When I was young, I was fascinated to the point of fear by stories of human spontaneous combustion. The scenario had a person who was living a perfectly normal life and then suddenly bursting in flames from inside the body. Some stories had the fire being inextinguishable and so hot that only ashes remained for most of the body. Or at least that is what I recall.
The fear was more than that a life can end so suddenly and unexpectedly. Heart attacks, strokes, or certain types of trauma do that very naturally. The scenario of being suddenly reduced to ashes with nothing recognizable remaining elevates the fear of merely dying.
I think an analogy existed in the original Star Trek series that I watched when they aired on TV, when I was very young. While I was drawn to the story of space exploration, I was also hooked by the horror aspects that frequently showed bloodless deaths of complete atomization by phaser or by some alien tech that reduced a person to something that can be crumbled into dust. In that series, frequently death was depicted as sudden and painless, a death without time to recognize that death was approaching. Compared to most other deaths that are preceded by suffering and hopelessness, the sterile depiction of death by immediate disintegration should be preferred but it made me think that while I would love to avoid suffering, I would not want to avoid the opportunity of resigning to inevitability of death before it occurred.
I don’t want my life to end as quickly as an LED turns off when its power is turned off. I prefer the incandescent light that briefly glows red afterwards. The glow is reassuring. However, both devices at least leave an unlit remnant that I can recognize its function even though it is no longer functioning. A worse fate is the LED that evaporates suddenly in a power surge, leaving nothing but the metal leads that once fed it.
This fear of death by sudden disappearance remained with me throughout life, but it was joined by a different fear of disappearance. In particular, the fear applied to a situation where I have made some form of commitment: fear of disappearing before I delivered what I promised.
This frequently occurs in a work situation. I am given some task where I have some latitude to follow my own approach to solving. I am confident I can deliver what I promised if I had the full promised time to complete it.
My fear is that no one else would be able to follow my approach if I were to disappear before I was done. A successor almost certainly would have to start over with some other approach. Thus it is essential that I not disappear before delivering the promised product.
I experienced just that fear this morning when resuming a task I promised to deliver in a couple days. When I attempted to use the computer, the computer informed me that it would not let me in, similar to the scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey where Hal said he could not let Dave back into the space station.
It is mid 2020 instead of 2001, and we are not much closer to inter-planetary space travel than when that movie was made, but the situation today is perhaps just as fantastical to someone living in 1968 when I was 8 years old. Pandemic and political upheavals has largely restricted my movements to stay close to home. In effect, my existence is largely dependent on Internet connectivity and some server that will permit me to connect to it.
If I lose that connection, I certainly lose my ability to deliver what I promised. The loss of that connection does not yet threaten my life, but in terms of what matters a lot to me right now (delivering on a promised product), it is still very frightening.
I will survive if I fail to deliver my promise, even if that results in losing my job. I can still walk out and interact with the community. On balance of things, I have less of a connection with the local community than I do with my work. It would be survivable but it would still be devastating to lose that.
What bothers me is the progression I observed over the past several decades.
When I first started working, the biggest risk of not being able to complete my tasks would be if I were to get severely injured or get arrested for some serious crime, both were reasonably avoidable.
Later, I had jobs that required a prerequisite security clearance. Not only did I have to wait for the clearance before being able to work, that clearance could be withdrawn on a moment’s notice for things I could not control. I experienced colleagues who were removed from their jobs due to information about them that they had no control over. Something similar nearly happened to me where if I failed to defend my clearance I would be suddenly extracted from my job, abandoning a multi-month project based on my recommended approach. That scared me.
The best job I had was one where I made monthly commitments. At the end of each month, I would report my efforts in such a way as a completed project for what I was paid that month. Each month became a complete separate gig to me even though I was under a longer contract. I feared that I would not complete a project more than I feared that I would not complete the contract.
Over time, my connection to my work became more tenuous. My access to a computer became dependent on a system administrator granting me permission to use it. and that same administrator not withdrawing that permission at some arbitrary time. Then the same thing happened with accessing the network, and then accessing the various servers. In each case, the restrictions narrowed to what parts of each I was able to access, often resulting in my discovering I was no longer permitted to access what I once was able to access by default.
By 2019, I lived with the constant anxiety of discovering I would no longer be permitted to do what I previously was able to do. I adapted in various ways to at least retain some confidence that I could complete a task if one more permission was taken away.
The combination of the extreme lock-down policies for the pandemic and the political upheavals has raised the stakes to an entirely new level. Mostly restricted to working from home, I lack the opportunity to easily walk my computer or 2-factor token to an administrator to fix. If I lose either, I can expect to be cut off from work for many days or even a month. Not only am I mostly restricted from going into the office, but so is anyone who can help me. At best, I’d have to wait in a long line before it is my turn. In the interim, I would have no choice but to abandon my unfinished project, and by extension I would have disappointed a large number of people who counted on me to deliver what I promised.
This is the modern anxiety that seems analogous to the spontaneous combustion. Whatever we may say about our physical health and safety, we are at heightened risks of disappearing from our ecosystem through arbitrary rule changes that convert a previously acceptable behavior to a forbidden one, and to the extent that past violations will be prosecuted even though they were not wrong at the time.
The analogy to spontaneous combustion is appropriate because such disappearance is more than analogous to death, it is also the elimination of the body of work in progress. The fires of 2020 burn so hot to leave unrecognizable ashes of the targeted person’s identity. Even though physically unharmed, his wandering in public would become ghastly invisible and indistinguishable behind a face covering mask and unable to get within conversation distance to anyone.
The social distancing, face masking, and conformity to the locally dominant political thought leaves no other option for personal identity than that what can be obtained by having access to network to reach a permissible server. That identity can be extinguished at any moment without even having a clue it is about to happen.