The Lord of the Gap

I may not be a tech-bro but even I can see the pointlessness of write-only memory, something which can be written to but never read. Yet, when I learnt of it I was reminded of something I do have some familiarity with: mindfulness. Consider this excerpt from Bhante Gunartana’s Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English (which is the follow-up to his excellent Mindfulness in Plain English):

“You need to sit in the place where the whole world of your experience is coming up and passing away so rapidly that there is just nothing to hang on to. Nothing lasts long enough for you to mentally glue it together into “something.” As soon as you turn your attention to any occurrence, it goes “poof”! It vanishes as soon as pure awareness touches it. It all just comes up and goes away, leaving no trace. There is no time for such a trace to be left. As each thing comes up, it pushes the last thing out of the mind and there is no residue. You come out of this experience with no solid memory of anything that occurred. There is just the lingering impression of everything arising and passing away more rapidly than the mind can hold. This is termed “seeing things as they really are.” You are not verbalising or conceptualising. You are just “seeing.” This happens in the awareness of your deeply concentrated mind.
It all just comes up and goes away as a raging torrent without the slightest straw to grasp to keep you from drowning. Yet you do not drown. Because you are not really there. “Me” is just another “thing” that only exists when you glue your passing experience together in that artificial way. What does the seeing in this state is a calm, unruffled, pure watchfulness that does not get involved and does not exist as a thing. It just watches.”

To me, it sounds as if the higher states of mindfulness are nothing more than a write-only consciousness, a truly momentary existence, where each instant of experience is integrated with but isolated from every other.

The rest of Beyond Mindfulness goes on to describe “Jhana” states, states that through the means of supreme concentration enable a person to experience something more. There are twelve Jhanas in total and the idea is that they form a sequential ladder—a rung cannot be missed, each one must be grasped and used to ascend to the next. Unfortunately, the orderly ascent through the first four Jhanas, through the four Immaterial Jhanas, and through the Supramundane Jhanas didn’t grab a hold of me. It just didn’t resonate. So I created my own hierarchy of mindfulness, and it uses as its central metaphor the idea of “the gap”.

“Between stimulus and response there is a gap, and in that gap resides choice.” It’s an idea often attributed to Viktor Frankl, though I think its origin is immaterial at this point. The idea is common coin, now. But hold it in mind for a second.

THE FOUR LEVELS

In An implacable enemy I mentioned the different ranking methods TV Tropes utilises. My favourite is the “Super Weight Scale”, which includes a “Muggle” tier, a “Super” tier and a “Cosmic” tier. The first is composed of normal humans; the second is composed of humans with extra-ordinary abilities; the third is composed of non-human entities, or humans that have gone beyond their ordinary human essence. I’d like to adopt a similar set up: my hierarchy of mindfulness has four levels.

Level Zero is composed of Mortals—they do not comprehend the existence of The Gap. To them, stimulus is indistinguishable from response.
Level One is composed of Apprentices—they comprehend that there is a Gap between stimulus and response, but they remain unable to manipulate it. Sometimes The Gap seems tiny. Other times The Gap seems like a chasm. They have to work with it in whatever guise it appears to them.
Level Two is composed of Adepts—they comprehend that there is a Gap and they are able to manipulate it, expanding and shrinking its borders. The experience of time itself is malleable to these people.
Level Three is composed of Lords—they too can comprehend The Gap and manipulate it. But they can do something else. They can enter into it, inhabit it.

Mortals don’t comprehend The Gap; Apprentices demonstrate awareness of The Gap; Adepts exhibit control of The Gap; Lords are presented with the opportunity to inhabit The Gap. The last, “inhabitation”, is what interests me most. What does it even mean?

RESULT, SEED, INTERFACE

One way to model existence is to separate it into domains of the past, present and future. If I were to visually represent this, it would look something like this:

triangles existence

In magnitude, the present is dwarfed by both the past and the future. It is tiny in comparison to the totality of those two great entities. But not in meaning, for the present’s meaning is immense, threefold. The present is, all at once, result, seed and interface:

– The present is the result of everything that occurred in the past.
– The present is the seed for everything that could occur in the future.
– The present is the interface between the immutable past and the possible futures.

