The Modern Survival Guide #57
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I read contracts. It’s part of my job. But I also read contracts that I have to sign in my personal life, and it has led me to the inescapable conclusion that some of the most important things in life are SUPER boring. But we ignore them at incredible peril.
There are a couple of levels to this: the legitimate and the sneaky. Sometimes things are legitimately boring and we just have to do them anyway. And sometimes things are boring for a reason, and part of that reason is to get you to ignore them.
On the first level, we have to accept that some stuff is just dull. It’s not really possible to write an exciting legal contract. There are only so many ways to make status reports interesting. And you can’t necessarily liven up a funeral with comedic effect to help pass the time. But that doesn’t mean that dull things are unimportant, and as a society we have GOT to get that through our heads.
And on the second level, it behooves us to try to ferret out the sneaky things. There’s a special circle of hell reserved for people who exploit the fine print, but it happens all the time. Just look at the subprime mortgage crisis (AKA, the Great Recession of 2007). That happened partly because a lot of borrowers didn’t understand what they were getting into when they signed loans. They didn’t understand because it wasn’t explained to them — it’s ok to blame people for not reading contracts sometimes, but a lot of legalese just doesn’t make sense to the average person.
Avoiding that kind of calamity is good for society as a whole, and this means that we have to both pay attention to and attempt to understand boring stuff. And that takes effort.
The Dull Things that Define Reality
As I’ve mentioned in other articles, have you ever actually read your iTunes legal agreement? Short version, it’s a hoot, and Apple reserves the right to remove any song you purchase from your library without telling you. Now… care to guess what else you’re giving up in other user agreements?
End User Legal Agreements (EULAs) are a particularly pernicious example of this boredom problem, and the funny part is that about half the time it seems like the companies don’t really read them either. Just think about what that means for a second… because you probably don’t take the time to read eighteen pages of legal jargon, and because the corporate legal eagles also often don’t read the eighteen pages of legal jargon before they hit copy/paste, there’s a really good chance that you and a bunch of companies have legally agreed to stuff that neither of you really understand. That’s a big deal, and it will affect you.
So… can you think of any ways that might go wrong? Like maybe with your loans? Or perhaps your medical privacy agreements?
If that isn’t enough to curl your toes, just think about what gets pushed through in the average Farm Bill. For those who don’t know, the Farm Bill is an annual funding law that gets passed in the US Congress. And for those who don’t know, it sounds relatively innocuous. Kind of like it ought to be just a handful of regulations, or maybe a grants program or something. Right?
Oh. My. God. You have no idea.
The Farm Bill, quaint though it might sound, is a nearly $900 billion appropriation package, and it touches everything from agricultural grants to education to foreign policy to food stamps (SNAP). $900 billion is enough money that it’s literally impossible to imagine it, or what it can do. To wade through the bill to see what Congress is doing with it takes time, and patience, because it’s written in the kind of dense legalese that makes an end user agreement look like a walk in the park. But you should do it (at least once in life, anyway, like a pilgrimage to Mecca), because anything that costs $900 billion of your tax dollars is a big deal, and it affects you.
Or take Brexit, as another example. For those who have been living under a rock for a few years, “Brexit” is a portmanteau of “British Exit,” referring to the pending exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Now at this point the majority of Americans are yawning, searching for the remote to turn on football, and muttering under their breath “Who cares, that’s across the pond.”
Well, this is one of those things that’s a big deal and that will affect you, even though it’s boring and happening in another country. See, Britain has a lot of companies, manages a lot of trade, and has a lot of very rich banks. And all of those entities do business in Europe and the US, among other places. Given the way the Brexit negotiations are going at the time of this article (hint: badly) it’s very likely that Britain and the EU will part ways without a good deal in place to pick up all the trade deals and treaties that make up the details of EU membership in the first place.
That means that the British may not be able to do as much business in Europe, and they may try to make up some of the difference in the US. It may also mean that one of the world’s premier economic powerhouses may tumble into a steep recession — and that would almost certainly take the rest of the world with them into recession, because what happens across the pond does not stay there in an interconnected world.
But look, it took me three paragraphs to even get a very simple explanation of Brexit off the ground, and while I was doing that I’m sure at least one person got bored and switched over to cat videos on YouTube. Hell, I switched to cat videos on YouTube for a while there. My bad, you guys. It can be a lot of dull work to write one of these things, you know.
