Object Permanence & the Environment


A recent paper shows that younger generations drive less than older generations. This fact indicates many things. For example, it demonstrates how better or worse off the Millenials are than the previous generations; it also shows a difference in priorities and experiences between the generations (for priorities, see climate change and for experiences, see remote work). One of the more underrated aspects indicated by this finding is in the way each generation values object permanence. Object permanence, essentially, means that an object continues to exist in the real world even though it can't be seen. Another way of tackling this is by posing the question this way, is there any existential value in driving? I argue that there is, especially driving for long distances.

The younger generation in the United States takes driving for granted mainly because cars have pretty much always been part of their consciousness. As a result, it loses out to the constant novelty in phones. Another reason is that we don't find our outside world beautiful anymore. We spend too much time worrying about it that we fail to appreciate it. We fail to appreciate the differences in architecture or the non-verbal aesthetic of different places. Yes, even the mundaneness of empty fields and rows of corn in the midwest. The value of driving is not that one "drives" but the importance of understanding one's position in the physical world and the freedom and responsibility that brings, primarily because one interacts with other human beings in complex but necessary dance. In this way, we fail to appreciate the role of object permanence in our lives and in making us more empathic and interesting beings.

When infants learn the concept of object permanence, the game of peekaboo loses its luster. Still, it does not necessarily remove the magic of the world; on the contrary, it changes its locus. This is not a revolutionary idea. We employ object permanence conceptually on the internet. This is obvious when we say things like "what's on the internet, stays on the internet" or ideas of that form. That said, what our generation undervalues is what I think is the true magic of object permanence in the real world: Entropy.

Infants learn two forms of object permanence. Object permanence in stationarity and in trajectory. They learn that the object is not lost as much as hidden behind an object. This is why before infants achieve this level of sophistication, peekaboo is essentially always fun. It is constantly new to them. For trajectory, infants realize and learn to track the course of moving objects. For example, a moving vehicle behind a wall will come out on the other side. In other words, not just the vehicle but the speed at which it goes does not disappear just because it goes behind a wall (More here.)

Indeed, the younger generation fails to appreciate that the objects on earth are as permanent as you can make them and that every change made is semi-permanent. This is different for roughly reversible projects like houses. My generation worries too much about the environment to appreciate it. The point remains that the outside world will remain longer than you do, and at some point, your ability to enjoy it declines over time. Road trips are the best in helping us appreciate the object permanence of the environment. When we travel the same route at different times in our lives, we see how entropy and change have acted out on that terrain. We also see that the essence of the environment remains the same or roughly the same as it lives through time.

This does not discount the, usually, genuine desire to protect the environment. In fact, the implications of this piece do encourage everyone to do their part. It calls for a sincere appreciation of our environment and for a reversal of roles. The older generations, in a sense, should underrate entropy more, and the younger generations should overrate it slightly.


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