The Lord of the Gap recognises this, and to him or her, The Gap manifests as a Gateway that when stepped through leads to a state of transcendence. The Lord of the Gap escapes time and escapes space. The Lord of the Gap inhabits the present, utterly, and so becomes everything that has happened in the past and everything that could happen in the future.

INADEQUATE TOOLS

Miyamoto Mushashi’s The Book of Five Rings was intended as a manual for combat, a guide to an eminently physical art. Because of this, alongside its instructions one can often find commands like, “You should investigate thoroughly”, directing the reader to stop reading and try doing instead. Mindfulness and what I’ve discussed above is similar. Reading will only get you so far. It is a supplement, not a meal replacement.

Put another way: Guy Sajer, a young French-born German soldier in World War Two, once said: “I cannot find the words to describe what I saw. My impression is that all words and syllables were perfected to describe unimportant things.” Above, I have tried to describe something important and primarily experiential using the wholly inadequate tools known as words. I was aware of the difficulty before I started, but I still felt compelled to try, and I hope that I have at least provided a signpost to aid in your own exploration.

Or, in more Zen terms, I hope I have used my finger to point you in the direction of the moon.

A taxonomy of travel

Our last holiday was booked through a travel agent. After it had been arranged I was informed—by my partner—of some of the preparatory errands that needed to be ran, one of which was the acquisition of suitcases.

“We don’t have any, so we need to borrow some.”

“No, you need to borrow a suitcase.”

It was my intention to take a single backpack, as I had done on other holidays. But, as so often happens, questions, worries and what-ifs took over and we ended up with a backpack and a suitcase each. I was a little annoyed as I prefer to travel light, as opposed to heavy. However, there was some upside: having a suitcase meant I could take more books than usual.

The trip itself was relatively flawless: the journey out and back was easy, and our week abroad, together, was beautiful. But whilst lounging on the empty beaches and floating in the warm, blue sea, I kept thinking about the notion of travelling. Specifically, the different ways one can do it. I came up with three spectra: light or heavy, slow or fast, and near or far.

The light-heavy spectrum is concerned, at one end, with necessity, and at the other with possibility. The person who travels light takes only (and sometimes less than) what is needed. The person who travels heavy takes things just in case—extra shoes, extra shorts, more potions and lotions, a bit more money, wet and winter gear to a moderate clime. The slow-fast spectrum is concerned with distance covered over time. A slow traveller takes hours to go ten miles; a fast traveller traverses the globe in under twenty-four hours. The near-far spectrum is the simplest and not in need of explanation.

EIGHT POSSIBILITIES

The three spectra taken together yield eight possible ways to travel, listed below with an example and a name that, hopefully, acts as a narrative hook.

1. “The Walker” (Light, slow, near.)
Wanders hills, fields and forests on foot, carrying only that which provides a minimum level of sustenance, shelter and warmth.

2. “The Van Dweller” (Light, fast, near.)
Undertakes rapid pilgrimages to the countryside, the mountains and the coast, taking their abode with them and carrying all the gear necessary to bike, surf or climb for a weekend.

3. “The Pack Leader” (Heavy, slow, near.)
The head of the family herds up the children, crams anything that the pack might possibly need over the next week into the estate and onto its roof, and heads off down the motorway, stopping at every service station en route to preserve their sanity for just a little longer.

4. “The Person of Stature” (Heavy, fast, near.)
Imagine an old-school statesman. Wherever they went, their retinue went with them, and so did a hefty amount of baggage, often loaded into the next carriage of the train they were taking to get to their summer home upstate.

5. “The World Tourer” (Light, slow, far.)
With panniers firmly affixed to bicycle racks, The Tourer makes their way through villages, towns and cities, engaging with local culture and people, and savouring every pedal stroke.

6. “The C-Level Nomad” (Light, fast, far.)
With everything they own packed obsessively into their unique Kickstarter-sourced backpack, C-Level Nomads are always in transit but never out-of-touch. They whip through airports, sail through the skies, take Ubers to their AirBnBs and spend their days in a co-working space co-ordinating the actions of their globally distributed team.

7. “The Sheikh” (Heavy, slow, far.)
Coming from the Middle East to the metropolises of the West for weeks at a time, The Sheikhs are preceded by messengers and officials and take over entire upper levels of the most expensive hotels, receiving dignitaries and other Notable People, whilst exasperating porters and other service staff in the process with the luxuries they expect to be available around the clock.

