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All In The Same Boat
A story about different kinds of innovation, and re-asking an ancient question.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. A few months ago some rich people paid a company called OceanGate a whole lot of money to get into a submersible to go to the bottom of the ocean in order to see the wreckage of the Titanic.
Some definitions are probably in order.
“The Titanic” is a very large ship from early last century that was unsinkable, its builders and owners said, and they believed it, too—so much that in order to make its maiden trip a bit more convenient and impressively speedy, the captain set a course and a velocity that risked collision with North Atlantic icebergs, and then the Titanic collided with one of those icebergs. The iceberg didn’t know that the Titanic was unsinkable, so it did what icebergs do to ships that collide with them, which is to sink them, and down the Titanic went to the ocean floor.
As for “the ocean,” it is a very large body of water, which we keep mostly on the surface part of our planet. This particular ocean was The Atlantic one, which we keep in between Florida and Norway, roughly. How large is this ocean? It’s sort of hard to grasp the scale of it. Try this: imagine a pitcher of water. Got it? Now imagine 187 quintillion pitchers of water. Hopefully that helps. Down near its floor, “the ocean” has pressures that exert approximately 6000 PSI, or 6000 lbs on every square inch, which is sort of like being in a machine designed to turn cars into cubes, except that to turn cars into cubes, Dr. Google tells me, compacting machines only need to exert 2000 PSI.
A “submersible” is a vessel designed to go down to those depths, supposing that you are somebody curious enough about the deep that you are willing to shell out a lot of money to get into a vehicle designed—you hope!—to survive a trip into a vehicle compactor. This submersible was known as “The Titan,” and a “titan” is the type of ancient god after which the Titanic was named, with nomenclature suggesting that the Titanic was like the Titan, and the Titan was like the Titanic, and unfortunately before this story is done this suggestion will become all too true.
Now, “rich people” are people who have a lot of money, and “money” is an innovative human method of make-believe that allows people to exchange goods and services with relative ease, and which is something that in modern society people need to have in order to live. “Society” is simply the way human beings choose to organize rules and power and social beliefs in order to shape our shared human life together. In our society, we’ve arranged things so that if you don’t have sufficient money, enough pressure will be exerted upon you that you will eventually be submerged and crushed to death, and then you’ll be gone and those of us with money won’t have to worry about you anymore. It’s therefore recommended that everyone struggle as hard as they can for as much money as they can get, which is a thing called “the grind,” and people who use it these days actually mean it as a good thing, but it basically means that we live in a machine that is designed to eat people, and we know this because that is what it does every day.
But rich people have no such pressures! It’s like they’re encased within a very well-designed societal submersible, which allows them to survive our inhospitable society in ways that regularly crush regular people to death. They’ve got enough of this “money” that they can live without struggling for survival or even thinking about survival—they can not only survive but thrive with ease, and purchase comforts, or even luxuries, like seventh houses, and private jets, and legislatures to write laws and judges to enforce them, who will help them get even more money away from people who have less money, and then eventually they get so much money they don’t even know what sort of ease to spend it on anymore, so they blow some of it on trips to other places that are even more inhospitable to human life than a society that has been geared to accommodate only the wealthy, like space, or the ocean floor.
You might wonder why rich people, whose lives have been made so comfortable and easy, would take such risks, but money has observable insulating qualities, which can keep a rich person safe but eventually rather numb to the reality of human dangers. If a person has enough money it can shield them from almost any societal problems that are out there, and this can lead rich people to often rather understandably believe that—because they are entirely immune to all the pressures that our society has decided to exert upon people without money—they are similarly immune to pretty much anything, and this seems to allow them to believe that even nature’s rules do not apply to them. Again, it’s not too difficult to see why a rich person might believe that rules don’t apply to them, because as long as those rules are societal rules, they actually don’t apply.
They think that they are in a different boat, when it comes to rules, than everyone else.
Living in a society designed to accommodate the ease of wealth over the lives of humans has, it seems, led them to that belief.
The captain of the submersible was the CEO and co-founder of OceanGate, a man whose name was “Stockton Rush,” because hell yeah it was. Stockton Rush was a fairly rich person, and like many fairly rich people he was a strong believer in “innovation” but not a very big believer in “regulations.”
In his eagerness to explore, Rush, 61, often appeared skeptical, if not dismissive, of regulations that might slow innovation.
The commercial sub industry is “obscenely safe,” he told Smithsonian Magazine in 2019, “because they have all these regulations. But it also hasn’t innovated or grown — because they have all these regulations.”
