March - April, 2019

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March 4-7. Major Games Publishers Are Feeling The Impact Of Peaking Attention. "Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritising between them." The article is focused on the video game industry, but I see this as much bigger. Human attention is the world's most valuable resource, but it's not like oil, where the fields are drying up forever. It's more like farmland, and there's no more room to make new fields. Also, existing fields are getting depleted, as people burn out from all the low-quality demands on their attention.

So what's a high-quality demand on your attention? That's for each of us to decide, and it changes with experience. When you look at discussions about which game in a series is better, like Fallout 3 vs 4 vs New Vegas, or Elder Scrolls Morrowind vs Oblivion vs Skyrim, everyone knows the newer games will have higher resolution graphics, but ultimately nobody cares, because whatever level of graphics the games have, players will get used to it. Instead people talk about things that are harder to quantify, like the feel of the game.

Last week I wrote this in an email: "I've been meditating a lot more lately, for a strange reason, that I'm getting bored with almost anything else I could do. It's like the mind is a prison, and when you lose interest in all the stuff at the center of the prison, you start looking at the walls."

March 11. This video, Thief vs AAA gaming, compares a great 1998 PC game with its lame 2014 remake. It's funny because the new game is bad in the same way that our society is bad. Instead of being immersed in a story with an unfolding mystery, in which we enjoy the process of growing our understanding, we're just given a bunch of quest markers for a tedious grind.

The other day I wrote: "The real reason society is going to collapse, is when enough of us sense that we'll be happier living in a much simpler society." But "simpler" isn't the right word. Leigh Ann and I have been playing a really complex board game called Spirit Island. It's much better than a simple board game like Risk.

If a game designer looked at our world, they would see that it's highly complex in a way that's not at all fun. We don't actually want to live in a simple world -- we want to live in a well-designed complex world. But the best path from one complex world to another, is through simplicity, by stripping it down and building something different.

March 13. Against Willpower. The idea is that willpower is a pre-scientific concept, a social invention, that doesn't match what's really going on. But for me, it seems to match pretty closely. I don't feel like going to the gym, or taking the garbage out, or brushing my teeth, but I force myself to do that stuff because I know it's good for me; and if I force myself to do too much stuff that I don't feel like doing, I get burned out.

But when I take a second look at the article, it's completely about negative self-control, blocking yourself from doing stuff you think is bad for you, and not at all about positive self-control, forcing yourself to do stuff you think is good for you. The latter is usually framed as "procrastination", which is stupid. The problem is that there's all this shit we don't feel like doing, and to frame that problem as putting off doing that stuff, is like framing a knee injury as walking with a limp.

Anyway, one useful concept in the article is "intrapersonal bargaining". I would explain it like this: instead of "me" forcing "myself" to do or not do something, there are different voices inside me, with their own personalities and motives, and they need to have conversations and reach consensus about what to do. It's funny, because the phrase "inner peace" is such a cliche that we don't bother to unpack the words, but that's exactly what the words describe: the voices inside us working together instead of fighting. In the future, they'll look back at our concept of "self-control" as a weird symptom of an authoritarian culture.

March 20. I always buy the same grass-fed ground beef at Winco, and normally it's about 20% fat. But the latest batch is so lean that my hamburgers don't even leave any grease in the pan. So I'm wondering if the cows burned up all their fat in the long cold winter.

Whether or not that's true, until recently it was normal for the weather to affect our food. The food system is now so industrialized that we expect total uniformity of every product, and little deviations bother us.

When we talk about "meaning", and how little of it is left in the world, we're talking about connections, relationships, things influencing other things. If you're designing a game, it would be a great touch to make the fall meat fatty and the spring meat lean. It would make the world feel more alive.

So why is our society increasingly being designed to make the world feel less alive? Probably it's because we've been overvaluing predictability, undervaluing connectedness, and not noticing that we can't have both. If things are connected in a meaningful way, then things are influenced by other things enough that they're no longer predictable.