8. “The Icon” (Heavy, fast, far.)
Crossing states, crossing borders, crossing continents, performing one night after another after another for months on end, The Icon travels in a blaze of purpose and opulence Their staff handles the details, their schedule, their priorities. All they have to do is prepare and perform, night after night.

I don’t know about you, but the archetypes above are what I attach to the different means of travel. But how do I, myself, like to travel? Answer: light and slow.

ON TRAVELLING LIGHT

Travelling light compels me to think about that which I don’t need. Which is why I like it. So much of modern life is clutter, things we have just because we can have them, things we purchase even though their use to us is transient. Travelling light does away with this modern tendency to accumulate and forces me to question the value of that which I choose to take with me. It also has the handy side-effect of reducing anxiety and stress—with less to carry there is less to worry about, practically and existentially.

Of course, there is a dark side to the desire to travel light. As Zygmunt Bauman points out in Liquid Modernity, the virtues of lightness and liquidity can morph into vices when you begin to see everything as replaceable and all within reach should you need it. I haven’t reached that stage. If I do have to take something with me I prefer it to be a tool that lasts, a more expensive device intended to last a lifetime.

At the deepest level, I think my preference for travelling light is a response to my inability to be happy and at-ease with my position of relative comfort. Having more than most—historically and in comparison to my contemporaries around the world—often feels like it still isn’t enough, and travelling light is one way for me to practice appreciation of and satisfaction from less.

ON TRAVELLING SLOW

Travelling slow is simpler to understand. I’ve said it before:

“Speed places a constraint on experience. It narrows the vision. It sharpens the ears. It quickens the breath. If life is measured in terms of psychological and physiological arousal then speed kicks us onto a higher plane of existence. But life is not just about arousal. Life can also be about stillness, about appreciation, about noticing, about presence. And speed is the enemy of these things.”

Or, visualised:

the faster I go

Thus, I want to travel slow because travelling slow allows me the opportunity to see more, even if I don’t always take it.

Another way of thinking about it: the person travelling fast is concerned primarily with the reaching of their destination. Their “journey” is a “journey” in the truest sense of the word—a means to an end. They leave in order to arrive. But for the person travelling slow, every moment can be a destination, a place to arrive at, be at ease in, and appreciate.

SYNTHESIS

The synthesis of travelling slow and light results, in my imagination, in a traveller who can immerse himself in and experience wherever he happens to be. Lightness and slowness are, to me, the means of travel most amenable to a full and unfettered experience of every place that isn’t home.

The floor and the canopy

When I was sixteen I thought it was impressive to deadlift 100kg. When I was nineteen I thought it was impressive to squat twice your bodyweight. When I was twenty-two I was caught up with Dan John’s notion of standards. “I should have a specific level of proficiency in the push, pull, squat, hinge and carry patterns,” I told myself. When I was twenty-five performance impressed me less than process—I attributed more value to how someone approached their problems, not the extent to which they had managed to overcome them. Now, I’m twenty-seven, and right on cue a development in my philosophy of movement has come around. And it’s occurred for two reasons.

First, I read a Twitter threads: one and two. The ideas being debated centred around the ludic-ness of movements like the deadlift; how much they simulate and cross-over into the “real world”. I won’t rehash it at length, but I will include what I thought was the most interesting observation. Says @e-volutionarily:

“Barbell ~100 years old, not Lindy.
Human movement is gait cycle and is rotation based, think 95% of Olympic sports outside of lifting, it’s all swinging and rotation, throwing, kicking, jumping (one legged), running. Everything in real life is unilateral, in gym bilateral.”

Second, on a recent holiday to Greece I went stand-up paddleboarding. I’ve wanted to do it for a while, and a place with calm, blue waters and near-empty beaches (it was end of season) seemed like the ideal location. After a few stumbles I figured out my two main mistakes. First, I was watching the water and trying to anticipate how the waves would move the board. Second, and this feeds into the first, I was holding myself with too much rigidity. In Judo, you have to go with the throw—if you resist it the ground seems a lot harder. You have to have faith in your body’s ability to unconsciously provide the correct reaction. Same with stand-up paddleboarding. Your body needs a little tension, but only enough to keep you upright. The aim is to be pliable, to let the waves and the board show you how to move. Seas and oceans are big, powerful things—better to work with them.

