How long shall we endure the vines of manipulation growing round our house? One day, they were only sprouts, but now they seem to have coated the walls and made their way to the roof, some now choking off the light of windows entirely, and others making their way through cracks in the foundation. There is something to be done about this of course, but it is certainly not so easy as letting the house fall to rot.
With great power comes great responsibility, so they say, and what greater power is there than liberty? What greater power is there than that first and last freedom of the mind, giving due course billions, trillions of times over in everyday affairs for the common good? Perhaps there is no greater. It is knowledge that we have eked from life and given form in technologies, patterns of society, coordination, and so on; of course this would not be possible without minds that are attentive and serious.
If it is not prohibited by the laws of nature, it can be done. Do we suppose that our doing well in life is prohibited by the laws of nature? Do we suppose that virtue is ultimately and always muted by the process of time in mundane and dulled minds, a cynical view of people that would take away their promise? Absolutely not, though some people do believe this. Why should we?
We see goodness in people of all stations, all colors and creeds, so why should we assume that we are not capable of rising to the challenge—together?
And it is a challenge to be met together. Wars are won by coordinated and consistent service of a common purpose, and so it is with this—if I may sound very 21st century American for a moment—with this war on decay, on the besiegers of our minds. Fears, doubts, uncertainties, these are enough alone in their natural way; but today we have those who amplify these debilitating maladies, and they do so with tireless machines.
We should ensure we understand this environment, and cultivate that inner citadel that we are always within a breath of peace. We may not always find it from without. In this season, we must nurture and let it spring forth, that we may be beacons of peace for others.
Imagine being approached on the street by a stranger, someone who has read everything you ever wrote online, seen every photo and video, and so on; this is someone you’ve never met before, who seems to believe that you’re both old friends.
There’s a vast disparity between the information they have about you — and the information you have about them.
I know at least one person who experienced this once, and that was when they decided that they would never bother with social media again.
There is great promise in being public on the internet. There is also peril, because as you can imagine, just how many people out of billions might find you fascinating — perhaps many millions — and with some of them, you might never know just how fascinated they are until they show up on your doorstep during a psychotic break.
Tim Ferriss’ recent post on reasons not to become famous describes strange behavior worse than this. He also emphasizes, there is a lot of good to the public life he’s led; but the article focuses mostly on the negative:
Harassment of family members and loved ones.
Desperation messages and pleas for help.
Impersonation, identity theft, etc.
Attack and clickbait media.
“Friends” with ulterior motives.
Invasions of privacy.
Let’s focus on one of the patterns, the aforementioned presumption of familiarity.
The term ‘parasocial relationship‘ describes this kind of dynamic, where a person assumes unwarranted familiarity with a public figure — whether online, on TV, or what-have-you.
The term was coined in the late 50s. Recall the screaming crowds around The Beatles? [note: Yes, I know The Beatles came along in the 60s.] The fainting and gesticulations may not make sense to us at a glance, but imagine being a youth and finding The Beatles as a glimmering hope in an otherwise dismal media landscape. You see them on TV only sometimes — you certainly can’t watch hundreds of hours of on-demand video about them. It’s no wonder you might freak out on sight.
There’s something wonderful about this, but of course, without the checks and balances of polite society, it can be a major issue. Now, as we wade deeper into a tumultuous phase for civilization, and American life (at least) seems more isolated than ever, it seems we are creating the conditions for the amplification of some negative patterns associated with this dynamic.
Is it possible to address this out front? Let’s say you are a rising star on the internet. Is it possible to address parasocial relationships, explicitly exploring the topic with your audience, encouraging them to cultivate in-person, face-to-face relations in their lives? Absolutely.
Imagine a new generation of public figures, working together to methodically amplify and affirm the cultivation of in-person relationships among their audiences and the communities of which they are apart.
Imagine the social media world augmenting, not replacing, the social lives of our youth. Right now it seems that too many are interacting almost exclusively through mediated experiences, rather than in-person. Does this not make us more fragile as a society? (Consider how social media use can give way to risk aversion. We need risk takers!)
I only have so much time to make this note today, but I would like to emphasize that I think this is possible explicit address of this social dynamic can be done, and I think it can be a net pro-social development.