Rush said he believes deeply that the sea, rather than the sky, offers humanity the best shot at survival when the Earth’s surface becomes uninhabitable.
“Innovation” is a word with many definitions. Somebody using it can mean “the act of bringing to light something that wasn’t previously known” or it can mean “combining or reconfiguring already known things in novel and unique ways that create valuable new effects.” But sometimes when people use the word, they mean “ignoring a rule that was there for what might be very good reasons, in order to gain an advantage by doing things that other people aren’t permitted to do.”
True innovation is something I think of as a natural human system. "Human" because humans can discover it, use it, and configure it, then inherit the effects of those configurations. "Natural," because innovation isn’t something created out of nothing; rather, it’s the discovery of something that had previously been unknown, but which was always true, always there, always ready for humans to discover and configure.
So it seems to me true “innovation” isn’t really about making new rules but noticing old ones either for the first time or in new ways.
But then there’s the other kind of innovation: the rule-ignoring kind—the kind that makes boats that can’t sink, or submersibles that ignore strict guidelines for managing the extreme pressures of the ocean depths, the kind that treats the right of other people to live as if it were something that could be owned like property.
And I’m reminded that more and more, water is something that is owned, and so on.
Anyway, as you may have heard, the Titan submersible imploded down there. I don’t blame it. I would have imploded, too. It hadn’t been made according to regulations that were apparently in place not only to stifle innovation, but also for very good reasons involving natural rules about ocean pressure, set by people who had decided to innovate not by ignoring nature’s rules, but by deciding that safety was not obscene, and that they would rather place limits on what they would attempt based on nature’s reality, rather than risk lives for the sake of personal glory or convenience.
When the Titan imploded, everyone inside died pretty much immediately. Don’t get all superior on them; you would have died, too. You’re probably not even rich, so you might have died even quicker.
There are many lessons to all this, probably.
One lesson I take away is that physics doesn’t actually care how rich you are; if the systems that protect you from the rules of physics fail, physics will crush rich and poor all the same. So that’s a lesson about the limits of money, that innovative and very handy human game of make-believe.
I also notice something about the limits of innovation. It turns out that there are a great many places in the universe where humans cannot live at all, and while innovation has recently proven very adept at taking humans to those places to look around, it can’t figure out how to help humans live in places that will kill them in the rather inevitable eventuality that even a meticulously designed innovation fails—entropy being one of the rules for which physics is a bit of a stickler.
I also notice something else interesting embedded in the story, which is that Stockton Rush believed something that many people—especially rich people—didn’t used to admit they believed, not until recently.
He believed that the Earth’s surface will become uninhabitable.
This is, unfortunately, a very real possibility.
We now know that we’re going to have to innovate a lot, actually—the real sort of innovation, not the rule-ignoring sort—in order to see our way out of the coming climate catastrophe. This is going to have to be the sort of innovation that recognizes that we are all human beings that depend on a livable planet in order to live, that helping or harming the economy won’t mean anything if the planet isn’t livable, which means that making economic reasons to ignore the planet’s rules is as foolish as ignoring what icebergs do to ships, or what oceanic water pressure or extreme heat does to human bodies.
Stockton Rush also seemed to believe that people with access to the innovations he was working on would be able to survive these changes—which would be really good for anyone who had enough money to afford access to that innovation, and even better for whoever controlled that innovation.
The only problem for Stockton Rush was this: the innovation he believed in was the most popular kind—the rule-ignoring kind—and eventually he came face-to-face with rules that care nothing for money.
It seems we all will, if we aren’t willing to innovate our thinking.
It seems that when it comes to the planet, we’re all inside the same boat—or the same submersible, if you like. It seems that outside of our planet it’s awfully inhospitable to people, so our planet becoming inhospitable ought to be a concern to us all.
It isn’t, though.
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A lot of times I’ll tell stories to get into an idea. It’s my belief that most real innovations begin with an idea, which turns into a thought, which turns into a story, and, if the story proves true, it eventually does a better job of describing reality than the old idea, and it captures people’s spirit, and then change happens.
For this reason, I’d argue, it’s a good idea to keep track of the stories we tell, and to tell ones designed to innovate our thinking.
