Sunday, December 31, 2023

Tired of Living in Last Year 

Why should old acquaintances be forgot?

Like millions of other people today, I’m looking up the meaning of the Scottish poem Auld Lang Syne. While academics argue its provenance, all you really need to know is, it's about two old friends sharing a pint and recalling old times. As news and media pundits practice their augury by looking back over the last year to divine some theme or other, I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s insight at the end of an episode when he said perhaps there was no lesson to learn, but rather, “Just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

Let’s face it, the Universe doesn’t care about our orbital year-end wrap-up or your most-listened-to tracks. Why are humans so particularly cursed with pareidolia - the tendency to assign meanings to patterns? When I had a digital bedside clock, I was constantly noticing when it read “12:34”, “1:11”, “2:22” or “3:14” and wondering what it meant? It meant nothing other than my brain trying really hard to make it mean something. To me that’s what all these year-end reviews are, simply a collective case of pareidolia. Every year we tally the wars, the deaths of celebrated individuals, the natural disasters, the political plots, the words on everyone’s lips.

This year is as predictable as any other. We were "shocked" at some celebrity's passing (though some argued we should've been more shocked they hadn't died before), we were disheartened and disturbed by wars in Ukraine, Yemen and now Gaza, we were dismayed at wildfires, flooding, earthquakes and amazed by volcanic eruptions. The economy behaved one way or another, causing wealth or poverty. Food bank use skyrocketed yet so many people bought tickets to Taylor Swift concerts that it actually buoyed local economies wherever she played.

There were shocks in Hollywood once they realized they had been spending too much money making too much crap, that only got worse when writers and actors went on strike. Why did they strike? Money, obviously, but less obviously, there were concerns about AI (or more correctly ML – Machine Learning) that was jeopardizing livelihoods. While most people had fun playing with new, and surprisingly viable, AI models and applications, writers, composers and actors could see the potential of them being literally being written out of a job by a bot trained on their own work. It seems more than a slap in the face if you're an artist whose work was used as raw data, without your consent or compensation, by a machine learning algorithm to learn how to create art, and then you would lose your career to this very same bit of code.

Christmas is such a time when we celebrate nostalgia, it's almost hard to think of anything but the past and its traditions. A new Christmas film isn't a "classic" until it has been played repeatedly for years. Then we stop complaining and forget that it was never considered a classic (see Elf, released twenty years ago, now on everyone's Christmas watch list). By the last days of the year, we tire of the replays and living in the past. We crave the new. Why do we ring in the New Year with fireworks? Are we so desperate to burn away last year we want to see it go up in flames like some kind of metaphoric effigy? We want the world to have a reset button, but it doesn't it work that way. We aren't out in space revolving around the sun like it's a treadmill. The sun itself is in an orbit, and we're following it, so in truth, we, the planet and everything on it, are on a forward trajectory. There's no going back. There's only forward, so fasten your seat belts, it's going to be another bumpy ride.



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