Peace through understanding.
Do we really want to be so attached to one-sided relationships like this? Upon reflection, of course not. Yet we may not understand that this is what is happening, particularly in social isolation.
This is one of the terrains we must navigate today, together.
I woke from a terrible dream this morning, a massacre.
My alarm clock was a grenade blast.
Not long before bed last night, I was reading about the various “nightmare scenarios” that are being considered by experts regarding the upcoming election. I’ve also been reading, here and there, about the various pseudo-organizations now wreaking havoc on society, or apparently preparing to do so: the Boogaloos, the Critical Race Theorists, and — of course — the President and recent revelations of his withheld knowledge related to the virus.
I awoke in my comfortable bed, not with the feeling of relief that, “Thank goodness I’m here and that was only a dream,” rather, I had all the residue of just witnessing mass murder, helplessly. (I began to run at the shooter from behind when he turned away, yet he turned around toward me again, still firing an actual fully-automatic — not an “assault rifle” — so I had to jump behind a brick wall. His ammunition ran out and he lay on the ground, so I once again ran toward him, intent on kicking his face in, only to find him grinning as he pulled the pin of a grenade.)
I haven’t had such dreams in quite a while. That is, not that I know of at least. Since quitting smoking, I’m apparently remembering them better.
They say ‘bad is stronger than good’; I think that may be, but only by default, not by necessity.
The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. Various explanations such as diagnosticity and salience help explain some findings, but the greater power of bad events is still found when such variables are controlled. Hardly any exceptions (indicating greater power of good) can be found. Taken together, these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.
Indeed I think that acknowledging this dynamic may feed our fires of the good.
A few years ago, there was a young man in the US who planned to shoot his classmates. He had a kill list. He had acquired his weapons. He had ensured that his sister was to stay home that day.
He turned himself in.
There was something in him to prevent it.
We don’t hear this story though. We certainly don’t hear it often.
The Wars Waged on Our Besieged Minds
It’s like Brandolini’s Law, the bullshit asymmetry principle: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”
We also might say “The amount of energy needed to inspire positivity is an order of magnitude bigger than to inspire negativity.”
What apparently captures our attention, day after day, in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world is fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
This comes from outside ourselves, in some sense, sure; and yet we often learn to internalize it, to amplify it.
Some, like the shooters committing atrocities, the memetic sorceror’s apprentices pumping the internet with thoughts of a new “civil war”, and the various totalitarians in sheep’s clothing, they seem to internalize the fear, uncertainty, and doubt to an extremist degree — or at least set the conditions, wittingly or otherwise, so that others prone to extremism are encouraged to do so — and in an effort to control these things, generate wicked machinations that seem to further accelerate our decline.
Their methods are simplistic and ineffectual if their aim is for better days.
Yet the impulse to control, to make sense, is there.
And what ideas are on hand? A media environment of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Dead-end activist thought has been a long-rising tide in America. Now it seems there is something of a rogue wave crashing upon us.
To pierce the veil here proves difficult if not practically impossible to many. One reason is that the social dynamics involved are infused with repellent defenses, such as the dead-end idea that, if one questions these affairs, then one is an inherent part of the problem that such thought is supposed to address.
The fact of the matter is, anyone interested in the preservation and continual betterment of the republic, and the culture that underpins it, is duty-bound to question these developments and share the action of their inquiry.
To assume that the only solution is to destroy the whole thing and then rebuild is wildly ill-conceived and neglects the actual patterns of social development, not to mention the way that such destructive efforts have tended to play out in the past.
What do I mean by dead-end activist thought?
I am referring to activist thought that is easy to replicate, through what I call dead-end activism, where many who are exposed to such thought through media and events are practically compelled to repeat and spread its message, and yet it does not inspire any further creative thought on part of its audience.
I am referring to dogma without rigor, particularly those ideas that naturally lead to injustice, masquerading as the natural embodiment of justice.
I am referring to activist thought that is effectively totalitarian in that, for example, it provides what are supposed to be the right answers for its own ill-posed questions and then addresses its assessment as settled, as a sound basis for vigorous political action at scale.
