Sex, Death, and Anonymity on Quora

February 9, 2011 § 3 Comments

By: Anon User

1. The Price

The price of sex, it turns out, is death.

Four billion years ago, the earliest life forms were born immortal and capable of reproducing alone, without any mating partners. Asexual bacteria, if given infinite food and space, could theoretically continue to reproduce and live forever; they would “continue clonal expansion through [their] progeny indefinitely….we would likely never find a single dead cell in such a culture.” [1]. Asexual bacteria do not gradually get older, become creaky, or die of natural causes; they do not senesce. When these organisms had the planet to themselves, the end of life was either predation or an accident.

Two billion years later, eukaryotes evolved when one bacteria was subsumed into and subjugated by another, resulting in a more metabolically complex organism. About a billion years after that, during the Stenian period, sexual reproduction between two cells arose for the first time [2]; for these lucky eukaryotes, their offspring would be genetically different from them (and from their mating partner), allowing their species to evolve and adapt to changing environments faster than their more chaste competition could.  With sexual reproduction came the first multicellular life, organisms capable of differentiating their cells into specialized functions, allowing them to scale up in both size and capability. All plant and animal life today is descended from these sexual pioneers.

A germ cell is the cell of an organism that is, or eventually becomes, a mating cell (such as a sperm or an egg). In sexually-reproducing, multicellular life, with their tightly scripted division of labor, there was for the first time a break between germ cells (for which all single-celled life functionally qualifies) and non-germ cells, which are known as somatic cells (from the Greek σωμα, meaning ‘body’). In single-celled life, the cell is always a germ cell [3], whether sexual or asexual. In multi-cellular life, such as ourselves, there is a clear partition between the crown jewels of genetic information (the germ cells) and the support system of somatic cells which ferries the germ cells around, feeds them, finds them a suitable mate, and defends them.

Almost everything that you think makes you you is composed of somatic cells — your brain, your heart, your face, your hands. The only germ cells in your body are the 50,000 egg cells that every woman is born with (most of which die off; only 400 will eventually be ovulated) and the millions of spermatogonia that every man is born with (which eventually differentiate into individual sperm cells).

In sexually reproducing organisms, germ cells have the chance to pass their DNA forward a generation, masking mutation damage and enjoying novel enhancements. That DNA, rejuvenated, becomes part of the tree of life. But what shall happen to the somatic cells? Over time, their DNA has been continually compromised by damage, and will never be enhanced or protected through mating, leaving them especially risky (through increased susceptibility to cancer) with no real return. To make way for their freshly-generated germ-line descendants, and through a poorly-understood process involving chromosomal telomeres, they are destined to die.

Death was never the natural partner of life, but of sex. Once we were able to create truly novel life, through genetically distinct children, we sacrificed our own.

Something very similar is true for ideas. Cats and dogs, for example, do not expect to have different ideas than their parents. They don’t expect to move the culture of their species forward. The same impulses that propelled a dog a thousand years ago propel it today — whatever ideas it has that motivate its behavior have been around for almost as long as the species. But once ideas were able to mate and recombine and evolve, as they do for us, they also became mortal. When an idea can be improved, its original form is no longer necessary. Evolution implies obsolescence — on Quora or anywhere else.

2. Children

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”

– On Children, Khalil Gibran

Children, paradoxically, teach us first to grasp tighter, and then to let go, as we never have before. They teach you both closeness and distance like no romantic relationship can. At one level, children represent our most intense form of self-love, and so we naturally imagine that we have far more control and influence over them than we really do. When you watch a child discover a new part of their world, and share in their delight, you realize with a twinge that they (in all hopeful likelihood) will see and experience the world that is post-you.

When you look at them, you see a flash of your own immortality; yet when they return your gaze, they see mortality — a part of the world that will cease to be, even as they move onward. They are your scouts into the house of tomorrow; yet they will have no one to report back to.

Your words, likewise, take on a life beyond your uttering them. In a very deep sense, they come through you but not from you. We are each the product of an incredibly rich and extended culture, one that has enjoyed thousands of years of externalized, compounded knowledge (through pictures and writing and every other form of media). That culture shapes the very way in which you experience it. In interpreting culture, you have applied your own peculiar set of filters and distortions and cognitive biases, implicitly, unknowingly; as Ruth Benedict said, “we do not see the lens through which we look.” Your own words will also be taken and interpreted in myriad different ways, if they find an audience at all.

