Paradigm shifts both welcome and not

Paradigm shift
an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way (source)

I’ve been thinking a lot about paradigm shifts lately. How everything you thought you knew, all the habits you’ve built up over a lifetime, all the values you thought were built upon bedrock, can collapse around you like they were built on unconsolidated lakebed subject to liquefaction, and how it can happen in the metaphorical blink of an eye.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like that, even moreso than the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 attacks showed the world that the US wasn’t invincible, and the trauma drove the US insane in ways that we’d normally be dealing with for another 20 years. But 9/11 was a short, sharp shock with terrible repercussions. COVID-19 is slower moving and it’s laying bare the flaws in our country, in capitalism, in our employer-provided healthcare “system,” even in our values. As COVID-19 winds through the entire country, it will affect everyone and leave nothing untouched. The virus doesn’t care what you look like, who you love, how much money you have, or what you believe in.

That’s why the shift in the United States after COVID-19 will be much greater than the shift after 9/11. Whether we shift toward intolerance or tolerance, hatred or love, inequality or equality, isolationism or international engagement, etc is yet to be determined. I see hopeful signs that tolerance, love, and equality are the more likely shift, but the side of intolerance, hatred, and inequality is too often willing to win with violence, so the jury’s still out.

Major events like COVID-19, 9/11, the AIDS epidemic, even the Challenger explosion can shift an entire culture. But paradigm shifts occur on the level of cities, families, and individuals all the time. Everyday decisions can turn out to be paradigm shifts for each of us as individuals. The big decisions like whether to get married or have a child are clearly the kinds of things that will shift life in ways that are only occasionally predictable. But every single decision we make every day could result in an unexpected paradigm shift. Do I drive the Rogue or the Leaf may not matter much most days, but it could matter hugely if the roads are icy and snowpacked. Similarly, whether I get my groceries delivered or I pick them up from the grocery store down the street could mean the difference between being exposed to COVID-19 vs. not, making this kind of a decision potentially life or death. There’s nothing that’s more paradigm shifting than that.

What we think of as low-risk, normal day-to-day decisions could turn out to shift our paradigms in ways that are entirely unpredictable. But that’s life. Literally.

Scholars & Rogues

There are other decisions that you look back on and realize just how much your life shifted, but not always perceptibly at the time. My joining Scholars & Rogues as an author, editor, co-founder, and technical administrator was one of those decisions.

One of the paradigm shifts that happened as a result of my association with S&R was a shift in how I view myself and my relationship to my career. When I was in high school and college, I was going to be an electrical engineer who was also a science fiction writer. Sometime in the last 13 years – I’m not exactly sure when – that shifted to being a writer who is also an electrical engineer.

This shift has had profound implications for how I approach my career as well as my writing. I used to approach my career as a ladder to be climbed, and so I used to pursue job opportunities that had more responsibility than the job I held at the time. I used to define success by how far and fast up that ladder I could climb, and those times when I needed to pause the climb in order to support my family instead sometimes felt like personal career failures. Today, though, I’m looking at the next step up the ladder and realizing that I probably don’t want to take it, that I’d rather stay right where I am so I can have a job that leaves me the time and energy to write, watch movies with the family, and play games.

In a lot of ways, engineering has shifted from a career to a “day job” I do to pay the bills. I imagine that it’s not too dissimilar to how dancers or actors might wait tables to support their art, except that engineering pays a hell of a lot better.

Without S&R I’m not sure I ever would have come to this realization, and I almost certainly wouldn’t have in my mid- to late-40s.

The Wood of the Suicides, by Gustave Dore (Project Gutenberg)

Over the last 13 years there have been a number of personal high points, but I’m particularly proud of a few of them. The first was when an article I wrote on the carbon costs of various forms of travel was picked up in syndication by the Chicago Tribune. Another was an open letter to Burt Rutan on his denial of industrial climate disruption where he and I were able to engage in a spirited debate in my comments. A third was my essay about Dante’s Inferno and contrapasso, which was apparently picked up by one or more professors and used in their class(es). There are others, but these are probably the three top ones.

There have also been low points. In 785 posts over 13 years I’ve written my fair share of bad prose. But the thing that always hurt the most was how I could spend days or even months writing something that I was tremendously proud of and that I felt was of critical importance, and yet it would disappear onto the Web like a single perfect snowflake in a blizzard. Generating enough signal to penetrate the noise of the Web was never easy, but in recent years you have to catch the attention of the gatekeeper sites and internet “celebrities” who have the power to make something go “viral.” Carefully thought-out arguments, intelligent analyses, science, and fact-based reporting that requires an attention span of more than five minutes have given way to cute animals, anger, conspiracy theories, lies, hot-takes, and 240 character limits. And as we said when we announced the closure of S&R, that has led each of us to despair at least occasionally.

In much the same way as the founding of Scholars & Rogues was a personal paradigm shift, so too will the closure of S&R be another.

In some ways I’ll be taking a step back in time. I originally created my personal site, The Daedalnexus, back in 2002. After I was laid off, I was encouraged to write in some of my newfound free time by friend, gaming buddy, and S&R co-founder/publisher Sam Smith, and so I created The Daedalnexus and wrote there almost exclusively until 2007, when S&R was founded. I eventually found that I got more readers when I posted here at S&R than I did at The Daedalnexus, and so my writing gradually drifted away from my own site toward S&R, to where I wrote exclusively for S&R by 2010. But I never gave up the domain, even as some of my old content went away after my old site’s software was essentially shut down.

In other ways this shift will enable me move forward. Over the years I had proposed a few new directions and ideas for S&R that, after discussion among the authors, were rejected for one reason or another. For example, I’m a role player and a game master and I once proposed that we bring Dungeons & Dragons into the S&R fold somehow. But due to perceptions of gamers at the time, we collectively decided that D&D wasn’t part of the S&R brand. But at the Daedalnexus, the only brand is me, and if I want to write about role playing games or post the stats for a custom dragon that I created for my own game, I can.

And who knows? Maybe the new freedom will reinvigorate me to keep writing those long-form, intelligent, carefully thought-out essays that have become so hard to write. And, dare I hope that there might be readers for them? I think I’ll keep my expectations low for now.

Life has a way of shifting our paradigms whether we want them shifted or not. COVID-19 is certainly an unwanted shift, for example. And in some ways the archiving of Scholars & Rogues is another. But to everything there is a season – a time to sow, and a time to reap. And from the ending of one great thing new great things may yet arise.

And the warm rains of spring always come after the long, dark nights of winter.

Thank you to everyone who has visited S&R over the last 13 years and read our collective words and engaged us in mutually respectful debate and disagreement. And thank you especially to my fellow authors at S&R. I have learned so much from you and hope to continue to do so even after S&R is done.

Thank you.

2 replies »

  1. “Carefully thought-out arguments, intelligent analyses, science, and fact-based reporting that requires an attention span of more than five minutes have given way to cute animals, anger, conspiracy theories, lies, hot-takes, and 240 character limits.” This could be a commentary on our entire culture. I want to argue that there is merit in your indefatigable (till now, at any rate) efforts regardless. I am reminded of this Stephen Crane poem:

    I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
    Round and round they sped.
    I was disturbed at this;
    I accosted the man.
    “It is futile,” I said,
    “You can never —”

    “You lie,” he cried,
    And ran on.

    • I like the poem given there is futility for both the runner and the poet.

      At this point I tend to write long-form for myself because it’s what I know and because I continue to hope, evidence notwithstanding, that facts, logic, and nuance will again matter. Maybe COVID-19 will be what tips us back toward something like that – I don’t know. Heck, I’m not sure it’s possible to know at this point.