Ark Head

This week is probably the closest we’ve ever gotten in my lifetime to the brink of nuclear-powered World War 3, yet people seem strangely indifferent to the developments. I share in this under-reaction. Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, have a stronger collective reaction?

There’s of course other stuff going on–a potentially extreme climate-change-amplified hurricane, the UK economy collapsing, and so on–but all that does seem to be categorically of a lower order. Visa shared this meme that gets at this feeling of curious under-reaction.

As Steve Walsh said in a reply, “I suspect this is actually how people in 2022 would receive UFO’s.” I agree with that assessment. Aliens landing would be at least a couple of levels of weird past nuclear World War 3, but I don’t think we have it in us anymore to generate reactions a couple of levels more intense. There is something exhausted about the collective human psyche right now. It’s been battered so relentlessly for so long with things calling for reactions (either practical, or in the form of futile derangement syndromes) that we’re at saturation. We can’t respond any more strongly. We can’t get any more deranged than we already are.

Hunter S. Thompson famously remarked that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Well, we can’t turn any more pro at this point.

But this isn’t to say we’re in a state of frozen helplessness or zombie behaviors. Most people are still responding functionally and practically. It’s just that those responses are extremely conservative and limited. We’re responding within the narrowest horizons we can conceive of. We’re drawing our circles of control much tighter, and dialing down our sensitivity in the circle of concern. Even that well-known tribe of expansively ebullient types, the Silicon Valley hustle-porn crowd, has quietly dialed back its exhortatory rhetoric from world-scale to sector-scale.

Aliens landed? Sure, okay, what’s one more weird thing. Will my Covid N95 mask work for the alien bugs too or will I need something else? Will this make inflation worse or better? Russia might nuke Ukraine? Okay, sucks to be in Kiev; where can I buy cheap iodine tablets?

We increasingly respond practically to the world without even attempting to make sense of it.

One mental model for this condition is what I call ark head, as in Noah’s Ark. We’ve given up on the prospect of actually solving or managing most of the snowballing global problems and crises we’re hurtling towards. Or even meaningfully comprehending the gestalt. We’ve accepted that some large fraction of those problems will go unsolved and unmanaged, and result in a drastic but unevenly distributed reduction in quality of life for most of humanity over the next few decades. We’ve concluded that the rational response is to restrict our concerns to a small subset of local reality–an ark–and compete for a shrinking set of resources with others doing the same. We’re content to find and inhabit just one zone of positivity, large enough for ourselves and some friends. We cross our fingers and hope our little ark is outside the fallout radius of the next unmanaged crisis, whether it is a nuclear attack, aliens landing, a big hurricane, or (here in California), a big wildfire or earthquake.

We’ve concluded the flood cannot be stopped, and we’re building arks to retreat to. The specifics of the arks don’t matter: utopian city-states, tech sectors (like AI, crypto, or metaverse) that seem capable of weathering the flood, narrow altruistic ventures, or artistic subcultures. With or without DAOs and Discord servers. If you can retreat within it, and either tune out or delusionally recode the rest of reality, it works as an ark. The point of an ark is to survive a cataclysmic flood while preserving as much of everything you care about as possible. Not to make sense of the world past the hull. Ark-head is a survivalist mindset, not a sensemaking mindset. If there are portholes in the hull of your ark, all you see out there is stormy flooding, and you don’t care to make sense of it.

Is this a rational response? I don’t know because as far as I can see, there is nobody around that I’d label as adopting a rational posture in the face of the state of the world. I tweeted this pie-chart breakdown of postures out there, and I’m only half kidding:

  • Generative and energized but in an insane alt reality: 42%
  • Some form of long-haul debilitating malaise: 23%
  • Cripplingly depressed reality-grounded: 15%
  • Too dumb to function: 12
  • Too smart to function: 5%
  • Deranged messiahs: 2%
  • Murderously psychotic: 1%

The battered psyche is actually the main part of the problem. I don’t think the state of the world is actually complex beyond comprehension. It’s much more complex than we’re used to dealing with in living memory, but not beyond the human brain to grapple with. If we were all in better shape mentally, the way we were in 2006 say, we’d have proper discourses about all this stuff and form coherent mental models and act beyond ark-range in a spirit of global mutualism. We’d mine events for insights, make spreadsheets, and try to turn those insights into actions the way we used to. Or at least TED talks and profitable trades.

One reason we don’t is that it’s gotten significantly harder to care about the state of the world at large. A decade of culture warring and developing a mild-to-medium hatred for at least 2/3 of humanity will do that to you. General misanthropy is not a state conducive to productive thinking about global problems. Why should you care about the state of the world beyond your ark? It’s mostly full of all those other assholes, who are the wrong kind of deranged and insane. At least you and I, in this ark, are the right kind of deranged and insane. It’s worth saving ourselves from the flood, but those other guys can look out for themselves.