I was reading an article about the failing American Dream, which mentioned that we want to see life as a story, when really it's a bunch of random stuff that happens. But when I look at my own life, it's totally like a story. The American Dream is not an attempt to make a story where there isn't one -- it's an attempt to control the story, to replace life's wild ride with a steady and predictable climb. And that level of control was only realistic for a few generations of the wealthiest nations in a brief age of perpetual growth.

Now that we're past that peak, we need to change our deep values, and I'm thinking of James Scott's book Against The Grain, and Morris Berman's book Wandering God. Settled peoples try to build wealth and security, so that nothing bad happens. Nomadic peoples try to set up their lives so that when bad stuff happens, they can keep going, and keep having a good time.

March 22. On the last post, Matt comments: "In most renderings of 'Heaven', the rhythms and contrasts of life have been flattened." So I'm wondering, why is the heaven myth that way, and not some other way? Is it cultural, or biological? In squirrel heaven, would there still be winter?

I think our concept of heaven emerged from ancient settled cultures. Only when people start having year-round dwellings, and building physical wealth, do they start to see the perfect life as something that needs to be protected from change. That's why the pop-culture Christian heaven, like ancient cities, has walls and gates. I'm curious about ancient nomadic cultures, and how they saw the afterlife. Gannon mentions that the Tarahumara, described in the book Born To Run, believe "that upon death they shed their earthly bodies so they can more quickly glide across the earth."

Anyone who believes in a better life after death has to explain why we're not there already. Why do we have to spend any time in a world that's not the best available? Three guesses: 1) The next world is hard to appreciate, without being in this world first. 2) This is a simulation, or a prison world, where we have to develop certain skills and habits before we can be permitted to live in the real world. 3) The whole thing is not well-managed, and we're here by accident.

Of course Hindus believe in reincarnation, and I have a crazy idea that we're reincarnated as progressively "lower" creatures. Like, we start as miserable gods, and end up in the total bliss of being bacteria. Matt writes:

I have a conviction that, as bio-engineering and cyborg tech really gets going, a number of people will not only choose not to enhance themselves -- they'll choose states of consciousness closer to wolves and owls.

But we don't even need to imitate particular animals. All we need are technologies that can temporarily and precisely shut down different parts or functions of our brains. That's basically what recreational drugs do now, but future tech might make our drugs seem crude and clumsy.

March 25-27. Ten year old Kevin Kelly essay, Progression of the Inevitable. It starts with a long and mind-blowing catalog of all the technology and science that was invented/discovered by multiple people at around the same time.

There are a bunch of directions to go with this. Does the same thing happen with creative work? Was cubism inevitable, or electric guitar solos? What about social and philosophical ideas? But I want to ask a hard question: What's inevitable about our future?

The answer depends on whether we think that inevitability is part of some hidden intelligence. I'm going to start by pretending that it's not. If the universe is mindless and meaningless, then humanity is driving blind into ever-increasing danger, and it's only a matter of time before we go off a cliff. Probably we'll develop virtual reality so good that we lose interest in the physical world, and go extinct. At the same time, we'll probably use biotech to change ourselves so much that we're no longer viable in nature, and go extinct.

Now, if there is a mind behind the movement of technology and history -- whether it's a human collective subconscious, or space aliens, or whoever runs the simulation -- then they might have a plan for us, and they'll make sure we survive. Or they might not have a plan -- they might be improvising. In that case, I still think we're okay. As a sci-fi writer who makes up stories on the fly, I would never kill off humans, because we make such good characters. But I might kill off most of us, or I might change us to make us even more interesting.

If there is a mind, and a plan, then it still might not be about us. I've seen this idea more than once: that aliens are using us to change the earth's atmosphere to match their home planet, so they can live here and we can't. A nicer idea is that Gaia is using us to bring the carbon to the surface, which will eventually be turned into plants and animals, and the biosphere will be more rich and abundant than it's ever been, whether or not we're here to see it.

But suppose we are the heroes of the story. The popular story is that we colonize space. But remember, this is no longer a meaningless physical universe, because in that scenario, we have no chance. This is a mind-based universe, a big dream where matter is nothing more than condensed dream-stuff. In that case, why make the physical universe so big and so spread out? Without faster-than-light technology, even traveling to other starsystems is unrealistic, let alone to other galaxies. Why put them there if we can't go there?

