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.
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."
October 9. How Video Games Satisfy Basic Human Needs. A researcher identified four types of video game players, and the point is that people play games to be a certain way.
"One of the best ways to beat Jigglypuff is to play very defensively. But Mango, one of the best professional Super Smash Bros players, often refuses to play that way against Jigglypuff, even if it means losing. Why? Because if he's going to win, he wants to win being honest to himself. The way he plays is representative of who he is."
Modern society is like a monster that can only be defeated by playing a very specific way that only a few people enjoy playing. The rest of us have to find the balance between "succeeding" by being who we're not, and failing by being who we are.
October 16. A couple days ago, this reddit thread asked What activity or hobby is so filled with hateful people that it puts you off trying it? And it occurred to me that the bad people described in the thread probably think of themselves as good people. Depressed people know they're depressed, bad spellers know they're bad spellers, physically sick people know how they're sick -- and yet there are mental and emotional pathologies that hide from their carriers.
If toxic people don't know they're toxic, then how can any of us be sure that we're benign? If "bad people" experience themselves as good, then we're not talking about "character" -- we're talking about understanding.
I've been thinking, if I had one wish, I might wish that what I feel like doing, and what's good for me to do, would always be the same thing. But if that were already the case, how would I even know? How would I identify that one reliable voice among all the other voices, both rational and intuitive, that are fallible?
Last week, with the cognitive boost of cannabis, I thought about those cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, giving them advice. If it were really that simple, you could just follow the angel voice all the time. Those characters do not represent true right and wrong, but human value systems, which are always imperfect. I jotted this: "There is no possible set of rules to tell the angel voice from the devil voice, because logic can't know what the angel is, or keep up with the devil's masks."
Because our value systems are imperfect, the devil can be right. "It's okay to have sex for fun. Smoke some weed now and then. Butter is good for you." What else was the devil right about?
Then I realized, we're living in a postapocalypse society. It was a moral apocalypse, and it happened in the 1960's, when all kinds of standards and rules got thrown out the window, and fifty years later we're still fumbling for replacements.
But you could say the same thing about modernity (see Morris Berman's The Reenchantment of the World), or agriculture (see James C. Scott's new book Against the Grain) or even the taming of fire (see John Livingston's Rogue Primate). We're a postapocalypse species.
October 18. Different Worlds. Scott Alexander covers many angles of something I've noticed myself for a long time: we all have a particular "aura" or "bubble" that makes other people behave a certain way around us, and it's completely subconscious. He mentions how his own therapy patients never have emotional meltdowns, and traces it to his "Niceness Field, where people talking to him face to face want to be more polite and civil."
Later he mentions serial abuse victims:
I know people who have tried really hard to avoid abusers, who have gone to therapy and asked their therapist for independent verification that their new partner doesn't seem like the abusive type, who have pulled out all the stops -- and who still end up with abusive new partners. These people are cursed through no fault of their own... Something completely unintentional that they try their best to resist gives them a bubble of terrible people.
I've noticed a few things about my own bubble. Women either find me unattractive, or they want a serious relationship. People see me as benign and harmless, like a puppy -- except that border guards sometimes go to the opposite extreme, and give me more shit than any other educated white person. When I traveled in Europe, everyone in Madrid looked like they wanted to kill me, but this did not happen to me in any other city, or to other travelers in Madrid. At parties, I do my best to be normal and blend in, but people tend to feel uncomfortable and drift away.
I think it's possible in theory for us to change our bubbles, but much harder than it seems, because they go so deep. There's a philosophy, epiphenomenalism, that thinks consciousness is just powerlessly floating on a sea of mindless physics. I think we're almost powerlessly floating on a sea of unknown mind -- habits and motives that are so deep and vast and interconnected that it's like a secret subconscious civilization. It's like we're characters in a reality TV show, in a controlled simulated world, but the masters are not space aliens, or future humans with virtual reality. They're inside us.
October 20. Continuing on speculative metaphysics, I just wrote this in an email:
People think that the physical universe might not be physically real, just a simulation inside a computer. But really, the physical world is the simulation. Our bodies are avatars in an invented world made of atoms and space and time.
This idea fits with this article, which argues that matter is like software and consciousness is like hardware. Of course, we still don't know the function of this world, in the context of the world that underlies it. People come back from altered states of consciousness with confident answers to this question, but I prefer to leave it open.
