headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

November 2022

A Thanksgiving Look at the Arc of Life

It's good to stop now and then and consider what I'm grateful for in my life. Today, I'm thinking about that over the long term.

Lately, it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it's been
  — Truckin' by Garcia, Lesh, Hunter, & Weir

Looking backwards, I'm awestruck at the twists and turns of my life, the many things I've done, none of which I really planned in advance. Instead, at various points I looked at the opportunities around me and took the ones that I thought might be interesting and educational. After things have happened, it's easy to spot the points where some previous event or decision gave me more options.

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
  — Ripple by Hunter & Garcia

Did my first job as a tv repairman when I was 14 years old ensure that I would be working in technology as an adult? No, of course not. Even though at the time I planned to study electrical engineering, it didn't work out that way. Other opportunities and interests led me to study literature and psychology, instead. Did that mean that I built my career in those fields. Again, no. I made different decisions.

That job as a tv repairman did, however, give me enough knowledge and credibility to get a job as an audio-visual technician when I gave up on making a decent income at organic vegetable farming. And at that job I met my wife.

Some people say "Everything happens for a reason." That may be true in a limited sense, but it doesn't make the future predictable. Many times people make that statement in support of concepts like predestination or fate. They may be suggesting "that experience happened just so you would reach this point of existence," or, with the same logic, "this experience happened just so you will reach a pleasant point of existence in the future." This is a form of necessity theory—that current conditions necessarily dictate future conditions.

Necessity theory is often more comfortable for people than the thought that everything happens by chance. If both the unpleasant experience and the pleasant existence are due to dumb luck, then we are relegated to be victims of randomness. In that view, there's nothing we can do to improve our prospects, except to get luckier. Of course, necessity theory doesn't offer us much better. It says that to improve our prospects we should have started off better.

Contingency theory turns things around. Yes, many of the events of the past contributed to the present being what it is. It's unlikely that I would have met and married my wife had I not been a tv repairman. There were also events that made no noticeable difference in the long run. And, at many points along the way, the path could have diverged to a different present. Looking backwards, we can see a single thread that lead from a prior event to the present reality. Looking forward, we can see a cone of many threads leading to many possible futures.

I enjoy looking back at the twists and turns of my past life thread. I see many small choices and events that contributed to who and where I am today. Without these, I would likely be a different person in a different context. The current me was enabled and constrained by past events, but not chosen by them. As Stephen Jay Gould would say, if you rewound the tape of my life and played it again, it would likely end quite differently. It's still fun to marvel at the small things that have brought me here.

It is in the world of contingency that choices make a difference. In the world of necessity, our future was predetermined by events long before we existed. In the world of chance, our decisions are irrelevant. I choose to believe that my choices matter, and that's why contingency appeals to me.

It may also be why I'm not strongly goal-oriented. I don't think that I can make choices that unerringly lead to success. There are also events outside my control that enable and constrain my future. I choose heuristically and opportunistically. Heuristically, I choose options that appear will give me more options and more flexibility in the future. Many of these decisions are guided by the heuristic that learning offers such an advantage. I choose to learn as much, and wherever I can. Opportunistically, I choose opportunities that I might not have expected, but look like they will be enjoyable. At the very least, choosing unexpected opportunities offers a great potential for learning something new.

What guides your choices in life?

/signed/ George

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