May 1. The other day I wrote:
Driving really wears me out mentally. Most people can just zone out, but I have to give it my full conscious attention to not crash, and it always seems like everyone is going much too fast.... I actually believe there's some kind of collective unconscious that prevents car crashes, because when you look at how incompetent humans are generally, and how casual people are about safe driving, there should be a hundred times as many crashes.
I live in Ho Chi Minh City, and here that collective consciousness is glaringly obvious. I joked that you could do a documentary about Vietnamese motorbike riders where David Attenborough says "despite decades of research, nobody knows how they so precisely and quickly coordinate their movements."
Now I'm trying to diagnose myself, because I've never experienced that kind of flow state. It's not mental vs physical. In middle school I was the worst athlete in every sport, but I was also the best calligrapher in art class and the best lathe worker in shop class. When I get in the flow, it's always working alone, with unlimited time to really focus my attention.
I think the reason I can't get into the flow in fast group activities, is that I have something like proprioceptive dysfunction. It's not that I don't know where my limbs are or how to move them, but that I don't know subconsciously. For me to walk around without bumping into things, takes the same kind of mental focus as saying tongue twisters, or counting the grooves around a coin. Maybe I'm good at those things because I have to practice that kind of precise focus all the time, just to navigate the physical world without people getting mad at me.
Related: On Monks and Email. It's a short post about how medieval monks arranged their lives to eliminate distractions so they could spend hours in deep thought, and how we're basically the opposite.
May 3. Long article from the Guardian, Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs. Every time I read an article about "work", I like to go through and mentally substitute "work for money", because that's what they're really talking about, and it makes the issue a lot more clear. For example, when a politician says "Mankind is hardwired to work," he means we're hardwired to be active, and he can't imagine any way of managing human activity other than the money-based system that's only a few hundred years old, and already failing.
Related, a short blog post, I Can't Do Anything for Fun Anymore; Every Hobby Is an Attempt to Make Money. I'm the opposite. When I start a creative project, I see the world of money as a danger.
For example, this long reddit comment describes the conflict between Mike Love and Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson wanted to keep pushing the boundaries of creativity, while Mike Love wanted to make money by giving audiences what they expected. You have to fight to show people something different from what's already in their heads, and the more money you're making, the harder it is.
May 10. Yesterday we went to the zoo, and I'm wondering if I can do anything new with the old metaphor, that our society is a "human zoo". For the metaphor to be helpful, there has to be an anti-zoo, a possible human condition that corresponds to wild animals in nature. You could argue that there isn't, because 1) we're domesticated, 2) there's a huge variety of nature-based cultures, and 3) some of them are worse than the zoo.
But I'm going to say there is a human anti-zoo: it's any society that fits human nature. Defining "fit" is a hard problem, but I would start with Erich Fromm's argument for the very existence of human nature: that if we were infinitely malleable, there would be no revolutions.
This thoughtful essay, The Myth of Convenience, argues that the project of technological society has changed, from the conquest of nature to the conquest of human nature. This much longer essay, how to do nothing, explains how public spaces are engineered to keep everyone busy. It's full of other ideas about art and technology and perception, but I don't have time to read the whole thing right now - I'm on vacation.
Anyway, now the zoo metaphor is getting stretched, because zoo animals are bored - yesterday we saw an elephant that has worn a path from walking in a figure 8. For modern humans, boredom is a luxury. We're so overwhelmed with demands on our attention that having nothing to do would be an upgrade. It's funny, every cage has a sign: don't tap on the glass. We have yet to give ourselves that protection.
May 17. On the road I only have my iPad, which is really hard to work with when I'm hand-coding these posts. So now that I'm home, I can post links of stuff from the trip. Surprisingly, my favorite art was not in the Smithsonian but in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: Congo masks, Art Nouveau sculptures, and Thomas Hart Benton lithographs. And here's a picture of me next to a cool wall-hanging sculpture, Untitled No. 25 by Lee Bontecou.
We ate out a lot in DC, and my favorite place was Slash Run, a dive bar with great burgers, where I had this incredible beer, Hermit Thrush Stickney Kriek, and a DJ played lots of classic psych rock I'd never heard, including this brilliant song from 1968, Gary Walker and the Rain - Magazine Woman.
May 17. Sometimes I say that prominent doomers are not serious forecasters but performers, and here's a perfect example. Jared Diamond has just declared, "There's a 49 percent chance the world as we know it will end by 2050." He's being mocked for using such a precise number with such a muddy prediction, but if you take the statement apart, he knows exactly what he's doing. He didn't just pull that number out of his ass, but out of the psychology of his audience: 49 percent is the most you can warn people about danger while still being an optimist. "The world as we know it will end" is so vague that it covers the fears of almost everyone. And 2050 is a round-numbered year just close enough for most people to care about.
What Diamond is really saying is, "I want to lead the largest possible public discussion about the collapse of our civilization." There's also an unspoken subtext: that we prefer the world as we know it to the world that will come. But what if we don't? Isn't it strange that our most popular movies are about superheroes, and the goal of the heroes, in every single movie, is to save the world? I think these stories reflect a deep ambivalence, where we want the world to keep going the same way, and we also want to tear it down and try something different. I've said before that the greatest threats to our society are psychological. But it makes more sense the other way around: the greatest threats to our psychological health are in the design of our society.