for it yet, and too many people will suffer. Most agreed that we needed to turn the lights out for a bit because it became predictable that too many people were going to die in the light. We turned the lights off to give ourselves some time to see how those predictions played out and to figure out a better way to operate with the lights on, and as we figure that out, or as the dark begins to threaten more livelihoods than the light does lives, we will use the dimmer to bring back some unknown level of light at some unpredictable speed.

It is important to recognize, however, that even if we could go back to the same level of light as before (i.e. if an extremely successful vaccine was discovered, produced and made available in limitless quantities starting tomorrow), even then, the room still will have changed.

It will have changed because the people in it will have now lived in the dark and many of them will have already adjusted to it. Everyday the lights stay off, more and more people are seeing the future in the dark. Many of them will not go back to many of the ways they used to live in the light. New world inevitabilities like decentralized systems of money, remote work, and online education have now been tested by necessity rather than curiosity and the transitions in their directions will be accelerated by this momentary turning off of the lights.

The winners in this new world will be determined as in most cases by a combination of preparedness and luck. They will be those who saw certain aspects of what the new world looked like and acted fast enough to position themselves properly before the lights went out. Those people must now feel like Muhammad Ali, not just because they are winners, but because they were "in bed before the room was dark".

I have seen many people suggest that the way we are living now is the new normal. It is not. On the other side, I have seen many people suggest that the world will go back to the way it used to be. It will not. It never does.

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