The book’s theme surprised me. It’s about a lonely man, his girlfriend and her friends; a group of people who live their lives in a worrisome version of the future. The more I read, the more I saw the parallels between Shteyngart's work of fiction and modern life.
The characters live in a time where America has fallen from grace. The economy is in shambles, with the country deeply indebted to other nations—namely China, and the gap between the haves and the have nots is now a chasm.
Wait…it gets better.
Privacy is virtually non-existant. In this world, appearance and rank dominate. No matter where you are, you’re openly judged by others, and you see your rank change in real time. You’re treated according to the current snapshot of your affairs because it's all that matters.
Unbelievably, every person is measured on looks, financial situation and work status, as determined by the people in the immediate vicinity (aka the f*ckability index). Anything about you that can be measured and reported is available to the masses. You’re an open book for them to peruse, evaluate and discard. And, thanks to your apparat—a small jewelry-like networked device worn around the neck, you immediately see and hear what they think of you whether you want to or not. Think social media on steroids. It’s creepy, scary and unsettling.
Unfortunately, based on current social trends, that fictional reality doesn't seem so unbelievable anymore.
Weights and Measures
It seems we measure and label everything. We measure and label ourselves and then we evaluate our worth, status, and ultimately our right to experience happiness based on our self-assessment relative to our reference group—whichever group we feel most closely aligns with what we want for ourselves. And, thanks to traditional media and now social media, we also allow others to determine our self-worth based on how they rate or "like" our outward persona.
Here are some measurements we flog ourselves with, sometimes multiple times a day:
- Financial health: income, net worth, lineage/inheritance, material acquisition, insurance coverage
- Intelligence: grades/GPA, IQ/aptitude tests, scholarships/awards, education/degrees, knowledge/rote memorization, publications, specialization/expert status
- Status/Merit: wealth (see above), productivity/time deficit, having the right stuff (home, car, kids, vacations, toys, clothing and accessories, technology), employment status and profession (“what do you do?”, promotions, years in industry), criminal offences, address (postal code, country), lineage/inheritance, notoriety (fame), connections (who knows you and who do you know), social media presence (how many “friends”, “followers”, etc. you have)
- Physical appearance: age, gender, nationality, dress size, tatoos/piercings, blemishes/scars, hygiene/aesthetics, features (symmetry, culturally-desirable features), style (flattering/stylish look), body proportions
- Food intake & type: energy (calories), macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, proteins, alcohols), micronutrients (vitamins, minerals - salt, cholesterol), type (fruits, vegetables, meats/meat alternatives, dairy, grains, fats), natural, processed, prepared, GMO, organic, water (quantity, quality), supplements/drugs (quantity/quality)
- Physical health: weight (& BMI), body fat percentage, blood pressure, blood sugar, heart calcification/blockages, triglycerides/cholesterol, heart rate, VO2Max, strength, flexibility
Most of these measures are noise, partial truths. They’re externally-focused distractions that keep us from living a meaningful life because a measurement is only as good as its interpretation and external cues are meaningless in measuring one’s success in living a good life.
Examples: What good is a health indicator if we don't have context to know whether it's even meaningful in measuring a given person's "health"? What good is knowing a person's income level if their job feels meaningless and he/she is miserable as a result? What does it matter if someone is physically attractive if they're selfish and abrasive? What does the magnitude of your social media presence matter if it's based on a short-lived trend as opposed to a solid reputation built over time?
What’s essential for a good, meaningful life can’t easily be measured and benchmarked because we're the only one who can evaluate our own.
The essentials of a good life lie in thought, self-regulation, self-determination and outlook more than anything else. By their very nature, none of these abstractions are superficial. And because they’re internally-driven, they’re not easily measured or compared. Ultimately, we’re the only ones who can properly evaluate whether we’re satisfied with our level of attention and progress in these important areas:
- Regard for self and others
- Awareness of self and others
What's more, when we focus on how we we're doing in these areas based on what we value most, external measures shift to the background where they belong and we can feel more like ourselves because we're listening to and thinking about what truly matters, to us.
This post contains affiliate links to amazon.com. Purchases made via these links help support the F2P blog. It doesn't cost you anything and helps cover ongoing expenses associated with maintaining this blog. Thank you for your support.