Indeed, if you have never been shocked at how badly your written or verbal communication has been misinterpreted, then you have never said anything interesting. At the frontier, we are all poking at a membrane that we don’t fully understand. And the heart of Quora is almost entirely at that frontier. It is a crackling, ferocious place, one ripe with conflict and passion. It is an extended game of Telephone, one where a crowd builds on each idea with mating and mutation playing their unappreciated roles. Just as every generation believes that they discovered sex anew, we all believe that we discovered Quora and the ideas that play continually on its surface.

The Quora lifecycle has become so stereotyped as to border on hilarity. A new user shows up, gets hooked, and posts ceaselessly for weeks with bright-eyed ebullience and an almost child-like deference to more senior users and their frequently gruff ways. The timestamps of their posts may as well be a random number generator, and it’s not clear whether they have found a way to transcend sleep. They happily complain of addiction as if it were a badge of honor. If they blog externally, they will trumpet their finding to the world in revelatory tones (neatly implying that they are either the tipping point or a prophet).

Then, the initial passion slows to a trickle. Their posting volume declines, and when they do post, their answers take on a drastically less idealistic tone. They start to nitpick at small issues — the way that comments are laid out, or the way that the feed updates in real-time. Briefly, they act out, asking strangely provocative questions that reflect a passive-aggressive testing of the community’s mores. With time, they start to ask leading meta-questions like “What’s wrong with Quora?” and “When did Quora jump the shark?” that reflect their own inner storms. Unable to imagine a Quora before them, or after them, they reveal their intrinsic and mistaken belief in their own immortality; their experience of Quora must be the canonical experience of Quora. With a literary flourish, they vociferously announce that they are done with Quora, and are leaving for good.

Two months later, they are back — without even the courtesy of sheepishness. As in any off-and-on relationship, the current moment fills the whole universe.

3. Materialism

You are not your college, job, bank account, car, house, or clothes. And you are not your Quora answers.

When I was a child, I was fascinated with the philosophical problem of solipsism, for the way it cleaved the logic of skepticism from my complacent certainty in emotional intuition. I know that I’m conscious…but how do I really know that anyone else is? How could I prove it? Sure, people seemed conscious, but all I saw was the outside, and inferred that their subjective ‘inside’ matched mine in some way. That process of social induction is instinctive, and did not start with humans.

But we over-apply it on Quora at our own peril. Just because you would have to be an incredibly callous and unfeeling person to write a given set of words does not imply that anyone who writes them is the same way; perhaps they grew up in a family with a more confrontational style than yours, or were punished for being indirect and passive. And just because you would have to be brilliant to write something does not make the other person so; they may simply be parroting something they read elsewhere. We are higher-dimensional than any written language can allow, more unknowable than we can imagine.

Seeing that gap between the writer and the written gives you the freedom to let your own words go. No answer I have ever written on Quora, or anywhere else, has really exhausted my passion for or interest in or contributions to the subject at hand.

Furthermore, your attachment to your answer — the notion that your words are Settled Doctrine and Uniquely Yours — not only stagnates the idea pool, but actually makes you less satisfied with your creation. When your answer has no ancestors, and no descendants, it has become (by definition) a dead end. Facing mortality (of our culture or of ourselves), and accepting our role in a process that extends before and beyond us, actually makes us freer. You can trade one kind of immortality for another; it is a sad bargain for some, a liberating one for others.

4. Validation

Sometimes materialism arises from a physical insecurity, the feeling that one must amass buffers and barriers against a hostile and fickle world. But much of the time, it is the manifestation of a desire for social validation, for status, for recognition.

Occasionally, a new Quora user will start dropping names or hint at wealth or make some other reference to their perceived superiority, as if their answer were an oversized codpiece. They will mention details from a lunch date with Bill Gates or smugly reveal their ‘mastery of women’, or some such nonsense. The Quora community is simultaneously fascinated with and repulsed by this sort of validation-seeking behavior, for it confirms their secret fears about how the world really works (that it is mostly run by pompous bullshit artists) while conveniently giving them a concrete, accessible target.