October 25. The other day I wrote, "It's like there's a connection between underground culture and absolutist thinking." That's basically the same thing I've called "ideological thinking" and "mythical thinking" in the past. A more precise definition would be: stories about the world that are seductive because 1) they're very simple, and 2) they're value-loaded.
This is connected to underground culture because people on the fringe have no power. They don't find out their beliefs are too simple because they never get a chance to test them, and nobody corrects them because nobody cares what they think.
Absolutist thinking is also common at the other extreme, among people who have too much power. They don't find out their policies are harmful because the harm happens out of their sight, and nobody dares to tell them they're wrong.
So here's a speculative theory of social collapse: As economic and political power becomes more unequal, more people are at the extremes, where they can get away with seductively simple beliefs. So these beliefs become more common and more influential.
October 30. Long article covering space aliens from many angles, including how they've been imagined, what they might really be like, and why we haven't found any yet. The latter is called Fermi's Paradox, and I've developed an unpopular solution, lately enhanced by the argument in this article that matter is like software and consciousness is like hardware.
I think we will never find alien life more advanced than lichens and mushrooms, because in terms of consciousness, Earth is the center, and this physical universe is just for us, building itself outward as we examine it, through some combination of our own beliefs, and deeper constraints that we don't understand yet. We will not find another universe-constructing consciousness ("intelligent aliens") because they'll be at the mind-center of their own universe.
When these universes touch, we don't recognize it because we are culturally blinded by our philosophical division between objective and subjective. An alternate model, that better fits our experience, is to view objective and subjective as the unreachable poles of a spectrum. (You could say nothing is completely real or unreal.) Only within our own physical universe can we approach the objective pole, and find proof, which means that almost all perspectives can see something pretty much the same way.
Contact between universes is by nature so far from the objective pole that it can never be proven, but also far enough from the subjective pole that we find correlations and agreements in our experience. Basically, alien contact is what we call "the paranormal", and it happens all the time, but our intellectual authorities don't recognize it because they hold inter-universe experience to the same near-objective standards as intra-universe experience. See George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal for a book-length survey of the idea that phenomena can actively hide from proof.
October 31. Cormac McCarthy essay, The Kekulé Problem. Kekulé was the chemist who dreamed the circular structure of the benzene molecule, and the problem is: why did his subconscious show him a snake eating its tail, instead of saying the words "it's a circle"? From there, McCarthy launches into some fascinating thoughts about language and the brain and human prehistory, including an obvious idea that hadn't occurred to me: the realm of the human subconscious is the realm of animal intelligence.
To this, I would add the disreputable idea that animal intelligence has deeper roots in something collective or universal. I've said before that I think our subconscious minds are linked, and now I imagine them linked on a level that also includes all other biological life.
And I have another question: Why is the subconscious subconscious? Why are we unaware of these deeper levels, so much that their very existence is controversial? Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be your subconscious mind? I think it does, as much as it makes sense to ask what it's like to be a cat. So why are we separate from that being?
I think it's because our conscious minds are embryonic. They (we) are an appendage not yet fully developed, and as we develop, we will gain more understanding of the mind beneath us, and our place in it, just as babies discover the physical world.
What kind of world is it? In horror fiction, the occult depths are hostile and predatory, while in New Age writing, they're soft and warm. I have a vision that I call Happy Cthulhu. Suppose that H.P. Lovecraft got an unusually clear glimple of a deeper reality, but its riotous aliveness overwhelmed his Victorian mindset, and he projected evil on something benign. It's like when you hear a challenging song for the first time, and it sounds like terrible noise, but after enough listens, it becomes beautiful.
November 1. This reddit comment tells the story of how Keith Jarrett recorded a classic solo piano album when he was forced to adapt to a crappy piano. It reminds me of another musical story, from the PBS Rock and Roll documentary, where some other band found the exact mixing board that New Order used for their landmark hit "Blue Monday", and they expected it to be intuitive and easy to use, but it turned out to be painful and difficult. There's a saying, "Genius emerges from constraint."
