Cyclicity vs the straight line

Posted: 2017-08-13 , Modified: 2017-08-13

Tags: dichotomy, story, creativity, remix

Parent: Views


Being new and unique

When I was small, I had a seal with a cartoon face of myself, that I would put on things to show they were my unique creation, “Holdenized.” I imagined a whole “Holden factory.”

Sometimes it seems almost everything I do is predicated on the fact that life is NOT a cycle. Trying a new recipe each Friday. Writing something that has not been written before. Building things that other people can then build on. Advancing research. Learning more mathematics. Learning more programming. Philosophy. Learning more anything. Writing more diary entries. Building that exobrain in Workflowy. The dream of the Memory Palace.

Because, nerd nihilism says: In what way is life worth living, if it is a cycle?

The cycle

And yet - so much of human life is a cycle. People’s daily lives - they say marriage is about a thousand Wednesdays. The culture feels different in Taiwan than in the US: there, people care about living a happy life, having a stable job, having a web of good relationships, having family always there, and less about advancement.

The humanist/romanticist says:

Life is beautiful, worthwhile in itself because there is always someone who feels behind the eyes - that life is cyclical only helps us relate our lives to each other.


Storytelling is knowing about all the archetypes that repeat over and over - people say, “show us something new!” but no: when you just try to write new things without the backbone of traditional forms - it can come out a Creativist mess; sometimes in trying to draw a different line one can end up going in circles.

Math and writing are creative in different ways. While one goal is ultimately to generate new truths or stories, it’s often essential to have good grasp of what came before.1 I’m sure the same is true of most other professions.


My professor Jing Wang said: time used to go in a circle but now it goes in a straight line. People always care about progress (just look at technological progress now), and if this year they’re the same as last year, that’s a problem, they’re supposed to constantly be getting better!

What is for what?

Do we advance so that we can savor the cycle? Or do we cycle so we can advance?

Line to cycle: One thing about the stereotypical Asian family that’s always dissonanced me is that they value achievement and advancement so much - but so that they can enjoy the cycle of a comfortable, stable life! It’s not the same brand of achievement/advancement that I value - almost for itself - the ideal is to be completely for itself. And yet, if all you crave is a cycle, why go to the bother of shooting so high, when you can be content with a simple but happy life? It’s struck me as a contradiction at the bottom of some parentings…

(Also consider the cliche science fiction stories where the end result of technological process is where everyone is having pleasurable experiences in virtual reality every day…)

Cycle to line: Or we can conceptualize a line as made up of many cycles. Many things are a cycle (like your daily work routine), but each time you go through it you are wiser and you have accumulated more (until you perish). Each new story you write, you start over, but you are a little bit wiser, a little bit more sure.

The idea of “cycle to line” combats nerd-nihilism. It is an immediate answer provided there is enough space and time and basic needs are met: the process of accumulating more is itself valuable and worth living for.

The infinite line or cycle

But we still die. If we could live much longer, how much more knowledge and experiences could we accumulate? Longevity dangles the tantalizing promise of the infinite line. Greg Egan has some fascinating novels exploring this theme (Permutation City, Diaspora).

But another viewpoint is that the cycle is good, but there is no such thing as a cycle that goes forever - we all die. So the future offers the possibility of indefinite cycle - a cycle that goes on until you want it to end.

See also:

  1. See Don’t prematurely obsess on a single “big problem” or “big theory”