Nihilism, accessibility, and the preponderence of amazing co-incidences

I was feeling pretty nihilistic this morning.

Overwhelmed by having to navigate the dirty waters of capitalism trying to do what I feel is right. Not exactly cheered by the possibility of serious health ramifications from more than 20 years as a heavy smoker. Miserable about how long I’ve been single. Generally lacking in inspiration to see me through another day.

Then to read Molly’s recent post about the state of our industry and community, I became even more despondent, as I remembered how the microformats community and WHATWG are behaving like cabals in their self-interested refusal to acknowledge the accessibility issues with that they’re doing; and how so many of their leading lights are utterly refusing to accept this.

By mid-morning I had my head in my hands, sighing, there’s absolutely no point to anything.

The preponderence of amazing co-incidences

Do you ever find yourself amazed by co-incidence? How several things can come together all at once, in a way that so profoundly resonates, it seems like it must mean something more, that it can’t be just a co-incidence? And have you felt, at times, like this happens so frequently that co-incidence no longer seems like an adequate explanation; that perhaps, it indicates fate?

Well I have, but for me, it’s the preponderence of amazing co-incidences that finally convinced me of the non-existence of fate. If astounding, spellbinding, awesome co-incidences can and do happen every day, then why can’t the whole universe be nothing more than a series of crazy co-incidences?

There is no meaning of life; no cause or purpose to the universe. Faith and spirituality are the ego interpreting reality. There’s no reason for our existence, it’s all just a bunch of stuff that happened.

But that’s not a bad thing. If anything, it’s a good thing, because it gives us the freedom to create reality for ourselves — to decide what we want our lives to be about, and then try to make that happen.

Accessibility and the internet

As far as I can tell, there are two universal realities to our human condition — suffering and joy. I care about accessibility because it affects real people’s lives. Failing to cater for accessibility can and does create suffering; making an effort to ensure accessibility can and does create joy. In the human sense, that’s pretty much the best you can do for anyone — reduce their suffering, and increase their joy, even if only a tiny bit.

I care about the internet because it aids communication, especially for people who are isolated — by disability or geography, by physical, financial or emotional limitations. But capitalism cheapens everything it touches, and Web 2.0 is a capitalist bubble. It’s no surprise that some of us get so disheartened trying to advocate better accessibility. We find ourselves in a situation where things were just starting to get better — the pro-standards and accessibility wave had just begun to really repair the damage caused by the last dotcom bubble. Then suddenly a new one forms, and everything goes to shit again.

Optimistic nihilism

Still, in the wider scale of things, none of that really matters. What we do doesn’t matter, the internet doesn’t matter, and if I woke up tomorrow and there was no internet, I’d just do something else.

So screw the endless arguments. I’m just going to quietly get on with doing what I think is the right thing to do, in the way I think it should be done. And in the meantime, what keeps me going (and what really cheered me up today) is communicating with people — talking, sharing time and energy, flirting ;-) and having a laugh.

What else can we do — each other is all we have.

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  • http://www.sitepoint.com/ andrew.k

    Amen brother.

  • http://www.rjsmotorfactors.co.uk/new/ arkinstall

    You got me at the title

  • Matt Wilcox

    There is no meaning of life; no cause or purpose to the universe. Faith and spirituality are the ego interpreting reality. There’s no reason for our existence, it’s all just a bunch of stuff that happened.

    But that’s not a bad thing.

    Spot on. Absolutely right.

    I’m afraid you’re also right about the state of the large organisations steering the web too. After watching the resurrection of HTML, and following the working group, and reading various key-player’s blogs – I’ve lost faith. It’s a depressing thing to realise that the arena you’ve spent substantial times and effort in is heading the wrong way. But – as you say – that despair is really just a feeling born of miopia.

    I’m not convinced HTML5 will ever catch on. I’m not convinced there are reasons to use it. I’m not convinced that people who still author in broken HTML4 will emegrate to HTML5 – if they would, they’d have gone to XHTML by now. So I’m not convinced that HTML5 will be the death of accessibility or the victory of corporate interests over the interests of the people. I’m not convinced that the bhemoth that is the W3C can retain its relevence much longer. I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing anymore either.

    I sense a revolution on the horizon. And no matter the outcome – people will always find better ways to communicate with other people. Which, as you say, is all that the web is about anyway.

  • Anonymous

    “There is no meaning of life; no cause or purpose to the universe. Faith and spirituality are the ego interpreting reality. There’s no reason for our existence, it’s all just a bunch of stuff that happened.

    But that’s not a bad thing. If anything, it’s a good thing, because it gives us the freedom to create reality for ourselves — to decide what we want our lives to be about, and then try to make that happen.”

    Wow. Just wow. I have to wonder if you actually thought that conclusion through.