They needn’t try so hard. As the writer David Foster Wallace said in 2005, with his typically casual eloquence:

“The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

He spoke from experience; three years later he would hang himself, an unfinished manuscript just beneath his dangling feet, feeling that he had never lived up to his own potential and was shamefully undeserving of adulation. Seeking validation causes a sort of emptiness; having it and feeling unworthy seemingly does as well. Both are a form of validation-worship, and both will hollow you out in the end.

5. Recursion

I watch you, watching me, watching you, ad infinitum. I read your writing to me knowing that I will read it, and so forth. With each loop a layer of expectation and distortion is superimposed on both the writing and the reading process. We write what we are expected to write, narrow our voices to what is presumed; likewise, our audience comes to expect a certain line of reasoning, certain stylistic motifs, and is confused and dismayed when we stray. We even take the reactions of our friends as near-gospel in reacting to a new user’s answers — should they be cheered or ostracized? Whose side are we expected to be on? A single grudge can be amplified by the tribal herd, and pity those who get in the way.

The writer who is too acutely aware of their identity is like the parent who is standing up, yelling proudly about the recital pianist on stage, obliviously drowning out their own creation.

A common characteristic of many long-term relationships (romantic, platonic, professional) is a spiraling into a smaller and smaller set of acceptable behaviors. The micro-reactions of each day become evolutionary feedback, both reinforcement and punishment, and entrain the two people into a constrained, stagnating dynamic. Novelty becomes routine becomes reflex. We think we understand the Other completely even as we consider ourselves unendingly complicated. It takes effort to consciously reverse this process, to escape from predetermined roles, to question our social and emotional assumptions.

The same thing can happen between a writer and a reader when both are known to each other. Almost everyone I have talked to on Quora has eventually found a specialization of some sort — a social role they play in the ecosystem, or a niche style of writing, or a specific domain that they ‘own’, for better or for worse. They are expected to present a particular persona, or be an expert in certain topics; but those expectations eventually become a straitjacket, limiting their experience of us and our experience of them.

Writing anonymously short-circuits instinct and confounds expectation. It thrusts both writer and reader back into the honeymoon phase of your relationship, when every act was an adorable discovery and not a violation of implicit norms.

6. Boundaries

Anonymity seems like a fundamental questioning of identity itself. What makes you you? Is it your continuity of self-awareness? Well, no, it can’t be — that continuity is broken every time you fall asleep. When you wake up, your only connection to the previous you is your memories, which might well be implanted, as in so many science fiction movies.

Is it your behavior? Perhaps you act in a strongly consistent, clearly distinctive manner? Perhaps, but the evidence is not encouraging. From Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments to the now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment, individuals seems to act strongly according to their assigned roles, even though no one actually expects themselves to do so going into the experiment. Indeed, we judge others harshly for doing so, for claiming that they were merely ‘following orders’. The contrast is so powerful and repeatable that it has been given the kingly title of Fundamental Attribution Error — we over-attribute dispositional (personality) explanations for another person’s behavior, while underestimating situational explanations.

It may sound as if I am nudging you towards some sort of psycho-emotional nihilism. But in fact, I mean to do the exact opposite.

In our greatest moments of personal meaning — whether making love, admiring a stunning landscape, or being fully immersed in an artistic experience — we are connected to something beyond our understanding. We feel something approaching infinite empathy, patience, and understanding. And notably, we lose track of our boundaries, of where we end and the magnificence before us begins. Ego is simply not large enough to hold such abundance.

All of the attachments above — the illusion of somatic immortality; the connection to material objects; the unfulfillable desire for validation; the infinite recursion of social modeling; and the self-oriented notion of a completely independent personality — are forms of separation, of artificial boundaries. Even as they wall us off from the reality of the world, they wall us off from ourselves, from our true voice, and from our greatest (and yes, most unique) contributions.

With anonymity, we are free to discover and evolve our writing voice, let it fall on less-biased ears, avoid the status traps of jealousy or superiority, and let the community take ownership of our words and our ideas and our gifts. We are free to connect. We are free to create something larger, ultimately, than ourselves.

References/Footnotes

1. Clark, William. Sex and the Origins of Death. Oxford University Press, 1998.

2. Bacterial conjugation is not technically a form of sexual reproduction; even though genetic material is exchanged, no new organism is created from two parents.

3. Not technically, but functionally.

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