I’ve noticed a popular type of story in recent decades that I’d call “the end of the world for most people but not for me.” In these stories, it’s Armageddon time, and the waves rise, and the buildings crumble, or the pandemic strikes, or whatever it is happens. The hero of this story is usually an American Man type of dude, and he usually has to get to his family, and he does that, and usually there’s a dog, too, and there’s always some facility or safe ground somewhere that very few will be able to get to in time, but which our hero will manage to get to in the end.
The world is destroyed, but our hero is usually the exception (unless he makes a dramatic but heroic sacrifice), and so is his family. So is his dog.
And that’s the happy ending. Grim, yes, but full of resolve. The people who matter survived, and you can tell, because they are the survivors.
In the stories we tell ourselves, the end of the world is always something that happens to everyone else.
It’s a comforting way to think of it. If you’re not “everyone else,” that is.
So a few days back now Little Bennie Shapiro—who once said that the answer to rising sea levels submerging your house is to simply sell your house—had this to say about the effects of catastrophic climate change that we’ve been seeing this summer:
“It's hot outside. You know what I can do about that? Zero things. Thank God we have this thing called air conditioning. It's awesome. You know what's a great cure for it being super-duper hot outside? Being a first world country.”
Now I know, it’s extremely easy to make fun of this poisonous little twerp, but I’d like to point out there are plenty of other good reasons to do it as well, including his mendacity and the genocidal implications of his worldview.
But I don’t want to single out Ben Shapiro. Sure, he used to believe that climate change wasn’t real, or that it was real but not man-made, or that it was man-made but that it’s too late to do anything about it, or that it’s man-made and there are things that we can do but it would be too expensive, and many other things that people who don’t actually believe in anything say when they are trying to sabotage the search for solutions, because solutions would mean inconvenience. But all of this is a very common trajectory among climate denialists. “Climate denial” was an alleged innovation that involved ignoring science in order to not change the way things were, and it has been utilized with horrific effectiveness by industrialists and senators and presidents and other global criminals for decades now.
But anyway, now Shapiro, like so many climate denialists, is having a harder time claiming that climate catastrophe isn’t real, now that it is really happening, so he believes in this new thing, which is that climate catastrophe is real, but it isn’t a problem, because … people who can afford air conditioning will be OK. This suggests that all the billions of people in some of the most populous areas of the world who can’t afford air conditioning don’t matter, and a planet that would kill them would never kill us, and their desperation as they face death won’t affect us.
Ben Shapiro seems to believe a particularly genocidal version of “the world ends for everyone but us,” which is that if we’re rich enough to afford air conditioning, we’ll live even if everybody else dies, and that is reason enough to ignore the fact that our planet is growing uninhabitable to many animals, including human beings.
I guess he hasn’t thought about what happens when the air conditioner needs repair, or where we’ll get the materials to make new ones, probably for the same reason as he never thought about who is going to buy a submerged house. He’s a rule-ignoring innovator: he just doesn’t believe it will affect him and those who live around him, and if it doesn’t affect him and those who live around him, it isn’t a problem, and his only real belief is that we should stop talking about things that don’t satisfy his own self-satisfied sense of comfort.
Shapiro’s belief is “if it doesn’t affect my neighborhood, it doesn’t affect me.” And it’s true, I suppose, if you happen to live in a part of the planet that burns last, or if you possess a machine that allows you to ignore it for a while—provided you haven’t innovated by ignoring the rule that your electric grid’s infrastructure will fail if you fail to invest in maintaining it, that is.
It makes me wonder who the last person was to die in the Titan. It all happened in a millisecond, it’s said. But one of them must have died last. Maybe it was the person closest to the front, or to the back. Was it the richest person? Maybe it was. Maybe if you had slowed time down by a factor of 1000 the last person in the Titan to die might have had time to observe the fate of the others, situated in the part that crumpled first, and to have the smug thought: “suckers.”
This seems to me no less bizarre or irrational a response than to think “If it doesn’t affect my neighborhood, it doesn’t affect me” in response to a cooking planet.
Still, it’s a popular belief. It always has been. We’d be hard-pressed to call it an innovation, but it seems an innovation nevertheless, to believe that living in relative wealth means that you don’t possess a human body the same as anybody else, or that the fate of other neighborhoods will somehow make your neighborhood immune to nature’s laws.
Here’s a question that seems relevant to that belief. It’s an ancient question.
Here it is:
Who is my neighbor?
I’ll answer it in the ancient fashion, which is to answer with another question:
To illustrate, I'd like to tell you a story—one designed to innovate our thinking.
That’s next time.
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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. When he’s a Jet he’s a Jet all the way.