    “Faith and spirituality are the ego interpreting reality”.

    I’ve encountered cults and other religious folk who follow that logic as the foundation of their religion — their spirituality. It’s entirely SELF-centered and SELF-serving. I don’t mean those terms as a judgment, but I mean them in a more literal sense (thus the capitalization of the word “self”). The idea of reality is based on you (not the author, per se) as the central figure, because the “ego” (self) does the interpreting.

    “Still, in the wider scale of things, none of that really matters. What we do doesn’t matter, the internet doesn’t matter, and if I woke up tomorrow and there was no internet, I’d just do something else.”

    Sorry, but EVERYTHING matters. The fact that you and I will die and the world will keep on spinning doesn’t mean that what we do and what we did had no impact. Hitler is long since dead, but the impact of his actions is something that we can still point to and, God willing, learn from. Genocide existed long before Hitler and continues to exist even since the horror of the holocaust. Think Rwanda. Just because genocide still exists, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter! It’s not just “stuff that happens”.

    Ok, so I’ve gone way out on the limb and to an extreme to make my point, but it still has value. While genocide and the web may not have much in common, the fact remains that what we do (or do not do) today MATTERS. What Hitler did, what is happening in Rwanda (and other places) MATTERS.

    History repeats itself, so don’t act shocked when something appears on the surface to be moving backward instead of forward. If anything, history has taught us that it repeats. That includes the frustrations that are bound to occur in the development of the web. Growth often includes pain. That’s why they are called “growing pains”.

    How do we even know anything about what happened in the past? Because some old dead guy took the time to catalogue the stuff that happened. What he did MATTERED. We happened to read it even if it was hundreds or thousands of years later. The world continues to advance while practicing old habits. History and advancement have shown us that, too. We recycle things. It’s what we do. We take old ideas and methods, applying them in new arenas and call that progress.

    The web isn’t really any different. The stuff that you make happen will matter — regardless of whether or not you think it matters today. You may long be dead and buried before the impact comes to fruition. That means that you were seed, though. Seeds matter — even though plants have a more commanding presence and fruit appears to be more beneficial. Don’t be short sighted. Nihilism works against being able to see out beyond “self” and beyond your short span on the planet.

  • alimadzi

    James,
    This was a rather odd posting to read. I felt like I should have been listening to John Lennon singing Imagine in the background. On the Web stuff, you’re spot on. But your philosophy is quite troubling. I’ve been a fan of yours for many years… following your blog, career, writings, etc. It’s sad to know that you have such a dim view of the universe. You seem like a great guy and I hope you find a little slice of happiness soon. Take care of yourself.

  • dissatisfied

    This is the most useless thing I’ve ever read on SitePoint. Why the hell is this even here?

  • Matt Wilcox

    This is the most useless thing I’ve ever read on SitePoint. Why the hell is this even here?

    Because the why of things is as important as the how of things. Arguably more-so.

  • sitesbycal

    I believe that this post is probably the best that I’ve read. Period. James if you ever need some words of wisdom, listen to Stewart Wilde. You can find his audio books on iTunes and his books on Amazon. He is IMHO the only human to listen to about life topics. I often feel the way you described: lonely, depressed, etc. and wonder why we’re here and what the purpose of it all is. Lately I’ve even been getting angry and seem to snap at people for no obvious reason. Anyways, I just wanted you to know that there are others out here that understand and feel the way you described. I believe that the world is changing and we’re being prepared. I don’t believe in the doomsday stuff, just that the world is changing at a rapid rate.

    BTW, the universe is a series of coincidences, but we also have choice. Life matters and it doesn’t. All of these things depend on your perspective. There is no right or wrong answer. We live in a world based on duality. People who believe “they’re right” only believe so because they’re so attached to one side of the duality.

    Later

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    So screw the endless arguments. I’m just going to quietly get on with doing what I think is the right thing to do, in the way I think it should be done

    That’s always been my attitude. I don’t have enough time to do the work I already do, keep up with new developments, live a life outside work and get involved in all the politics side of the business. Some might say that if you care about something that it’s a cop-out to leave all the major discussions/decisions to others and not get involved, but like you say, sometimes you gotta look after yourself first.

  • http://autisticcuckoo.net/ AutisticCuckoo

    A good friend of mine has a term for those amazing coincidences that I like: synchronicity.

    I agree wholeheartedly with most of your post, except this part:

    But capitalism cheapens everything it touches

    If you replace “capitalism” with “greed”, I’ll agree.

  • http://www.wtcbb.com jamslam

    Yup, known all that for a while.

    There are no co-incidences, only circumstance.

    And I agree with AutisticCuckoo, capitalism isn’t inherently bad, it’s the natural greed in humans that makes it bad.