One possibility is that it's all been set up for us to develop really good FTL tech, to go far out into the universe. But I think the physical universe is a metaphor. It's there to inspire us to imagine space exploration, to stretch our dreams enough that we'll be ready to explore a different kind of universe, one that we haven't discovered yet, or quite imagined.

March 29. Taking a different angle from the last post, I've been emailing with Matt about the difference between technologies that are in a big hurry to happen, like the light bulb, and technologies that are possible for decades before they finally appear -- a comment on the inevitability essay mentions the crock pot. I wrote, "I think the difference is that the successful ones are more glamorous. They're part of a story about humans becoming more like gods."

Here's an idea that I call the Superhero Test. What it tests, is how quickly a given technology will appear after it becomes realistic. And the test is to imagine a superhero named after that technology, and ask how popular his movies would be, at that time. So in 1878, Light Bulb Man would be a popular superhero, even if you called him Incandescent Man, or Glowing Filament In A Void Man, or See In The Night Man. But Crock Pot Man, or Slow Cooker Man, or Easy Soup Man... not a lot of people would see that movie.

Matt mentions cheap and frequent blood testing, as a possible tech that hasn't happened yet, and would save a lot of lives. Okay, which of these medical procedures would sell more tickets? 1) Look inside yourself and see if you need to eat more potassium. 2) Wait for the disease to appear and then fucking blast it!

I do believe in a human collective subconscious -- I call it subconscious rather than unconscious because I think it is conscious: it makes sense to ask what it's like to be that thing. So what is it like? If humans have a group mind, what it its personality?

I think it's impulsive and childish. It's smart enough, and powerful enough, to stop us from having a nuclear war, which would spoil the game. But it's unwise enough that it would rather terraform Mars than restore Earth's ecology. Two questions I can't answer: Is there a single monolithic human group mind, or is it more like a subconscious congress? And how much does it change, as our conscious personalities change?

April 3-8. Years ago a friend told me he was having trouble dealing constructively with his emotions. I said, I don't know what that means. To me, emotions were not something you could deal with. They were like clouds in the sky. If they're good, appreciate them; if they're bad, ignore them. Also, do what feels good, and don't do what feels bad. It was that simple.

Somewhere in this decade, that strategy stopped working for me. Now, more of the things that feel good make me feel bad later, and more of the things that feel bad are impossible to avoid. And it turns out that ignored bad feelings don't actually go away.

The thing I'm getting better at, that I didn't want to get better at, is absorbing emotional pain. I understand now that pain is a muscle: to completely feel the pain, as it happens, is like lifting weights, and the more you practice, the more you can lift. But it still feels bad. And I'm paranoid, that the better I get at absorbing pain, the more pain the world will give me.

After thinking about it more, I'm trying to figure out exactly what I mean by emotional pain. Physical pain is pretty clear-cut. If the doctor asks where it hurts, you can point to the spot, and we can assume that other people's pain feels basically the same as ours. But emotional pain might turn out to be several different things, with different people feeling one or another more strongly.

For me, pain is all about attention. It usually happens like this: my mind is focused on something that I like focusing my mind on, it could be writing, or music, or a game, or just daydreaming. And then something else demands my attention: the phone rings, or someone wants me to do something, or I just have to do some chore of daily life like washing dishes or going to the store.

Every time that happens, it's like a punch to the face, and I want to get angry, but that's not helpful. The best move is just to absorb the blow, and fully feel the pain of shifting my attention from something pleasant to something unpleasant. The quicker I can get my attention completely focused on the new thing, the better. A great trick here is curiosity, because the more unpleasant something is, the more opportunity there is to investigate that unpleasantness.

Now I'm wondering if all pain can be defined in terms of attention. Grief is when there's something you want to give your attention to, but it's gone. Physical pain is mentally painful because you want to ignore it, but the stronger it is, the more attention you have to give it. Fear is the anticipation of having to shift your attention to something you don't like.

April 10. My town had a flood last night. Here's a short video on Twitter.