This is no way to go if we want an open society, because it homogenizes the actual living moral landscape towards coherence with a dead-end worldview, often now in the seductive name of opening up and unleashing the true potential of humanity.
We should be profoundly, actively suspicious of supposed solutions to social problems, especially those that we actually don’t understand, and especially when they are put forward as absolute.
If we are unable to question the ideas underpinning transformations in society, we are unable to control the transformations in society. Today we see an uncontrolled, runaway transformation of many areas of society, done in the name of justice and truth, which nonetheless compel adherents to refuse earnest inquiry into how they are actually supposed to carry out our search for justice and truth.
We see that people, as they encounter these forms of dead-end activism, often become active in promulgating it, even inflicting it upon others, without question. This is the creation of millions of kangaroo courts, the practically viral spread of a judge-jury-and-executioner mentality at the very same time as we need open discussion more than ever.
It might be presumed that I am talking about developments on the far-left, and I am, but it should be noted and emphasized that the very same developments are at play on the far-right, and in the center, and so forth. The compass of political postures does not adequately describe the issue. What we are actually talking about is something of a hyper- echo chamber effect, one where people are continually affirming, confirming their beliefs without question, assured by the infrastructures of thought that others have provided them so they can be convinced that they are acting righteously, all-the-while shutting down what critical faculties they have in favor of the path of least resistance, as most of humanity has always done.
Troubling common ground
From the inside, it must be very uncomfortable to acknowledge the similarities among the camps, so I reckon that they don’t; whether it is the ‘QAnon’ crowd with their wicked soteriology, or the anti-racist social justice warriors, they are convinced that they see the truth that others do not, and they are prepared to let it play out without questioning the foundations of these developments.
It only makes sense that, if we want an open society, our activism that seeks to bring about its furtherance should reflect the very same. This is akin to “be the change you wish to see.”
Yet so many so-called activists now refuse open dialogue.
There are now many who believe that, to even bring up certain topics in discussion is an affront to their program for justice. This should alarm us, because it is fundamentally destructive to personal and cultural integrity to assume that anything is off the table for discussion. When the list of disallowed topics grows, who is there to disagree?
While it may sound far-fetched, we are setting the precedent for political disappearing and other wretched tools we have seen the righteous evils of the world deploy in the past.
This is not without precedent.
Let us not go the way of those who failed to reckon with these ugly potentials we hold.
We must be willing to discuss what matters to us, and to not refuse the attempts of others to do the same. To dissolve this egalitarian ethic of open inquiry is to dissolve our capacity to create the world we actually want.
Any activist today, and any activist tomorrow, should be wary of absolutist postures for this very reason, and many others. Let us take stock of our beliefs, and, if they are not explicit, let us make them explicit in good-hearted, neighborly conversation, without condemnation, for our personal inquiries may be fruitful personally, yet it is the fruit of civilization we should like to be available to all.
Above all, let us be willing to change, for this is the way of all existence, and when we presume that we need not change, we set ourselves as brittle, and lay the conditions for us to break.
I believe there are a variety of freedoms in life.
Sometimes it can be useful to think of them as degrees of freedom. For example, the way that my life is right now, I am free to buy a car and drive it. There are degrees of freedom here though. Practically speaking, I can’t buy just any car. Some cars are museum pieces, not for sale, and others would be wildly impractical (demolition derby cars are not for a night on the town), and other cars are simply not in my budget.
Most people are familiar with financial constraints, one of many governing factors in their everyday degrees of freedom. Some people I know might avoid taking dates to a fancy restaurant, due to the cost, while others might be thinking, “Maybe we should sell one of the art pieces in order to finance our nephew’s tuition.” Now let’s consider these constraints in terms of currency.
Why is it called currency? It can be useful to think of currency as currents, see?
Like the currents of streams and rivers, currency has an effect because it flows. It is dynamic. With access to more currency, we can see how one might generate more power. They could buy more houses, which they could rent to more people, and they might generate more profit that way, for example. It’s similar with water flows and the generation of electricity. Since the early days of electrical transmission, Niagara Falls has powered factories in multiple countries. On the other hand, if one can only access a small creek to generate power, it might light a house, but that would be all. (Note that we talk about ‘electrical current’ as well.)