  • http://blog.heuristicdesign.co.uk Hal9k

    Actually I really liked this post. It’s nice to see at least a tiny glimpse of public reflection in such a humdrum world.

    I’ve thought of the big capitalist cheeses and even with all that money all they truly have are friends / family etc. I think people lose sight of that; they don’t question why they’re shifting around huge sums of money, when all they really want is enough to live comfortably with the aforementioned.

    I’m reminded of this excerpt by William Blake:

    Man was made for joy and woe;
    And when this we rightly know
    Through the world we safely go.

  • Matt

    Good post. I don’t agree, but refreshing to read some Philosophy on a computer site.

    Having read the comments though, maybe this is post where the comments should be turned off as Jeremy Keith argues.

  • http://chris.unigliding.co.uk Stormrider

    Sorry, but EVERYTHING matters. The fact that you and I will die and the world will keep on spinning doesn’t mean that what we do and what we did had no impact. Hitler is long since dead, but the impact of his actions is something that we can still point to and, God willing, learn from. Genocide existed long before Hitler and continues to exist even since the horror of the holocaust. Think Rwanda. Just because genocide still exists, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter! It’s not just “stuff that happens”.

    None of is MATTERS though. In the grand scheme of things, the universe etc, none of it matters, which is what I think was meant. It matters to us, on Earth, and as humans, but overall, it just doesn’t.

    A good friend of mine has a term for those amazing coincidences that I like: synchronicity.

    I think that is a common phrase for it, wikipedia says Carl Jung first used it to describe coincidences.

    There is no meaning of life; no cause or purpose to the universe. Faith and spirituality are the ego interpreting reality. There’s no reason for our existence, it’s all just a bunch of stuff that happened.

    But that’s not a bad thing.

    I completely agree with this though. Religion tries to find answers and explanations in everything, especially things which science cannot yet explain… but it’s absolutely OK to just… not know why something happens, or how something works. It’s far better than just making an explanation up for it.

  • http://www.domedia.org/ junjun

    I read this with great interest James. I’m not sure I agree completely with your conclusion though. It is possible to have influence over other things than yourself, but it doesn’t happen automatically just from doing what you in your mind consider the right thing. The ‘good’ doesn’t always prevail, just because they’re/it’s ‘good’. Maybe this has something to do with how you feel? I think we slightly touched this topic 2 years ago, not that I think you would remember it. The world is a capitalistic place. ‘Politics’, self interest, agendas, group mentalities etc is always going to be there. It’s the human world as it has evolved to. Come to peace with it’s existence, and you’d be better set to deal with it, I think. Take care and don’t skip sxsw next year, plenty of talks and laughs awaits!

  • Anonymous

    None of is MATTERS though. In the grand scheme of things, the universe etc, none of it matters, which is what I think was meant. It matters to us, on Earth, and as humans, but overall, it just doesn’t.

    Which is myopic, as explained earlier. Right now, because we are still a bit isolated in our scope, we don’t have any real clue as to how events on Earth impact the universe at large. If, one day, human beings can travel vast regions of outer space, we may learn otherwise. Then, people of that era will look back at declarations such as the one above and find them to be as silly as the notion that the world is flat and if you sailed to the edge of it, you would fall off!

    As stated previously, EVERYTHING MATTERS. We just don’t always get to see how.

  • http://www.blueimpressions.com bi_rw

    An unusual post on sitepoint, but something I enjoyed reading. I thought it was just me thinking this way!

    I have worked for several large web organisations (top 100 visited sites in the UK) and at each company I have had a battle with deliverables.

    For example, only the other day I had a meeting where for an hour I has explaining my point on how to design and develop the core part of the companies website. I mentioned how important it was to make sure that its intuitive, user acceptance tested, developed in a manor that its flexible for improvments, can be reused across other points of sale etc etc.

    All i kept hearing from the project manager, something that i hear from various companies, is that ‘the business’ want this done by next week, they dont care how its coded.

    Now a huge chunk of my career has been spent on presentations and agruments on how important coding correctly, for example for accessibility, and yet nobody is interested.

    It is extremely stressful and depressing but instead of residing myself to giving in, I have decided to do the best job I can given the time I have. If the rest of the team do a half arsed job just to get the product out the door then thats their call… I want to be proud of my work.

    Its such a shame companies still do not get the importance of developing correctly.

  • http://www.tnrstudios.com tnrstudios

    excellent post, i think you’re spot on about the capitalism cheapening the web (and for the record, those previous posters who have tried to seperate capitalism from the greed inherently in humans in order to redeem capitalism, are missing the point; you can’t seperate a system from the mechanisms on which it operates)

    I know its easy to believe in nothingness, and that spirituality is the ego, but i think its important to be humble even in nihilism if you want to approach the truth; too much pomp (ie: writing off the whole world) is an easy thing to fall into when you’re depressed but don’t let it get in the way of the truth.