But how do these two things make up a new aspect of my movement philosophy? Let me explain.

HAT AND HEART

The gymnasium is an unnatural environment. But what is the opposite of the gymnasium, with its precision engineered equipment, with its sweat stink, with its Barbell Bros and Crossfit Cultists, with its mediocre pop-music ambiance, with its straight lines, right angles and flat planes? The jungle. The jungle which we primates forget that we come from. And to traverse a jungle one must find a way across the floor and the canopy. Which is an apt name for what exactly it is that I have come to be most impressed by.

See, deadlifting double bodyweight is cool. Doing a Turkish get-up with a half-bodyweight kettlebell is badass. But I think it’s better to be able to fall, roll and crawl across the floor. I think it’s better to be able to leap, balance, climb and hang. I doff my hat to powerlifters and Olympic lifters, but I give my heart to dancers and martial artists.

Yet, I think it’s more than that. It’s not so much what these exquisite movers actually do, more what they could do. I think that, fundamentally, what impresses me most is someone who can quickly attain competence in any physical discipline, from the gross to the fine, from the simple to the complex. A person able to do that has mastery of his physiology, and as a consequence probably possesses a distinct psychological sensitivity too.

I wonder what will impress me when I’m thirty?

From tree to tree

Most books that are proclaimed to be “profound” and “life-changing” aren’t. Sometimes they are, but never to the degree advertised. Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga’s The Courage to Be Disliked is one such book. It didn’t shatter my soul into a million pieces and then give me a blueprint for a more aesthetically pleasing and functional reconstruction, but it did offer some concrete advice about the how to live a life. But more importantly, it brought to my awareness the fact that all philosophies and all religions tend towards a consensus on the human condition.

The book is based on the psychological research of Alfred Adler, founder of the school of individual psychology, and it has a few key concepts. One such idea is “the separation of tasks”. Here’s how it works: it is my task to trust and believe in the people I love, but it is their task to decide what to do with that investment. The book uses the example of a parent-child relationship:

“…a parent suffering over the relationship with his or her child will tend to think, My child is my life. In other words, the parent is taking on the child’s task as his or her own, and is no longer able to think about anything but the child. When at last the parent notices it, the ‘I’ is already gone from his or her life. However, no matter how much of the burden of the child’s task one carries, the child is still an independent individual. Children do not become what their parents want them to become. In their choices of university, place of employment and partner in marriage, and even in the everyday subtleties of speech and conduct, they do not act according to their parents’ wishes. Naturally, the parents will worry about them, and probably want to intervene at times. But, as I said earlier, other people are not living to satisfy your expectations. Though the child is one’s own, he or she is not living to satisfy one’s expectations as a parent.”

This sounds remarkably similar to ideas contained within a poem called, “On Children”, by Khalil Gibran, which itself is a part of a collection entitled The Prophet. Here’s the poem in full:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

The “separation of tasks” also has a striking similarity to the Stoic “dichotomy of control”—the identification of what is within your control and what is not, and the decision to focus only on the former. The premise being that attempting to control what you cannot is a straight path to pain and suffering. Better, Stoicism teaches, to focus on the only things within your domain: your words, your thoughts and your deeds.

Another key idea in The Courage to Be Disliked is that “all problems are interpersonal problems”. It goes on to explain that one of the main causes of these interpersonal issues is vertical-versus-horizontal relationships—perceptions of inferiority and superiority versus perceptions of equal value. The person who sees relationships in vertical terms is always placing others above themselves and themselves above others—thus, they flip-flop between arrogance and insecurity, between a cruel elation and a cynical despondency. The advice the book provides is to “flatten” vertical relationships and make them horizontal. How? By choosing to value human beings on “the level of being” instead of the “level of acts”. By appreciating a person because they are, not because they do. Doing this removes the barrier of comparison, making the route to sincere and honest communication easier to travel.

This “flattening” of relationships reminds me of something I picked up from Nassim Taleb’s Incertoit’s better to exist outside of hierarchies. I can’t re-trace his exact path of reasoning, but I believe he implied that, bound by the constraints of a traditional hierarchy, humanity’s priorities become warped and everything is evaluated according to its ability to help or hinder a person’s rise upwards. In the midst of hierarchies, moral and ethical considerations fade into the background and the only thing that matters is one’s status relative to others.