I would like to explore a freedom that is primary to financial currency however. There are very financially poor people who “have” a lot of it, and there are very financially rich people who “have” practically none of it. What is it?
The most important channeling of currency ever known: perception.
Attention is the most precious resource. Except perhaps in meditation, we channel our attention with the flows of perception. This is why I am so interested in developing tools for people to cultivate their everyday perception, of their freedoms, of their constraints.
We might imagine a world in which there are only several people, and practically all the natural resources of the world are somehow depleted. Time is short. Still their attention would carry on a bit longer, and if they are to die of resource exhaustion, certainly the attention they might share amongst eachother would be the most important form of currency flowing.
This is also the case in a world of abundance, for it is our perception that sets our engineering of otoher currencies, whether liquified energy or ideas.
We now live in a world where we are besieged everyday by technologies designed to capture our attention. This is how the manipulation of perception plays out over time. With many engineered moments of attention, we find our unspoken and unacknowledged modes of perception transformed, and we often don’t realize it.
Let’s use our attention to amplify our degrees of freedom. Let’s learn to cultivate our own technologies of perception, so that we are less the unwitting harvested fruits of the attention economy but the thoughtful planters of a rich and abundant world of the mind, one in which we cultivate the perception and practical competence necessary to address our world’s grand challenges.
Surely it includes shelter, clean water, and food.
How is abundance clearly accessible to you?
What about global abundance, abundance for all people?
What levers, so to speak, would you pull so that we would generate more abundance?
There are at least two things we might agree on.
It doesn’t have to be like this, and
It won’t always be like this.
We know the next few decades will change the face of human existence.
We can’t know how it will change.
We also know that some things will stay the same.
We can’t know exactly what will then resemble today.
We are stewards of change. Not just cultivators of the new, but maintainers of heritage.
It is actually our duty to ensure that we consider what we carry forward through this sociotechnical threshold of the 21st century.
Many things we might like to bring with us are actually quite menacing upon closer inspection.
This while abundance is clearly within reach of our grasp in so many ways.
As we wither, parched for fresh invigoration, will we thirsty beings in a complex world recognize the glass of water before us? Will we take hold of these opportunities that we may never see again?
We think there will be time to go on with our work tomorrow.
We may not like it, but it’s worth remembering: there may be no time at all tomorrow.
Your expectations, conscious and otherwise, may be wrong, dead wrong.
We have continued, for example, to continue our long walk along the perilous tightrope that is the global nuclear arms threat, a true menace by design.
Change is eternal, yet for all its variety, evolution from the human perspective can have something of the phrase “plus ça change” to it.
Much evolution of governance in the early 21st century has also been, for example, the evolution of a more ancient form of human relationship, which is that of the art of terrorizing people in an often successful effort to muddle their wills, both personal and collective, and otherwise gain competitive advantage.
And how much change now is so superficial as to represent not just a lack of meaningful change, but something less, something that is insidiously draining, something that stultifies?
We see that the generation of change is all too often the buzzing of a newsmill rather than the successful address of any fellow human’s problems.
Now, just as ever, the world needs us to be critical thinkers, even when that simply does not seem to be what evolution has molded us to be, generally speaking.
There is magic between our ears, not just some computer, and I’m not convinced that treating societies of these magic minds as though they were simplistic mechanisms and not wondrous, unpredictable things, persistently mysterious, and capable of novel inventions the likes of which may only occur once in the imagination of a single person before then taking form in the common manufacture of this material realm we share… I’m not convinced that this is the way to go.
Yet this is how traditional organizational design tends to address organizations, as though organizations and the people in them are best addressed in formal relationships that don’t admit the value of exploratory uncertainty and the work done to reduce it into intelligible bits of knowledge, because traditional models of organizational design have scarcely had an especially meaningful way of representing how real world problem solving is done, not as a structure, but as a dynamic process.
It’s not just organizations. Most western models of reality, or desired realities, have scarcely had this benefit of encoding dynamism.
It’s not organizational design’s fault. Western society has leaned toward reductionist explanations of the world for some time now, preferring structures rather than flows, roughly speaking, and from this culture came the so-called scientific management practice and all the rest.