April 12-15. Earlier this year I answered some questions for an email interview, and it's just been posted, on the Wild Will Project, Conversation with Ran Prieur.

And here's a subreddit thread quoting a comment from the interview, where someone gets really mad at me for not supporting a revolution to bring down industrial civilization. My comment is, I find it strange that that guy even cares what I think. But when I think more about it, it's a good illustration of infighting. For example, it often happens that two nearly identical sects of some religion will hate each other more than they hate anyone else.

Infighting is about identity signaling. People like to have a well-defined identity, and to communicate it to other people. If I say I don't like Donald Trump, that's low-quality information -- I've just uselessly lumped myself with six billion other people. But if a Republican senator says it, it's interesting. So as someone who agrees with the critique of industrial society, but doesn't support its violent overthrow, I'm a useful navigational beacon for other people in the same general idea-space, to say where they are.

April 16. On Sunday, Gene Wolfe died. He was the best living science fiction author, and he really raised the bar for how much intelligence a sci-fi author could demand of readers. I met him once, in the 90's, at a book signing in Seattle, and I asked him about a mystery in The Shadow of the Torturer: Why is Agilus, after taking off his mask, still wearing a mask? He said, "I just write 'em, I don't explain 'em." Last year I reread the whole series and poked around online, and I still don't know the answer.

Wolfe is best known for the Book of the New Sun series, but I want to write about two lesser known works. One is a little novel called Castleview. I've read a lot of books on the paranormal, and I only know two pieces of fiction that really capture the strangeness of actual paranormal experience. One is the X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," and the other is Castleview. The ending baffles me -- I think it requires deep knowledge of Arthurian myth.

Some of Wolfe's best stuff is in his collections of stories. My favorite is the Book of Days, which includes a weird Kafkaesque novella called "Forlesen", and a three page story called Against the Lafayette Escadrille. The narrator has built an almost-perfect replica of a German WWI plane, and one day, in the sky, he encounters an incredible replica of a Confederate hot air balloon, sewn from silk dresses, and circles it, waving to the woman in the basket.

Has he actually traveled through time and seen the original balloon? Or glimpsed some in-between universe where replicas and originals blur? Or is it a metaphor, about all of us in this dim physical world, seeking the Divine? No answer is offered, but this is the final paragraph:

I have never been able to find it again, although I go up almost every day when the weather makes it possible. There is nothing but an empty sky and a few jets. Sometimes, to tell the truth, I have wondered if things would not have been different if, in finishing the Fokker, I had used the original, flammable dope. She was so authentic. Sometimes toward evening I think I see her in the distance, above the clouds, and I follow as fast as I can across the silent vault with the Fokker trembling around me and the throttle all the way out; but it is only the sun.

April 22. What's the Point of Self-Improvement Anyway? The author makes a distinction between self-improvement "junkies" and self-improvement "tourists". The junkies are never satisfied no matter how much improvement they do, while the tourists only improve themselves when there's a serious problem that needs fixing.

I would frame it like this: a lot of highly successful people have yet to learn an important life skill: to step back and say, "I've won." It's the mental shift, from holding tension between where you are and where you want to be, to just relaxing into where you are. And it takes practice to get good at it.

On the same subject, What if there's nothing wrong with you? I like that phrasing. If you just say "there's nothing wrong with me," it sounds like denial. But if you ask "What if there's nothing wrong with me?" you're admitting there's probably something wrong with you, but also seriously considering that there might not be. And if so, what next?

April 24. I have some thoughts on "religion", and I put that word in quotes because I continue to not like the way it carves up the world. Matt writes this about certain religious people:

It's like they're obsessed with a movie that came out in 1999. They think it's the best movie ever written and it's the only movie they ever talk about or watch.... On one level, there's little difference between Christians and 13-year-old Star Wars nerds.

So I'm thinking, Evangelicals are like that, but Unitarians are nothing like that. My point is, our concept of religion divides movements and communities according to belief, when it's more helpful to divide them according to mental state. So Evangelicals, Star Wars nerds, and people who are obsessed with some political movement, have more in common with each other, than with Unitarians, casual Star Wars watchers, and people who engage the political system without being obsessed.

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