Nassim Taleb is also the person who, when talking of Seneca the Younger in Antifragile, defined “the modern Stoic sage” as “someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” Why would such alchemy make someone a “sage”? Because if a person can transform all the negatives of existence into positives—or, at least, neutrals—then that person experiences nothing but upside from the march of Time. As Taleb says, Stoicism as he understands it is not the “elimination” of emotion or adverse events, but their “domestication”—which is, as far as I can see, a key tenet of Buddhism.

However, this “transforming”, or leveraging, of negative emotions and events is not exclusive to Taleb or Stoicism. Rene Girard also advises it. Girard, prodigious scholar, academic and late convert to Christianity, is known for theorising “mimetic desire”, the idea that our yearnings are not spontaneous. He says that all desire begins with the imitation of a model. Example: for a long time, I’ve been trying to build a remote business that generates a lot of value for others and provides just enough for me to work less than full-time (so I can read, write and all that). The advantages to such an arrangement seemed self-evident to me—location independence; satisfaction from bespoke, high quality work; mastery of my time—but I only began to lust for the achievement of this goal after I had selected certain eminent people as worthy of my admiration. I learnt about them and so learnt what they desired, and in the process I begun to desire it too.

In his books, Girard lays out the structure and subtleties of this mechanism. But, contrary to my expectations, he didn’t argue that because the mechanism is revealed it can be dissolved. No, he suggested that if we understand the mechanism we can co-opt it. Girard points to Christianity and describes how the taking of Jesus as a mimetic model can have transformative effects and result in a mimetic desire that is beneficial to society and the self, instead of harmful.

THE SAME ROOTS

I could continue to draw connections unearthed in my own experience, but I think I have made my point. If you look close enough, all religions and all philosophies are concerned with the same things and they all manage to reach some consensus. They all discuss and debate concepts like agency, awareness, truth and suffering, and for every point at which they draw apart there are two at which they come together.

consensus on the human condition

Why is that? Well. Humanity shares its hard- and software. We are all made from the same stuff and have mostly similar instincts—they differ only by degree. And we are all confronted by the same problem: life. So is it so unreasonable to suggest that the solutions we propose only diverge once they come out of the ground? After all, whilst the trunks, the branches and the leaves may differ from tree to tree, all must have their roots, and to remain standing those roots must bury deep into the earth that is the human condition.

Plug in and act up

Our minds, like our bones, respond to the demands placed upon them, and the informational bits multiplying in our environment are rapidly modifying the atoms of our brains. Many—me included—have responded to the unreasonable effectiveness of information tech in a rather reactionary manner, via retreat. Technology sabbaths, monk mornings, manifestos for deep work, informational fasts, screen censoring. Venkatesh Rao calls this “Waldenponding”. He explains in a recent Breaking Smart newsletter:

“I’ve been developing a growing discomfort with a philosophy of relating to technology I call Waldenponding (after Thoreau’s Walden Pond experiment on which Walden is based). The crude caricature is “smash your smart phone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms.” It is less of a caricature than you might think. At an event I was just at, the opening keynote featured a guy who’s literally done just that, and I know at least half a dozen people who have executed a Hard Waldenponding plan with varying degrees of literal fidelity. A great many more have implemented a sort of Soft Waldenponding, marked by digital retreat (aided by various amputation tools that sever or loosen your connection to digital prosthetics), but no log cabin.

As a one-time interesting experience or occasional mental-health retreat, both Soft and Hard Waldenponding are a great idea. Heck, I’d like to try living off the grid for a bit on a log cabin myself for a summer or something. I’m also on board with trying and adopting experimental rituals like a no-devices sabbath day if they work for you. But as an attitudinal foundation for relating to society and technology, Waldenponding is, I am convinced, a terrible philosophy at both a personal and collective level. It’s a world-and-life negation. A kind of selfish free-riding/tragedy of the commons: not learning to handle your share of the increased attention-management load required to keep the Global Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC) running effectively.”