Well, there is new science in town, and it is time that management practice and its visionary cousin, organizational design — it is time these disciplines are updated to account for the insights afforded by the still rather new science of systems and complexity.
The ground often gives way and leaves little footing; maybe that is why I am so buoyant.
Life is full of events — you may have noticed — both fortunate and otherwise.
The essential teaching of Stoicism seems to be that, with a mind of discipline intent on right perception, those events we sometimes find so unfortunate can nonetheless be turned to gold.
What’s more, it doesn’t make much sense to take ourselves so seriously. After all, what are we taking seriously anyway? It takes calm and quiet to look inward, and here is where what we think is ourselves often turns out to be only a passing thought like some cloud in the sky.
I was smitten, a boy of fifteen, enamored with a girl I had just met.
It was late summer, 2007. Thinking back now, I suppose I might have been wondering then if I was falling in love.
We had a week to enjoy together before she went home. That’s what we thought. When a few people at camp got sick, it didn’t make any headlines. It didn’t take long for that to change.
We all took a surprise crash course lesson in what an outbreak of highly contagious disease can look like.
A few dozen became ill. More would suffer if it wasn’t shutdown.
So it was shutdown.
After only a few days of this much anticipated week at camp, it was over.
Worse, this girl I liked so much was now on her way home, on her way to another state, and the only place I was going was Sad Town.
At age fifteen, that week was my last chance to be a camper before aging out. There was going to be a closing ceremony and everything. I was going to learn to sail. I was going to meet girls.
I was excited.
Sure enough, I enrolled in my sailing class (think very small boats). I was paired with a boy four years younger than me, and that was cool, because he was cool.
And sure enough, I saw a girl I wanted to talk to on the first day, did, and was smitten.
Then it was over.
Dad picked me up. The drive home was long enough for me to stare out the window a while, the forests and lakes of the area passing by. All my mind saw was this person I liked so much and how I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.
When we arrived home, I passed in through the doorway with my emotions obviously not beaming, my eyes maybe a little puffy, and my dad made a remark to my mom from behind me in the garage, as though he were introducing me (and maybe forewarning her).
Ever the cool operator, he said:
“He’s not a happy camper.”
How many of us are happy campers right now?
We all had plans. I don’t think anyone has gone unscathed through this pandemic.
Back in 2007, I thought I was going to get to know this person at camp.
Before the pandemic, I thought I would have no trouble living my life, taking on my life’s work — at least, not the pandemic sort of trouble.
I think most people thought this.
We were wrong.
The truth — hard as it may be to our minds that have been so dulled by longstanding oscillations between being coddled and shocked in the western milieu — the truth is that the pandemic didn’t need to be a surprise.
For some, this ongoing disaster is utterly unsurprising. It’s a white swan event, not the rare black swan that so many claimed in the early days (with their shallow verbiage, borrowing terms from the Risk Doctor without understanding them).
That’s the point: infrequent as pandemics of this sort may be, they are practically inevitable without taking adequate measures to prevent them, which we haven’t. The way we have patterned the everyday life of our species, combined with explosive incompetence with risk and complexity at every level of society — we have forged for ourselves a guaranteed baseline of pandemic risk. And similar risks of other ‘normal accidents’. Over time, such risks become realities.
We should not be surprised.
We should be disappointed.
The people charged with addressing such risks have been neutered by an ambient culture of anti-intellectualism, ceaseless manufacture of controversy, and a default to greed and bad faith at the highest levels.
It’s almost just as well. Seems they wouldn’t have been up to the task anyway, as both the WHO and various national CDC organizations have reliably demonstrated a lack of know-how when it comes to complex risk.
Think about how the US officials were advising against masks.
Recall that the WHO declared early on that there was “no evidence of human-to-human transmission,” even as Wuhan was days away from a brutal lockdown.
We should not wait for confirmatory evidence of such risks. We should ask ourselves, Could this situation be explained as the germ of runaway complex risk?
The match-to-the-tinderbox quality of our global travel patterns and other pandemic risk factors has been highlighted by more than a few people in recent decades. Failing to take heed has cost us dearly.
