Flying Blind into the Anthropocene

For several days, Seattle has been enveloped in wildfire haze, with an air quality index (AQI) between 150-200, coded red for unhealthy. For these few days it has been among the most polluted cities on the planet. Many of us learned for the first time about N95 masks, which are rated to keep out 95% of 3 micron particles. Supposedly an AQI of 150 is equivalent to smoking 7 cigarettes a day.

Photo credit: Sean McCabe in Vanity Fair

It struck me that we’ve been doing the everyday equivalent of piloting an airplane on instruments. Weather reports, AQI numbers, mask ratings, and metaphoric comparisons to cigarettes have been more useful for guiding behavior than direct sensory evidence. Even the knowledge that we are breathing wildfire haze rather than some other sort of less harmful smog is based on on instruments, since the actual fire is in Canada, too far away for the smell of burning to carry.

Though there has been direct sensory evidence — being outside felt like being in an awful smoke-filled bar, the sunsets have been a lovely red, and visibility has been poor — the sensory reality has been something like a spectator sport with a very misleading relationship to atmospheric reality and meaningful responses to it. Air quality degrades to harmful levels well before you notice it. You can either believe the reports and numbers, or find out the hard way that going for a run outside is a bad idea. You can either wear the recommended mask, or find out the hard way that being outside for a long time makes you feel ill.

AQI numbers are abstract proxies and open to criticism, but they are not bullshit. They have a detectable relationship to reality. Wearing the masks is a matter of faith in the science, but their efficacy exceeds that of ceremony or superstition. Understanding the numbers and responding by limiting outdoor activity, keeping windows closed, and perhaps wearing masks, is instrumentally rational behavior in a literal sense: it has to do with how we think about reality through instruments.

By this standard, only a small fraction of people in Seattle (many of them tourists from Asia where mask-wearing has been socially normalized) are being instrumentally rational. I have been among the instrumentally irrational. Though we own a mask, the idea of wearing it and standing out made me not wear it, so I came home the other day wheezing and short of breath.

Our condition this week in Seattle has been something of a microcosm of the human condition in the anthropocene. Through a mix of design and accident, we’ve created a novel environment that is at once strongly shaped by human behaviors and highly opaque to normal human sensory modalities. But we haven’t instrumented this environment well enough to make up for our sensory deficits.

Worse, we seem to collectively lack the instrument rating to fly this civilizational airplane.

So we are flying blind into the anthropocene, without the appropriate instrument rating, on a wing and a prayer.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. As you say, this is a perfect, real-life metaphor of our being conditioned to wander through the haze, as it gets worse and worse, oblivious to it’s causes and consequences, not asking “Why should this be so?” nor “Should this be the way we treat ourselves?”

  2. To think of it, I live in Delhi where the AQI levels are poorer than this even on normal days (read: we have normalcy in abnormality it seems). I’ve always carried a 99% rating mask for 2.5u particles and yet, I haven’t worn it except once or twice when the News reports raised a hullabaloo about the air quality.
    Despite the air quality metric being updated every 15 minutes on the associated websites, life just goes on. It is only in retrospect that we start to ‘see’ things (which might suffer from the hindsight bias). For example, whenever I tried to do a few pushups in the mountains, I always found it hard to match up to what I could do easily in Delhi. Lesser Oxygen levels, I was told. Now, there is no problem. In fact, I can rep up a bit more. I begin to wonder if it has to do with lesser oxygen in Delhi now.
    So, it does seem right that we are headed somewhere (anthropocene or something beyond) without instruments, on a prayer and a hunch.


  3. Though we own a mask, the idea of wearing it and standing out made me not wear it, so I came home the other day wheezing and short of breath.

    So it’s a “most wearables are not cool yet” issue?

    This seems to be one of the lesser problems of the anthropcene, even a solvable one: the manufactured normalcy of the cyborg.