The premise is interesting—a turning into, instead of away from, the growing importance of interconnection. But how does it play out? Venkatesh continues:

“34/ The GSCITC is not a homogenizer of effort or imagination, but it IS a homogenizer of egos and identities. What you do counts. Who you are doesn’t. You are an ordinary part of an extraordinary process.

35/ This is the heart of FOBO. Fear of Being Ordinary. Fear of being just another entangled particle in the GSCITC. Fear of your ego dissolving into the collective ego. Fear of having “nothing to show” for playing a part, despite it being sustainable.

36/ Waldenponding, I strongly suspect, is driven more by FOBO and ego-attachment than by any real fear of having your mind, productive potential, and rewards destroyed by “hacked attention.”

37/ Personally, I can attribute more than half my income in the last few years to being strongly plugged in all the time, so rewards certainly didn’t suffer. Half my good ideas for writing came from being plugged in, so neither did productive potential. And I don’t think I’m any dumber for having been plugged in. About 42% smarter in fact.

38/ Sure, the challenge of managing the stress and anxiety is high, but then, so is the corresponding kind of stress working inside a traditional organization. There is no reason to expect the stress on your “free” attention to be lower than on your industrially organized attention.

39/ If you are a genius who rises to Level 25 Omega Super Adept in a monastery in the mountains, who knows everything there is to know about candle flames, that’s kinda… very convenient for the Pope and the King. Smart person out of the way in a log cabin learning Candleology out of FOBO.

40/ A real adept oughta be able to meditate on the angriest, most toxic twitter stream, consume the bile, and turn it into nectar: actionable insight you can bet on in the real world.

41/ A real adept ought to have strength-trained attention so they can spend an hour either reading a tweetstream or a once-in-a-generation history-disrupting philosophy book. No hack designer or advertiser should be able to lock them down in the 0.1-10 second range.

42/ So stop blaming the media platforms for your own wallowing in small-minded twitter gossip about people. Strength train to the point where you decide whether to be there or elsewhere. May the FOMO be with you, and may you have the strength to resist FOBO.”

NAVIGATING THE CONFLICT

I actually let the above linger in my to-read pile for a while because I was in the midst of evaluating my “connectedness”. During that period I reached a consensus that algorithms, not information, were my problem.

Originally, I thought that the human brain wasn’t designed to handle such extravagant loads of information. But then I realised that is exactly what it is designed to do. Think of the senses—what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell—and how small a part of what they pick up makes it all the way to the surface of our consciousness. Now, tell me, have you ever heard anyone complaining that they “see too much” as they walk through the park? That the trees have too many colours, that the grass is overwhelming, that the litter is making them go blind, that the birds are tweeting so much that they feel they’re going to go deaf? Of course not—we’ve learnt to filter the incomprehensible amount of information that our senses deliver to our minds every second of every single day. And this is the difficulty with the information environment we occupy—we haven’t evolved to it, yet.

I recently came across a Stewart Brand essay about pace layers that hints at a reason for this modern conundrum. In it, he says:

“In recent years a few scientists (such as R. V. O’Neill and C. S. Holling) have been probing the same issue in ecological systems: how do they manage change, how do they absorb and incorporate shocks? The answer appears to lie in the relationship between components in a system that have different change-rates and different scales of size. Instead of breaking under stress like something brittle, these systems yield as if they were soft. Some parts respond quickly to the shock, allowing slower parts to ignore the shock and maintain their steady duties of system continuity.

Consider the differently paced components to be layers. Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.

From the fastest layers to the slowest layers in the system, the relationship can be described as follows:

Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.

All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure. It is what makes them adaptable and robust.”

Brand goes on to identify these layers and sort them. He says that the levels, from fast to slow, are Fashion/Art, Commerce, Infrastructure, Governance, Culture, Nature. Right now, there’s a great conflict between the infrastructure of the modern world and our fundamental nature. The former contains the rapid proliferation of information in a medium that the latter is not equipped to deal with.

Venkatesh’s call to become an “adept” is one way to navigate this conflict. Another is the less nuanced (and morally questionable) Waldenponding. But both of these categories of response are available only to those who are conscious of the need to respond. Not everyone wants to learn how to direct and leverage Info Flows like a modern-day Jedi. Some just want to talk to the people they care about and be able to do their job. In other words, What about the normies?