We may not always anticipate when or exactly how the ground will fall out from beneath us, but we can always anticipate that it will happen, somehow and sometime, to all of us, and in this way of recognition, we can start to find peace of a higher order.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate my dad’s perhaps unwitting Stoic qualities. With a cancer that seemed to indicate the end being nigh, I think the worst of it that he let on was how uncomfortable he was in the confined spaces that the treatments required.
That was years ago too.
There is plenty I am unaware of there, and, honestly, I hope there was only scant emotional repression — rather, I hope he embraced them that he might let them go. I don’t know as well as I might like. Perhaps I am idealizing it. But I can think of many other times where his character shone through.
Maybe he was not interested in all the ways that some might have liked him to be, but when I think of my dad, I do see him as disinterested in the ways you would want a man to be disinterested. I recall walking upstairs to the first floor one time, on a night when we were the only ones around for the evening, and at just the same time he was entering the same hall. He had some sort of accident, and with his thumb halfway off, he said calmly something like, “Ev, I’m going to have to get to the hospital. Be sure the dog gets out and has water.”
He wasn’t quivering about it. He was just doing what had to get done.
I appreciate that.
I appreciate seeing that.
No doubt it played some part, however small, in my ability to calmly and properly clean some awful wounds to a friend’s face several years later, one where there were some tissues opened up that shouldn’t have been.
She took some jagged gravel to the face, hitting the ground headfirst from a five or six foot fall.
It was past midnight. We were in the wilderness and some distance from the hospital.
The next day, I woke up in a mutual friend’s car after that long night. We had got her to the emergency room eventually.
I must have smiled, because this mutual friend told me the doctors said they were impressed and couldn’t have prepared her any better. I got to drop her off to her family knowing that, half-asleep though I was.
With some of the risks in the world, though we should seek to understand them deeply, it’s as though we were adult children still deluded with an image of our parents as immortal, failing to prepare in even the most basic and commonsense ways for their inevitable death. What’s more, the parents suffer the same delusion. When it happens, things fall apart more painfully than they needed to.
(Thankfully my parents have no such delusions.)
Crazy as it may sound, we are getting off easy with this one — the pandemic, I mean. The next virus could certainly be much worse. There is nothing absolute to prohibit the emergence of more dangerous viruses.
We should use this time to deeply improve our relationship to such risks.
When I went back to camp at age sixteen, not as a camper, but as an employee, I had no training. The year of the viral outbreak at camp, when I lamented losing proximity to the cute girl who did my hair at the picnic tables and looked at me like I wasn’t used to being looked at, that was the year — the week — that I was supposed to be trained as a Junior Counselor. Like everything else, that class was cut short shortly after it started.
I only went to camp for that one foreshortened week of the last summer, so I arrived for my new Junior Counselor position with only my wits and observation to serve me — again, no training.
Trouble was, the “senior” counselor to whom I was assigned as an underling had the same credentials as me, which is to say, none. He was my superior on the basis of age seniority only, not experience or skill. In the first minutes around this guy, it was clear I was in for a challenge. A year older, he was a Boy Scout who knew it, who took it a little too seriously. For example, he argued with the camp director on day one, “I know how to use my knife. I’m a Boy Scout. This should except me from the ‘no knives’ rule.”
Long story short, he immediately alienated people on contact. Greeting the arriving campers, it was me assuring parents. As I remember, he was piddling about nearby as I got our cabin’s campers settled; that, or he was being inappropriate-on-demand with them.
So just as my last week as a camper shuttered unexpectedly and abruptly, I was now a Junior Counselor looking after a dozen young boys and one old one who was supposed to be the leader of the pack. The anticipated on-the-job training turned out to include exercises in damage control.
That was the first couple of days, which was all the time he needed to teach our campers how to most effectively inflict pain on others (males) with the method he called “monkey grabbing peach”, otherwise known as grabbing someone’s scrotum and twisting it really hard.
He was let go, with five days left in the week.
I was now in charge of a dozen campers in our cabin, with no experience and no training.
(Later that year, with a few more weeks under my belt, I would look after a cabin filled to the brim with 25 kids, thankfully all of them rather disciplined pre-Olympian gymnasts, but that’s something else.)