November 7. I just spent four days in Florida without my computer, and I read Earth Abides, the classic 1949 postapocalypse novel by George R. Stewart. It was ahead of its time in many ways, but Stewart makes a choice that seems strange to me: the protagonist is the only character in the entire novel who wants to rebuild civilization. Everyone else is content to live off abundant canned food and wild game, and human culture shifts toward the people you find in anthropology books, hunter-gatherers and horticulturists who have never encountered civilization.
To be fair, I believed this myself until around 2008: that our paleolithic ancestors were an evolutionary attractor, as stable as sharks. Now I think they were a stage in a steady and accelerating movement toward greater social and technological complexity, which has brought changes in human nature. So even after a global hard crash, given all the surviving materials and books, we would rebuild a high-tech society much faster than we did last time.
But just lately, now that I'm thinking in terms of a collective subconscious, I'm wondering if that's really what it wants. Maybe part of our motivation to build this world was its novelty. Now if it crashes, we'll be like "been there, done that," and instead of doing the same kind of thing again, we'll turn our big brains to something we haven't even imagined yet.
There's another thing in Earth Abides that never occurred to me: even the survivors of a deep crash might die out from shock, because they just can't wrap their heads around a post-crash world. But in this way, we're much better off than our grandparents, because we've all seen postapocalypse fiction. We'll be like, "This isn't what I expected from playing Fallout or watching The Walking Dead, but it's close enough that I can figure out what to do."
November 9. Just a quick thought on the latest mass shooting. Despite the gunman's long history of violence, he was not in any FBI database. Meanwhile, I'm sure their database is full of harmless Muslims. The mistake they're making is to see the world as an ideological battlefield, in which the danger comes from beliefs. Really the danger comes from mental illness, and ideologies are just tacked-on rationalizations.
It's an easy mistake to make, because ideology is easier to track, to pin down, to wrap your head around. Mental illness is getting more common and more severe, and I'm not sure why. But it wouldn't surprise me if mass shootings become so normal that the deaths are almost invisible, like car crashes, and we only hear about the really big ones.
Related: Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome, and a more poetic article on the Amok phenomenon: Every Five Seconds an Inkjet Printer Dies Somewhere.
November 13. If you want to keep up on all the sexual abuse stuff that's coming out, there's a new subreddit, The Weinstein Effect. I like Louis CK's apology because he understands that the core issue is power. One thing the accusations have in common, is that if someone in a lower position tried the same shit on someone in a higher position, they would be fired.
We imagine these people are bad because they crossed the line between consent and coercion. But when almost the entire world is under authoritarian culture, where it's normal for some people to tell other people what to do, where it's normal for us to do what we're told even if we don't feel like it, then the line between consent and coercion is crossed so often that it almost doesn't exist. (Or, it's only carefully enforced in certain sensitive contexts.)
Once a culture has crossed the line into normalization of hierarchy, it's a constant temptation to cross the next line, between using a position of power for the good of the whole, and using it selfishly. And once that line has been crossed, it's tempting for selfish use of power to veer into sex acts.
I like to think, in a few thousand years, human culture will be so much improved that one person having any power over another will be a scandal.
November 16. I've written a lot about social collapse, but now I'm thinking about something like identity collapse. You develop a personality, a set of habits, that gets you through life, and it's probably more than half subconscious, learned when you were very young, and hard to change. But then some key component changes -- it could be something in you, or something in the world, or your role in the world. And gradually, or suddenly, your whole way of being no longer works.
When this happens to a society, or to an individual, and they don't flame out in destruction but fall into a deep slump, we use the same word: depression. The whole system becomes disjointed and ineffective, and recovery is a long process of rebuilding a working system from scratch.
I'm thinking about people who are blind from birth, and then their eyes get fixed. You'd think they'd be happy, but normally they become depressed, because they still can't see. It takes years to learn to interpret the light on the retina as a three dimensional world, and they have to learn this as an adult, where normal people learned it as babies with highly flexible brains. Meanwhile, now that they've become aware of that maddening world, they can't ignore it.
November 15/20. For a lot of skills, it seems like there are two kinds of people: those who understand the skill on such an intuitive level that they can't explain it, and those who don't understand it intuitively, and will never get it unless it's explained carefully.
