Weirding Diary: 9

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Weirding Diary

I’m noticing a resurgence of interest in classical systems theory that mildly worries me. I suspect it is being driven by an infectious desire to theorize the Great Weirding systematically. It is an impulse that is in some ways a natural complement to the parallel resurgence of interest in traditional religion as a mode of meaning-making (which worries me much more). Both are driven by the anomie and anxiety induced by the weirding (classical systems theory, like Singularitarianism, is a religion for people who understand compound interest).

I have a dog in this fight, which I call spooky systems theorizing (note the conjugation), occupying pride of place in the top right quadrant in my handy 2×2 of the clash of ideas here. Classical systems theory is in the doghouse at the bottom left, where I always put ideas with which I have beefs (my beefs tend to be with ideas rather than people).

A new generation of curious people is once again asking the same sorts of unreconstructed high-modernist questions that have been tempting ambitious thinkers since the 1960s. It is a disease peculiar to postmodernity, with Von Bertanfly, Forrester, Wiener, and the rest emerging as patients zero precisely at the historical moment when high modernism began to systematically fail, inviting attempts to save it through baroque mathematization.

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Pleasure as an Organizing Principle

The organizing principle of the modern world is pain. 

Avoiding it, yes. But also trading in it, taking refuge in it, and using it to justify our actions. Pain has so many uses. Why would you ever give up such a versatile tool?

We trade in pain when we use it to bargain for progress. We assume that the bigger the impact we want to have, the more dramatic the change, the more we have to suffer. Isn’t that how it works? Isn’t the depth of my sacrifice a measure of how much I care?

But the pain of suffering can become its own metric, and get optimized to an extreme as all metrics eventually are. In the face of a stubborn world that doesn’t yield to our efforts, it can be easier to use the pain we are enduring as a proxy.

We take refuge in pain when we use it to hide from our problems. Pain is all-consuming, a powerful distraction from the things we don’t want to face. Pain is self-annihilating, temporarily turning off the ego that accuses us of not doing enough, not being enough. Pain can be a refuge where the overwhelming complexity of modern life is reduced to a simple, pulsating throb.

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This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Regenerations

Tomorrow, along with my wife and cat, I’ll be getting on a plane on a one-way trip to Los Angeles, where I will be living for at least a year. As I mentioned in passing last week, it’s for a year-long fellowship with the Berggruen Institute (details in this Twitter thread). I’ll hopefully be working on a second book. But as big geographic moves always are for me, this move is also a convenient excuse and opportunity to regenerate.

And for the first time in my life, I find a part of me doesn’t want to regenerate (which is of course the best reason to do so).

It is that part of me that wants this particular Seattle chapter of my life to continue uninterrupted. I have been happy here for 7 years, the longest I’ve lived in one place as an adult, and I suppose I don’t want to interrupt a stream of consciousness that appears to be working.

I’m not certain what we’ll do after the year. Perhaps we’ll return to the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps we’ll like SoCal enough to stay. Perhaps we’ll head off in a new direction.

What is certain though, is that there is no coming back as such. One can only go back to a place (and only sort of), not to a time. Which is why moving with big jumps in space is so valuable. It forces you to catch up with time.

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The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

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What If We Already Know How to Live?

This is a guest post by Oshan Jarow.

Sometimes, an event seismic enough to rip a fault line through history forever divides time into two equally infinite halves: before said event, and after. Among the previous divisive events in time, I can think of fire, and language. Suggesting the internet did so for society is nothing new, but I suggest the digital age did so for the most basic, insoluble of human questions: how to live. The question is a pure expression of philosophy, distilled and stripped of distractions. I view digitalization on the seismic scale of fire and language, forever changing the landscape of the question, splitting the history of our existential strivings into before and after.