The world is a lot like this now. We have incompetent leadership that should be ousted. We have people to care for, often with no idea how. And it doesn’t matter: we still need to get the job done, everyday.
And in many ways, we aren’t. This is more than a cabin of kids, after all.
After my counseling debut, reluctantly at first then wholeheartedly embracing my surprise position, I went on to work as a counselor every week that summer (except girls’ week, when I just washed dishes).
We can get the hang of things and do well. We can even do this with the complex systems and risks that imperil us so gravely today. This is true even and perhaps especially when we seem to lose our footing.
“… by going out of your mind you will come to your senses.”
— Alan Watts
We can’t, however, improve our lot if we are convinced it is an impossible feat, that we aren’t even ready to get ready, or that we are alone and uniquely challenged by life, unable to share our (common) burdens with others.
I took a lot of inspiration from my older brother at the time, captain of our cross-country team in the fall prior to my first summer as counselor, and indeed counselor of my own cabin (albeit for only a few days). It wasn’t any particular technique, rather a spirit of inclusivity, patience, and disciplined fun-loving that I sought to carry on in his absence at the camp.
So I did.
So can we.
When we observe disinterestedly the flows of our lives, we can release the sense that we need to force anything to fit our expectations, and we can work with it, play with it, and find that it is always changing anyway. With this, we can also refrain from the type of naïve interventions that exacerbate our woes.
In systems, there is something called a relaxation period. We need these.
The thing to do now is to empower youth, not merely to better fit our expectations of them, but to play an active role in cultivating their critical faculties now with the benefit of heritage generated then.
Short of any new longevity miracles (which I admit do not seem too farfetched), the kids have more skin in the game than we do. They will live longer in this accelerating downward spiral that we seem to have setup for ourselves. It seems the least we could do is give them the best tools our heritage has to offer in actually addressing these global grand challenges of ours.
Complexity- and risk literacy are key among these elements of heritage to be maintained, as is systems theory. That much I know for sure. How can we understand and appropriately engage a truly complex world if we never pay any mind to methodically address complexity?
I should say now, the boy who I sailed with — I mentioned he was four years younger than me at least, when I was fifteen. That said, I had no experience sailing. Nonetheless, at age eleven, this boy was capable of coordinating the two of us on a sailboat, such that we nearly won our race. Perhaps even more impressive is how he coordinated us to right the boat when — I’m sure it was something I did — we capsized it.
What is the saying, age earns no value except through thought and discipline?
So we see that it is possible.
The youth today which, to some, can seem so chaotic in and of themselves, are actually hungry for responsibility, and not mere play responsibility, but real responsibility, and the tools to be competent in carrying out that charge.
There are ways we can help them do this, and we should.
I am launching a project in a few days. It’s a super-project, actually. I am calling it Autotelic.
The name Autotelic represents the essential spirit of the project, which is to create situations where the various sub-projects emerge and mature successfully in an organic fashion, each emerging ‘of itself’ naturally thanks to the situations I – the autotelic practitioner – engineer humbly.
More to come on this of course, but it’s worth noting and sharing now that the ultimate aim of this is to augment human problem solving power so effectively that we can actually address our global grand challenges with competence and the humility that complex problem solving requires.
Years ago, when I shared a desire to address our most difficult problems not one by one but as a set of problems that share generalizable characteristics, I was told over and over again that I was “trying to boil the ocean,” that my aspirations were essentially futile and that I should start smaller – much much much smaller – and be more humble in my ambitions.
Of course I bristled. Yes, there could be a hefty dose of hubris in my aspirations here. What I kept thinking, however, was that I didn’t see anyone anywhere who seemed to be stepping up to the task.
Some organizations have charged themselves with these problems, like climate change, shelter, water, etc. They are prone to the usual fragilities of organizations however.
Some people seek to address these problems as individuals and communities. They are prone to all the fragilities particular to these approaches as well.
I have long sensed, and had this sense affirmed by the unsung work of internet pioneers like Douglas Engelbart, that we need to innovate in the infrastructure of collaboration and creativity in order to better address these superwicked problems. I now have some pretty well-defined ideas about how to do this with the rapidity we require, which I will be sharing in public.