One way this growing apathy at universal/global scales (as opposed to ark scales) is manifesting is that the insight economy is dying. The thriving world of discourse that went from Aha! insights about how the world works all the way to TED talks and “ideas worth spreading” is all but dead now. Those who pursue global insight-peddling ambitions seem oddly anachronistic and tone deaf to the zeitgeist today, and wonder why the world is paying less attention to them than they’d hoped. The more tuned-in insight peddlers have gone domestic cozy. They’ve gone ark-scale in their ambitions, even if they don’t admit it.

I wrote a thread about the deep recession in the insight economy, and I think it may last quite a long time. You can read the thread if you’re interested in the detailed analysis, but the takeaway is that with the unraveling of grand narratives all around, there is no default context of global caring for people to turn insights about the world into simple good/evil judgments and coherent actions that are meaningful on a global scale. All we have is ark-scale narratives, and ark-scale caring. There is no meaningful way to think in save-the-world terms. There’s only save-this-ark.

Ark-head is an interesting collective diagnosis. It’s not depression, anxiety PTSD, or collective brain fog, though all those currently common comorbidities tighten the grip of ark-head on the psyche. It’s an unconsciously adopted survivalist mindset that draws boundaries around itself as tightly as necessary to maintain the ability to function. It’s a pragmatic abandonment of universalist conceits to save your sanity.

If caring about the world leads you into futile anxiety-provoking derangement syndromes and PTSD, you draw the circle tighter and tighter until you can care and function. For many, this reduces to the domestic scope. But even for those with significantly more agency, you can see ark-head kick in. You can see world leaders and CEOs of big companies increasingly talk in what I think of as ark-head ways. They are no longer trying to thought-leader the future of the world at large. Just advertising their particular ark as a good bet for surviving the flood. We don’t know what to make of Russia possibly nuking Ukraine, but we have enough GPUs stockpiled to fuel our AI roadmap! Bet on our ark!

An ark-head pandemic is perhaps not necessarily a bad thing. As my notional breakdown of mind-states suggests, you’d have to be a deranged messiah or a murderous psychotic to maintain a global circle of concern and control in this zeitgeist. It is perhaps not a bad idea to stay in your ark, and navigate by some comforting fantasy that preserves your generativity when forced to think past the hull of your ark. Ark head is perhaps the right mental state for a Dark Age.

Still, there’s something truly unsatisfying about it, which is perhaps why Dark Ages are called that. The universe is a big place, and it’s nice to be able to feel meaningfully connected to more than an ark-worth of its contents. It’s nice to be able to go out on the open deck and look out and make sense of what you see, even if you can’t shape events beyond ark-scale. It’s nice to be able to tell stories at cosmic scale about the world and our place in it.

That’s perhaps the way out — keep trying to tell stories beyond ark-scale until one succeeds in expanding your horizons again. But until such narrative traction returns, we’ll have to make do with ark head.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I have to ask: what would it take to count as a “non-deranged Messiah?” :-)

    A few possible criteria from your article:

    – accepts that we are all deranged, yet all worth saving
    – humble enough to realize we can’t save everyone, yet arrogant enough to try
    – appreciates that ark-headedness is locally rational but globally nihilistic
    – obsessed over finding a point of narrative leverage that enables others to restart inclusive sense-making

    How’s that for a start? Any suggestions?

    • David Hartwell says

      I can dig it!
      Appreciate your “possible criteria”.
      Yet…
      – in the biblical story of the arc, were we all worth saving?
      Or, was it the first act of genocide (of the deranged)….committed by their creator?
      (sorry, the whole arc thing seems to always stir that sentiment within me)
      – I hope I’m humble enough to realize that “I” can’t save everyone.
      But, the collective “we”? Can everyone save everyone?
      – Does “national” arc-headedness fall under local (rational)?
      We’ve seen evidence to the contrary, methinks.
      And –
      I think I’ve used some of that “narrative leverage”, in efforts to be helpful, and believe
      they have, on occasion. Eyes on the prize!
      Best!

    • David Sanders says

      My feeling is that a non-psychopathic messiah is one that truly understands their own role as a *conduit* for the energies that intersect at their position in society. When a person crosses a certain threshold of fame, fortune, or what have you, the consequences of their actions become so great that they don’t really function as an individual any more. Or, at least, certainly not in the sense that an average person sees themself as an individual.

      The only way for a person of note to act appropriately at a global scale is to realize that they don’t matter individually. They’re not going to be around forever. Whatever their personal ambitions are, they pale in comparison to the collective’s reaction to their life. The only way for them to act effectively is to simply work to facilitate a connection between that different societal forces that converge on them. Practically speaking, I think that just means that they have to demonstrate commitment to some ideal that doesn’t benefit them personally but that has the largest overall and long-term benefit.

      I think the basic image I’m going off of here is that of historical messiahs. I think we all want to imagine a messiah from the old world as being someone that stood up for their beliefs in the face of death. And that those beliefs were one’s that we could “universally” feel good about. Things like, “be fair” or “don’t be cruel” or more generally embodying a sentiment that counteracts the impulse to dominate and control others.

      I look around now and I see only leaders that have either some angle where they secretly hope to gain something as a result of the messages that they spread, or they are just irrationally fixated on a completely impractical goal or vendetta, such as with Putin’s Ukrainian war. There seem to be no leaders that actually have their own grounded center from which they demonstrate actual concern for the greater good.