Philosophy is, in part, kept alive by ever-changing sociocultural circumstances that demand new lived responses to its question. But the changes brought by the digital age are of a magnitude beyond the routine vicissitudes of history. The global distribution of knowledge is arming, perhaps overloading us with more information than ever before, and the proliferation of digital interfaces is reprogramming how we experience life itself, our attentive and perceptual faculties.

Annie Dillard asked in 1999: “Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?” Asking the same question now is a new inquiry, for things are no longer as they were. That was all before. Inaugurated by information abundance & global connectivity, philosophy begins a new timeline. The ‘after’ has just begun. How has our inquiry into how to live metamorphosed? What new challenges animate our search for a fullness of being? What is philosophy after the internet?

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Worlding Raga: 3 — Slouching with God

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

Last week, my wife and I watched the new Captain Marvel movie. It strikes a slightly quieter note than the typical Marvel Cinematic Universe romp, and it occurred to me that that’s because the character is arguably the most powerful in the MCU, like Superman in the DC universe. She’s more like a god than even Thanos or Thor, so the usual wisecracking smart-assery would have struck a false note.

A line in Ian’s Worlding Raga episode last week, What is a World, leaped out at me in relation to this:

This voluntary desire to surf chaos, metabolize it into new order, and then do it all over again, is sometimes called “walking with god.” Maybe it’s more like slouching with god around here.

In the MCU, Nick Fury walks with many gods, and Captain Marvel appears to be the most powerful of the lot, which is why Fury sends a prayer-pager call out to her as his last act in Infinity War. Presumably she’ll play a key role in defeating Thanos in Endgame.

Since I’ve been jokingly referring to Ribbonfarm and its surrounding web zone as the “Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe” (RBU), Ian’s characterization immediately provokes the question: am I Captain Marvel or Nick Fury in the RBU? I hope I’m not Hawkeye.

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Remembering Pierre Kabamba

I think it was sometime in 1998 or 99. I was walking down the hallway of the faculty floor of the Aerospace Engineering department of the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student at the time. One of the professors had tacked a recently published paper by his door, as professors like to do. It was something about computing asteroid rendezvous orbits, and it used some rather pretty continued-series approximations of a sort that were popular in the 19th century. The professor in question was chatting with another, Pierre Kabamba, and was making some sort of self-deprecating remark about his paper (though he was clearly pleased with it), but Pierre was having none of that.

Pierre T. Kabamba, 1955-2014

He exclaimed with a characteristic ebullience, “But this is wonderful! You’re doing ROMANTIC mathematics!”

The remark made me smile, and put me in an unreasonably cheerful mood for the rest of the day. At the time, I was working with another professor, and growing increasingly depressed and jaded (I was too inexperienced at the time to recognize a fundamental incompatibility). I didn’t know it at the time, but I would go on to switch topics and advisors, and complete my PhD with Pierre. I would spend a wonderful three years in his company, rediscovering, as an adult, the spirit of romanticism in engineering that had me memorizing airplane silhouettes in high school.

Last week, I learned, much to my shock, that Pierre passed away just over four years ago, in 2014, of lung cancer. He was only 59, and the last time I saw him, in 2011, he had been his usual cheerful and energetic self. We had last collaborated in 2006, on a course we co-developed and taught in parallel (me at Cornell, Pierre at Michigan).

The easiest way to describe Pierre is this: he was a real-life Hercule Poirot, and in many ways, the person who taught me to think in the ways I still try to practice on this blog. So let me tell you about Pierre and what I learned from him.
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Why We Slouch

All physical structures can sag, but only sentient beings like you and me can slouch. To slouch is to adopt a degenerate behavioral posture. One that is aware of the potential for less degeneracy, and retains within itself a seed of an ability to actualize it, but consciously takes it out of play. Slouching is a posture of self-aware incompleteness of presence; a kind of dehydrated behavioral state of lowered availability that is less than fully engaged in the here-and-now.

Slouching is the essence of enlightened mediocrity; the recognition that you’ll live longer overall if you don’t try to be 100% alive all the time. Slouching is a good thing. I attribute many good things in my life to my ability to slouch well.