  • http://www.designbysls.com Design By S.L.S.

    James,

    All I can say is I have been in this spot. Repeatedly.

    All I can offer is a heart felt hug and to maybe tease you with a bit of funky accessible, functional, cross browser compatible CSS… ;-) My messengers are almost always on and I am more than willing to discuss this particular way of thinking or any others really.

    With a cuddly hug,
    Shelley

  • amen

    what’s a ducks favorite food?
    quAkAS!

  • Joshue O Connor

    While this post is interesting and rather sad I think that it is rather disturbing to see the amount of people who are agreeing with the conclusion that everything is nothing and we are in a pointless, random and heartless universe. I am sorry but I just don’t see it so. It obviously seems so to James at the moment but he is suffering. That will pass. Both joy and suffering are temporary. If things are bad, cheer up they will get better. If things are good, watch out, they could get worse.

    And so it goes.

    My outlook on life is rather binary. Either everything is insignificant or everything matters. I choose to see the later as my experience tells me so. If when I die there is nothing then I will be annihilated in the void. Fine. But if not, and I try and live a conscious life, treating others and animals with respect and love, and have faith that by my doing so I can elevate myself. Fine.

    It’s a choice you see. I think James is experiencing a dissatisfaction with life, that is sadly very widespread. It is spiritual yearning actually. A need that no amount of technology or stuff can fill.

    As Thomas Merton once said.

    “What does it benefit us that we may sail to the stars, when we cannot cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?”

    These negative feels also pass, and feeling of nihilism and existential experiences are often signs of a shift in consciousness, the death of an old way of looking at the world and the birth of a new consciousness. It is like a death, but ask yourself this. What is it that is making you aware of your own mind? What is it that shines a light, illuminating your perceptions and your own mental state? There is something there that is giving you these glimpses of despair and hope. That is soul. Bright, incandescent, full of joy. So have a little faith.

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    What I can’t understand is why lack of meaning is seen as a bad thing, or seen to imply sadness, coldness or lack of love. It isn’t any of those things. People are still beautiful, the world is still amazing, life is still a precious and wondrous thing. It doesn’t have to mean anything to be nice. It can be, as you say, “bright, incandescent and full of joy” while still being utterly devoid of greater significance.

    A diamond is still a diamond, even though it’s just a lump of carbon.

  • Joshue O Connor

    Meaning helps us understand our place in the world, our relationship with our environment, and each other, as well as appropriate responses in any given situation. The ability to ascribe meaning is a result of intelligence, that we are fortunate to have. This intelligence enables us to distinguish hot from cold, sweet from sour and at a higher level of moral abstraction, good from bad. No-one can doubt the existence of this kind of intuition or faculty within man, regardless of the importance or significance we ascribe to that meaning.

    What I can’t understand is why lack of meaning is seen as a bad thing, or seen to imply sadness, coldness or lack of love.

    Because without this kind of compass it is easy to fall into despair and a general sense of pointlessness about everything. A usual response to these feelings is then either a rush into hedonism at one extreme or renunciation of the world on the other.

    People are still beautiful, the world is still amazing, life is still a precious and wondrous thing.

    Yes. But the negative sentiments you were expressing earlier are also very real. So the world is made up of shadows and light. When we accept that, and come to terms with it, then we can become happier.

  • Bridget Stewart

    What I can’t understand is why lack of meaning is seen as a bad thing, or seen to imply sadness, coldness or lack of love. It isn’t any of those things. People are still beautiful, the world is still amazing, life is still a precious and wondrous thing. It doesn’t have to mean anything to be nice. It can be, as you say, “bright, incandescent and full of joy” while still being utterly devoid of greater significance.

    Being unable to find meaning eventually leads to detachment. Finding meaning aids in a sense of purpose. Without purpose, why get out of bed in the morning? If everything you do today doesn’t matter, if it serves no purpose why do anything at all?

    Even though you may not be making that distinction yet, such thinking — once it become ingrained — leads down that path.

  • http://www.tyssendesign.com.au Tyssen

    I’m with James. Not everyone needs to be able to find meaning to lead a perfectly normal, happy life.

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    Okay, I think this discussion has reached the point where everything has been said.

    I should clarify that I wasn’t at all depressed when I wrote this post – I was happy, cheerful and optimistic, and describing a thought process that lead me from initial despondency to concluding positivity; but that throughout, the central tenet of my belief that nothing ultimately matters didnt’ change at all – all that changed was I feel about that.

    We all can and do find meaning, but the meaning we find is arbitrary and entirely personal – there are no absolutes, just choices and points of view.

    And as John Lennon said – “whatever gets you through the night, it’s allright”