      • David Sanders says

        Actually, it just now occurred to me that this general lack of concern in society that Venkatesh describes may actually facilitate the arrival of the next generation of leaders. I’m sure there might be some among us that have adopted a fatalistic attitude about all that’s going on. We end up thinking things like, “Well, I can’t live forever! If a nuke lands on my city, I wouldn’t see it coming anyway. If I lose my job and have to live on the street, that can just be an opportunity to enjoy living with less.” In other words, the present condition is forcing us not just to narrow the scope of our concerns but also the scope of concern for our own selves. Ironically, I think a reduced sense of self-importance may be just what we need to get out of all this. Maybe we’ll see the solution come out of the problem in one or two generations.

    • My question, too, Ernest. Great start you made. My addition: hawks brilliant ideas for uniting us to where we care about each other as much as we care about ourselves.

  2. Welcome back to reality, your previous mindset where you supposed that you could have a meaningful global picture was just an illusion. :-)

    • Yeah, I think this might be right. The newspaper and electric ages gave us the illusion of being able to hold the world in our circle of concern (or just make the world legible), but that was because everyone was getting the same relatively small amount of centralized information and perspective.

      Pre-newspaper, you couldn’t really have that kind of information at speed. You could read Marco Polo’s travels or tracts from the Reformation or whatever, but your daily information diet was much more tied to your local situation; you might barely know the name of your king or queen (if you had one).

      I think the challenges today include:
      1. The world is actually interconnected in a way it wasn’t pre-newspaper, so that famines in China directly impacts my life;
      2. But those interconnections aren’t always obvious, and it’s hard to find the information on exactly HOW and WHY said famine will impact my life;
      3. There is so much information, and so much “information” being manufactured for the purposes of preserving political or economic power, that it creates analysis paralysis;
      4. And my ability to directly influence, for example, shipping problems in China is much weaker than my ability to steward my use of my own hours.

      It’s not a complete return to a previous era, but kind of a McLuhanite retrieval of the old conditions. It’s easier to try to build a good life personally than to freak about things I can only maybe influence at several levels removed.

      I do think a major challenge the pre-news societies didn’t face is that they had actual localism to unify them. It didn’t always – you can loathe your neighbor – but most people experienced prosperity, hardship, and just the circumstances of life with the same relatively small group of people.

      Today, we’re at least as likely to be “digital localists” as “physical localists,” if not more so: to spend more time with our online communities than in physical ones. That encourages the alt reality Venkat mentioned, because it’s a “reality” that comes through shared digital experience, and also weakens in-person social ties that make both for strong relationships and the likelihood of meaningful coordinated action (which gives a sense of collective agency, not just individual agency).

  3. Excellent interpretation of these times… Putting a name to the quandary. Thank you.

    • yes, thank you, this moves me to expand the scope of my ark … i am grateful for the unstinting generosity of your apparently boundless intelligence

  4. Great article , the arch metaphor is very apt !

  5. A stronger collective reaction? How about the 100s of billions of US tax dollars getting poured into Ukraine? Is that not a big enough reaction for you? The ark metaphor is awful. How dare you assume that any of us don’t have a stake. Get off your pedestal, bruh! I bet most of us respond hard, but guess what, in order for a response to be heard someone on the other end needs to be proactively listening. We should stop proselytizing each other, and start boycotting all the bullshit. GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE AND FIGHT THE SHADOW TYRANTS!

  6. “I don’t think the state of the world is actually complex beyond comprehension.”

    I agree that this isn’t the problem. The problem is that we are starting to comprehend that the world is a fairly controlled place. It’s not unconscious processes happening in a natural order, but a bunch of competing interest groups at the top competing over who gets to skim off the most wealth from the rest of us. With ‘the rest of us’ having little or no say in the matter, as elections haven’t mattered to any practical degree for many decades.

    I see people who still think voting matters, and I don’t know whether to pity or envy them. Such energy, thinking that they actually have some small degree of control over the wider world.

  7. I feel guilty & disappointed in myself as I watch myself become an ark head.

  8. Made me think of the host of Zen Studies Podcast, who now also host a podcast called Climate and You, who have been talking about how Buddhist thinking can help us process climate change and act upon it. With the original Buddhist vow to “free all beings of suffering” even though it’s clearly impossible in a lifetime, they are up to a right start to feed the reflexion! Thanks for the sharing of ideas, that’s a useful concept you’ve got there.

  9. Perhaps a modified corporate marketing mantra: “Think somewhat less than globally, act somewhat more than locally.” Not as catchy but better than an Ark, and more useful than IP (Insight Porn).

  10. The ark head metaphor brings to mind the permaculture concept of lifeboats. The vanguardist work of co-evolving communities that are “re-inhabiting” [from Kirkpatrick Sales] our ecosystems, watersheds and bioregions. Re-connecting to place in ways that increase the diversity of ones gut biome, the soil life, the plant and animal relationships, thereby enhancing ecosystems services and thus resilience in the face of larger perturbations.

  11. Brendan Battuta says

    Great piece. Just wish I had built nicer ark….

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