September 4. A thought experiment for Labor Day. Imagine you live in a world where money is completely disconnected from work. Not only is there an unconditional minimum income, there's also a maximum income -- and they're the same! Corporate executives, sled dog racers, insurance agents, and people who just watch TV all day, all make the same amount of money.
In that world, what would you do with your time?
And how similar is that to what you actually do with your time?
To the extent that those things are the same, you're successful -- even if you're poor. To the extent that they're different, your quality of life is being constrained by cultural assumptions and economic rules that tie activity to money.
You've all seen that political grid, where one axis is social freedom and the other is economic freedom. That's always rubbed me the wrong way, and now I can say why: because it has "freedom" exactly backwards, defining it as the right to trade your labor for money, even if it's something you wouldn't do if it weren't for the money, and then turn around and trade your money for the labor of others, even if they're only doing it for the money. That's not people being free -- it's money being free to control us.
In a value system that puts quality of life first, economic freedom is not freedom of money but freedom from money, and the more disconnected money is from activity, the more free we are.
There are three obstacles to the disconnection of money from activity. The easiest is just to understand that anything less than a 100% volunteer workforce is inadequate. The hardest is getting there from here as an entire society. That's going to take hundreds of years and reforms that haven't been imagined yet. And the medium sized problem is moving in that direction in your own life.
Now someone might say, "What if what I love to do is make money?" That's silly, because money is supposed to be a means for the end of living well, not the end in itself. And if you just enjoy the process of accumulating abstract tokens, then you can get that pleasure from games. And if you say, "I enjoy accumulating abstract tokens that have real world value," then be careful, because you might be asking for a power that no one should have: to make people do stuff that they wouldn't do if they didn't need the money.
September 11. Interesting subreddit post: On the Demonic and Virtual Reality. The idea is that we could think of "demons" not as magical beings, but the way we think about human social constructions like fascism and religion.
If the demonic names a type of oppressive virtual reality, then demon possession can be approached as the subjective inscription of these systems of injustice into an individual's consciousness. The demonic is the system of injustice that influences the material actions of all those in a society, while demon possession is where an individual becomes the actual mouthpiece of that injustice.
I believe something weirder. I've noticed that most human behavior comes from levels of the mind that we're not consciously aware of, and I think our individual subconscious minds are connected with each other in ways we haven't discovered yet, in highly complex networks, which can behave like primal gods.
September 13. A reader sends this timely article from two years ago, Walker Percy's Theory of Hurricanes. It's the same idea as Rebecca Solnit's book A Paradise Built in Hell, that people become happier in disasters.
I'm skipping straight to the hard question: how can we make this permanent? How can we build a society where the loose, friendly, engaged social vibe that now emerges in disasters, is how we feel all the time? Or at least more often?
Just having one catastrophe after another won't work -- they tried that in Haiti. I don't think there's any simple or easy answer. It's just going to take hundreds of years of walking there, one step in law, one step in culture, until we have a set of laws built on trust and improvisation, instead of fear and predictability, and a culture where people don't take advantage of that, or feel traumatized.
Sometimes I think all lawmakers should start as game designers, because game designers have to understand the thin line between trauma and adventure, between safety as a padded cell and safety as a platform for launching.
September 20. Consciousness Goes Deeper Than You Think. The title makes it sound like we have new information, when really we have a new way of using words. We used to define "consciousness" as re-representation, the creation of a mental perspective detached from the stream of experience. Now we're defining it as the actual stream of experience, which means our representation of consciousness, created by that word, goes deeper.
September 25. The New Yorker has just covered The Case Against Civilization. Related, from 2011, How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways. And a classic article, Preconquest Consciousness (pdf) by Richard Sorenson.
I used to write about this subject all the time, but I quit because I feel responsible to protect readers from making a sloppy logical leap into dangerous life advice: that we modern people can become happier by living rural and low-tech.
My position is harder to explain and less compelling: that we can develop something like the playful anti-authoritarian culture of the best hunter-gatherer tribes, at a high level of social and technological complexity, but we don't know exactly how yet, and it will take us hundreds of years to figure it out.
September 27. After Monday's optimism, some doom. I saw a discussion on reddit where people were disagreeing about whether life is hard, because they weren't clear about definitions. I would break it down like this: in the 21st century first world, compared to most human societies and all wild animals, it's really easy to not die, and really hard to be happy.
If we keep going in this direction, eventually any death not from suicide will be global news. Suicide might even be normalized, so if you're above a certain age, and you say you're going to kill yourself, no one will even try to talk you out of it. Suicide might become a necessary safety valve, taking people out of the equation who would otherwise drag the system down or destabilize it.
I used to think collapse would come from physical factors like peak oil. Now I think there's no crisis we can't tackle if we're sufficiently motivated -- and we're not.
Where does motivation come from? The popular assumption is that it comes from some magical virtue that lives inside individual people. I think motivation is a matter of fit: the fit between what's in our hearts to do, and what society wants done. And right now those two things are really far apart. How many times have you heard someone say that success is about hard work and not talent? It's a big cliche, and it seems to be true, but we wouldn't need to say it so much if we didn't start by assuming the opposite.
I think in our deep ancestral environment, thriving was completely about talent -- and of course luck. There was so much overlap between what they felt like doing, and what was in front of them to do, that they didn't need the concept of "hard work". It's not that a work ethic makes you successful, but that our culture had to invent "success" to reward invented activities that hardly anyone feels like doing.
Sometimes I wonder why there are no colleges or employers that target underachievers. They could be like, "We want talented people who just seem lazy because they've never been in an environment as exciting as ours." This is the path to revitalizing our civilization, and no one is trying it. Instead everyone says the opposite: "We want people who are already highly driven, and we'll just teach them to go through the motions of doing our thing."
You know who does recruit underachievers? Terrorists, and cults, and other dangerous movements that I'm mostly against. But that's the hard logic of every human society: if it goes too far astray from human nature, the people who want to keep the game going will be outhustled by the people who want to end it.
October 4. I've been listening to this podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression, and the main thing I notice is how different everyone's story is, from each other and also from mine. I don't even want to say I have "depression" because the word is so vague and has so much baggage, and also because my condition is not crippling, merely painful. On a bad day, life feels like washing an endless sink of dirty dishes and never getting in the flow. But I still have the energy to analyze and experiment.
I think the solution lies in practicing very precise metacognition. Even the advice to "be present" is not precise enough, because you can be present in the stream of sense experience, or in what's going on inside your head, or in the interface between the two. Yesterday I jotted down this insight: "The moment-to-moment choice of where to put your attention has a personality." It's not your deepest personality -- it's a mid-level personality that can be changed. Or as someone on reddit said: "The voice inside your head has a voice inside its head."