When you slouch, you sag like a non-sentient physical structure, your body physically conforming to a shape dictated by the interaction of environmental forces and backstop constraints. Think couches and floors. When you slouch and sag, these constraints activate, and support you automatically against a prevailing environmental force, without any need for you to adopt an appropriate attitude towards optimal performance in the environment.

When a chain is hanging under its own weight between two supports, it adopts a shape known as a catenary. A child who goes “boneless” as a form of passive resistance also takes on a rough catenary shape if picked up and carried by hands and feet.

Here’s a question that’s I’ve been wondering about. Why do we slouch? The answer to save energy is no answer at all. That’s merely a possible (but not necessary) consequence of slouching; one shared with many other efficient behaviors that look nothing like slouching.

So why do we slouch?

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The Age of Early Divinity

If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, you’re probably the sort of person who wastes time wondering what we should name the age we are living in, instead of being out there doering things. Is it the Information Age? Digital Age? Eternal Millennial September? Avocado Toast Age? Anthropocene? Terminal Hobbesian Age? Post-industrial? Post-capitalist? Post-authentic? Post-reality? Post-post-modernist?

Are there quality long-arc candidates, good for at least a couple of centuries, that are not a depressingly negatively defined, backward looking post-something, with reasonable supporting logic? Allow me to offer a new candidate: Early Divinity. Here’s a table illustrating the logic of the name, which I’m fairly confident (p < 0.05), is a good one.

The name is inspired by the line Stewart Brand stole from anthropologist Edward Leach for the inaugural Whole Earth Catalog: We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.

Early divinity, simply defined, is an age, or more technically, aeon (a period presided over by a particular incarnation of Aion, the eternalist personification of time in Greek mythology), when we are as gods but aren’t yet good at it. In fact we suck at it. It is an aeon marked by the taking-on of civilizational challenges worthy of gods, and getting really mediocre or failing grades at it. One day, we might get good at this god game, but it’s going to be a while. So settle in and enjoy the Mediocre Civilizational Universe of Early Divinity, MCU-ED.

Periodization, of course, is something of a parlor game for amateur historians like you and me. Real historians are going to hate this anyway, so we might as well have fun with it. Here’s my meta-theory of Aionic periodization that yielded this label for our age, and a preview of what godly things are in our near future.

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May You Live in Epic Times

At most times, in most places, history is busy rhyming with itself. The same holds true of the future: at most times, in most places, the future is busy rhyming with itself. There are always golden and dark ages in the past. There are always utopias and dystopias just beyond the horizon.

The fact that histories and futures rhyme so much, or as I like to think of it, are in rerun mode so much, allows us to inhabit escaped realities that are effectively outside of time. The sort of timeless time that the Greeks associated with their least-known third god of time: Aion. Unlike the better-known Chronos and Kairos, Aion personifies neither objective time, nor subjective time, but timelessness. Aion is the god of the nontemporal eternities, utopian and dystopian, golden and dark. He is the god of cyclicalities and finite games, symbolized by the ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail. Asian time, arguably, is entirely the ahistorical shadow of an Aionic world. Karma is Aion in disguise.

When Aion is ascendant, you can choose to escape reality and live inside the rhymes of the past and future, inhabiting time via Fourier transform, rather than living in the present. In fact, when Aion is strongest, your escapes can be so complete, you even lose awareness of their being escapes. Because there’s nothing new in the present and everything can be found in the rhymes. You can check out completely.

Most humans spend much of their lives living in the commodity non-time of  the Aionic realms, inhabiting escaped realities. Time is something that happens to other people.

But when the future is not like the past, the present becomes unique, and you must actually live in it. At least for a while.

Such times are interesting times. Such times are epic times. And depending on the part you’re called upon to play, they may be cursed times, or blessed times. [Read more…]