I have hemmed and hawed about sharing my work beyond close trusted circles. The risk to my private life has long weighed on my mind.
I think now that such deliberation has been a luxury we can’t afford. I must become a public man, though it might be a reluctant becoming. If I can articulate effective approaches to the world’s most pressing problems, it would be wrong of me not to share this work as broadly as possible.
As for boiling the ocean, my spirit remains the same as ever: hold my beer. When people use that phrase, I don’t think they understand that it is entirely within the realm of possibility to boil the oceans. (Why they would want to I don’t know.)
If it isn’t prohibited by the laws of nature, it is possible.
The impediment to our success as a species seems not to be our technical skill, but our social skill.
I should like to be part of bridging the two, and I am happy to now invite you, all of you, to join me.
I got away from the city for the past few days. The quiet is incredibly rejuvenating. In the wilderness, I’ve let my mind wander some. One of the things that occurred to me this morning is how, especially in my youth, I revered the sniper and the tracker for essentially the same reason: they cooperate with their environments skillfully, achieving their goals with patience and stillness, and take great care to cultivate their powers of observation as a primary factor in their work. You’ve probably heard someone say, “Well, I must be on a list somewhere.” I definitely have been since childhood. One of my favorite websites was all about the life of a sniper. From the art of fieldcraft and camouflage to the science of ballistics, to the strategies of survival deep behind enemy lines; this website, the films I had seen, and the games I had played had me fascinated. I couldn’t help but crawl around in the wilderness for hours on end with my pellet gun, scope, and binoculars, not shooting anything at all, but just observing the environment, inner and outer, controlling my breath as though I were to take a shot (aiming as best I could at some particular leaf off in the distance, for example), and cultivating the patience and fortitude required to be unbothered as I let bugs crawl over me. I suppose there was a kind of melting into the landscape that I accomplished. In that same action of non-action, of persistent and attentive observation, I suppose I was exercising my powers of focus, and I was getting to know my mind in a different way than would have been accessible if I were more engaged in less unconventional pursuits, like video games and girls. (That said, I would later, around age 12, become #1 ranked player worldwide, by kill-to-death ratio, on a particularly popular WWII-themed video game server, playing the game Day of Defeat, wherein my only mode of playing was as a sniper.)
I must have reveled in the idea that these skills, silly as they might have seemed at the time, would be something that I might call on some day, if – god forbid – they became necessary. I was never interested in the idea of killing an animal, let alone a person; that is, unless there were a very good reason, whether feeding my family or protecting it for example. Still, I’m sure it put me on a list somewhere. Most kids aren’t reading about how to setup a perimeter, create the ideal camouflage for a given environment, and build a hidden survival shelter in the dead of winter; and it seems like that sort of subject matter, along with other things on my childhood reading list like weapons of mass destruction and how computer viruses work, it seems like that would probably throw up a red flag on some automated system somewhere. I felt as though that were the case then, even as I used a dial-up internet connection. Many years later, it was revealed that the government of my country was doing just that: tracking the behavior and media consumption of practically everyone. So I’m on a list somewhere alright, along with everyone else. I just might be on some lists that are more special, more menacing than others. The thing is, though, all this was pure fun for me, with no bad intent about it. I was just fascinated and excited to learn. With regard to weapons of mass destruction, for example, there were actually very prosocial motives. I wanted to find out how the problem of WMDs might be solved in my lifetime. With sniping and tracking, I also just wanted to know how to hunt and feed my family off the land if necessary. Today the idea of self-reliance remains a kind of odd grey area in our culture. We are supposed to be the most independent culture there is, and yet we are now more dependent on our fragile civilization than ever, if only because it is what will make or break the future for all of us. I see clearly that there is no place to hide for me as some lone tracker in the forests and fields, operating in service of my small band and no one else. The real game to be playing is closer to that I aspired to in studying weapons of mass destruction. The real game is to be of service to the whole lot of us, all of humanity. This I learned sometime later in adolescence, or as a young adult rather. Now I am still learning to most effectively embody that lesson in my everyday life.