The truth is, though, that in a democratic nation it doesn’t help anyone to turn away when the explanations get tedious and complicated. That’s just a hard fact. You can’t count on life to package every single explanation up in a little box of short notes and hand it to you. And you definitely should not count on politicians or corporate entities to do so — the simple explanations you see politicians offer are just intended to get your vote, and the simple explanations corporations offer are just intended to get your money.
Beware any situation where something is so boring that you lose interest before you even figure out what’s going on — in many cases, that’s deliberate on someone’s part. It is to the immense benefit of very powerful people around the world that the rest of us get so bored so easily that we don’t take the time to understand what’s happening around us.
Repackaging Boredom with Glitter
Fortunately, we live in the information age. And part of the information age is that there are a large number of people who are extremely dedicated to making very complex issues accessible for the modern audience.
There is a reason why shows like “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight” are popular — they specialize in taking complicated subjects, making fun of them, and breaking them down into entertaining segments. Forget for a moment that shows like these are comedic; they’re also tightly written, well-researched, and they take on important issues (whatever you think about their content, I feel like those points stand on their own).
That’s a great thing, in my mind. These guys are repackaging boring subjects with glitter bombs and penis jokes, and it works. It’s so much easier to watch than trying to pick up these subjects from scratch.
There’s also a booming segment of YouTube that works really hard with really slick animation to distill down complex subjects into understandable formats. I give a lot of credit to channels like In a Nutshell for this kind of work, and it’s extremely helpful.
But that only takes you so far.
Crunching Through Boredom Because You Have To
Ultimately, it’s worth our while to realize that there are a certain number of things that we, as adult humans in a democratic, capitalist society, just have to understand. There’s no getting around it. There’s no really easy way out. The only path forward is to do some basic research¹ and maybe take a class or two, if you can find one available. And the list of subjects that really needs some degree of study seems to get longer every year.
But, what the hell, here’s a short list of the ones I think are important:
- Basic science — how the scientific method works and why that’s important
- Basic politics — how our political system works and why that’s important
- Basic economics — how money works and how our economy functions
- Basic geography — where we are and why that’s important
- Basics of history — why things are the way they are
- Basic grammar — how our language works and how to use it correctly
- Basic legal knowledge — what you’re allowed to do in your state and country
- Basics of contract law — what you can be compelled to do by a private entity
- Basic medical knowledge — how bacteria and viruses work, how antibiotics and vaccines work, and how your body works, along with some first aid knowledge
- Basics of agriculture — where food comes from, how it’s grown, etc.
- Basic electronics — AKA, how to not burn down the house in an electrical fire
- Basic home economics — how to cook, clean, and manage personal finances
- Basic craftsmanship — how to use tools safely and effectively to make things
Ok, that wasn’t such a short list. Kind of highlights the problem, though.
Now, you might notice that this very closely resembles your high school curriculum. There is a reason for that. Very few of us were smart enough in high school to pay attention. But the reason our high school curriculum looked the way it did was that very concerned adults thought these subjects might come in useful for future adults.
So — my advice to you is, every once in a while, to pick one of these subjects and dust it off. Read a book on a subject you’re not familiar with. Watch a documentary on one of these topics. Maybe even take a class at the local community college if you have the time and money. But do something to improve your knowledge.
It’s going to be boring. Accept that this is an ok state of affairs. You may not make it all the way through the book or documentary or whatever in one sitting. That’s ok too; it’s not a race. It’s just… brain maintenance, and we should all be doing it from time to time.
Ultimately, a lot of life is kind of dull. At least, it is if we’re living a peaceful, productive life. But we have to get over this feeling that things have to be exciting in order to be important. The universe, not to mention our social and economic systems, is not set up around your idea of what is interesting. But you still have to live within these structures, which means you need to understand them if you want to live well.
So yeah, I’m consigning you to boredom from time to time. But look, one of these days our survival is going to be dependent on enough people having paid attention to, for example, orbital science — and then understanding enough of the boring math to realize what an exciting outcome an incoming asteroid represents.
So read your contracts. Watch the occasional documentary. Read books on subjects that are yawn-inducing. And listen to people who aren’t gifted speakers. It will make your life better, and improve your odds of survival in this massive, complex, often boring world.
¹From non-partisan sources, if you can find them.