Back in January I wrote, "my point of emphasis for 2017 is micro-scale toughness." I'm not sure that I'm any better at it, but at least I can explain it better. Somewhere I read about a guy who was out in a sea kayak off Alaska when a storm hit. At one point a wave raised him high enough to see deadly waves dense to the horizon, and he thought, this is it, I'm going to die. But he refocused, and rode out the storm by repeatedly turning to face every wave that came at him, one wave at a time.
This is what life does to us every day. The difference is, modern society is pretty good at keeping us from dying, so when waves hit us sideways, we just get more and more traumatized.
Another metaphor: if you're a professional shortstop, and someone suddenly throws a baseball at you, it doesn't matter if you're at a funeral, on the toilet, anywhere, you're going to catch it, because you've practiced that move ten thousand times. If you fail to catch it, it will smack you in the face, and then you're weaker against the next ball.
I wonder if the main difference between happy and unhappy people is reaction time. But these are skills we can practice: to define every bad thing that happens as the new baseline, and to feel gratitude for every good thing that happens, and do these moves with increasing consistency and quickness.
Coming at the subject from another angle, a reader sends a quote from the monk Bodhidharma: "Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path." It's strange, because out of context, you would think it's good to be moved by joy. In what metaphorical context is it better to be unmoved? I don't know what Bodhihdharma actually meant, but that quote gave me this idea:
If you're up in a hot air balloon, you don't feel any wind, because whatever wind there is, also moves the balloon that carries you. Now imagine there are two kinds of wind. If your balloon moves with the wind of joy, then you never feel joy, but you do feel the wind of pain. And if your balloon moves with the wind of pain, then you don't feel pain, but you do feel joy.
In practical terms: when something bad happens, think of it as the new normal. When something good happens, resist thinking of it as the new normal.
November 27. Great interview on Nautilus, Social Media Is a Denial-of-Service Attack on Your Mind. It's about how we're overwhelmed with information competing for our attention. My favorite bit, condensed:
Most of the systems in society still assume an environment of information scarcity. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it doesn't protect freedom of attention. There wasn't anything obstructing people's attention at the time it was written. Back in an information-scarce environment, the role of a newspaper was to bring you information. Now it's the opposite.
Now what we need is information filtering. But filtering for the long-term benefit of information consumers is not only difficult -- it's hard to even know if it's being done right. So the dominant filtering systems feed on our impulses. Their goal is to get clicks, to win a bigger slice of the predatory filtering market, with indifference to the social effects.
Dinosaur do-gooders, trying to "raise awareness", only add noise to the cacophony and increase our paralysis.
Into this wasteland steps an old-time villain, now doing something useful: information filtering with a political agenda. If you lack the resources to do your own filtering, why not turn to someone you basically agree with, and let them do it for you? It can't be worse than the nihilism of clickbait.
We are already in a postapocalypse world. Unbridled operant conditioning is turning people into zombies, while information-filtering warlords offer security against the famine of meaninglessness. I'm trying to stay independent, like Mad Max, but it's getting harder.
November 29. Continuing from Monday, in the context of technologies that tempt us to do things that are bad for us, there's always a voice that says, "Well, people just need to exercise better self-control." The interview has a great answer: "That kind of rhetoric implicitly grants the idea that it's okay for technology to be adversarial against us."
In the Terminator movies, Skynet is a global networked AI hostile to humanity. Now imagine if a human said, "It's okay for Skynet to try to kill us; we just have to try harder to not be killed, and if you fail, it's your own fault." But that's exactly what people are saying about an actual global computer network that seeks to control human behavior, on levels we're not aware of, for its own benefit. Not only has the hostile AI taken over -- a lot of people are taking its side against their fellow humans. And their advice is to suppress your biological impulses and maximize future utility like a machine algorithm.
Now, I happen to have really good self-control. That's how I got a 3.96 GPA in high school (back when 4.0 was the max) even though I hated most of the work. I would have crushed the marshmallow test. But it's a terrible way to live, constantly forcing myself through pain for some promised reward that either disappoints or doesn't come at all.
Here's a reverse marshmallow test, that tests human societies: If every kid always eats the marshmallow, if every person does exactly what they feel like all the time, how well does it work out for them? In a perfect human environment, no self-control is necessary; always doing what feels good is a realistic strategy for a happy life. Of course that ceiling can never quite be reached. But it's what we must aim for: to make our built environment work with us and not against us.