PLUG IN

An easy—and rather crude—way to think about this is to separate the world into those with a high Info IQ and those with a low Info IQ. Those with a high Info IQ are capable of mindful interaction with vast amounts of information and the technology that acts as a gateway to it. Those with a low Info IQ aren’t.

Unfortunately, the latter outnumber the former, many times over. And this is why a lot of tech companies can persist. They profit from the naivety of those with a low Info IQ. They’ll market free services and products to you and profit twice—first from the ad revenue used to subsidise these product’s overheads, second from the totality of data they accumulate about your life. And why wouldn’t they? It’s low-hanging fruit and most of these companies have shareholders to report back to. What’s that saying? “Hell hath no fury like a majority shareholder who receives a tiny dividend.” If you don’t know how valuable your data is, that’s your own fault, right?

When I look at it, it appears to be nothing more than exploitation. It’s like ripping off a tourist who doesn’t have a clue about exchange rates. Low risk and high return—that is until the tourist wises up and vows to, one, never come back to your country, and two, always check the rates. Facebook is only one company that’s been caught taking our data and selling it off for a tidy profit. Do you think they’re unique? No way. More episodes will come to the fore.

Right now, “surveillance capitalism” is in full swing. The minority can protect themselves and fight back against it, but the majority either can’t or won’t. And the only way to change that, to shift the balance, is to plug in. As Venkatesh says, a smart person who renounces tech helps himself and no-one else. That’s another person with the ability to diffuse info-management techniques out of the game. Another person with the capacity to call exploitative companies on their exploitative practices in a space where they can do no harm.

Even if you feel no inclination to become a digital rights activist, you can still have an impact. Make change with your wallet. Pay for the services you value. Audit your privacy and attempt to increase it. Register your opposition by foregoing convenience and abandoning products and services from companies you deem questionable. If enough people do this for long enough then tech companies will lose their halo and be compelled to behave like other companies, to do things that serve their customers over the longterm.

I remember reading about luxury fashion brands abandoning fur products. Their PR people spun it as a Big Moral Decision by a Caring, Compassionate Company. It wasn’t. Fur wasn’t selling as much as it used to and it came with negative associations, so it got dropped. Surveillance capitalism and the exploitation of those with low Info IQs will go the same way if we do the right thing, if we plug in and act up.

An implacable enemy

At the height of its power, before it was compelled by an antitrust suit brought against it by the US government to dissolve into multiple separate organisations, John D. Rockefeller’s and Henry Flagler’s Standard Oil was caricatured as “The Octopus”. Why? Because it’s influence was pervasive—it was an integrated oil corporation that spanned the globe, and more importantly, not all of its members were known. It was hard to tell who was being grasped by one of the Octopus’s tentacles and who wasn’t. Nowadays, the equivalent of the Octopus of Standard Oil is probably the “Fat Cats” of the financial industry.

For example, investigative journalist Roberto Saviano considers London to be the global centre of illicit finance. The place where dirty money is made clean:

“If I asked what is the most corrupt place on Earth, you might say it’s Afghanistan, maybe Greece, Nigeria, the south of Italy. I would say it is the UK. It’s not UK bureaucracy, police, or politics, but what is corrupt is the financial capital. Ninety per cent of the owners of capital in London have their headquarters offshore.”

Saviano elaborates:

… Saviano said that there was a hidden danger of voting to leave the European Union that was little discussed. He said if the UK left the EU, it would undermine joint attempts to fight illegal economies.

‘Leaving the EU means allowing the Qatari societies, the Mexican cartels, the Russia Mafia to gain even more power,’ he said, highlighting the fact HSBC had paid $1.9bn in fines to the US government for financial irregularities in dealing with money that had come from cartels.

He added: ‘We have proof, we have evidence. Today, the criminal economy is bigger than the legal economy. Drug trafficking eclipses the revenue of oil firms. Cocaine is a £300bn-a-year business. Criminal capitalism is capitalism without rules. Mafia and organised crime does not abide by the rule of law – and most financial companies who reside offshore are exactly the same.’

So, it’s known—but in most cases cannot be proved—that Russian oligarches, Saudi princes, and Mexican drug lords all filter their money through the mechanisms of London’s financial district. But the rabbit hole is deeper. Not only is dirty money made clean, the newly clean money is also used to soil mechanisms of governance and keep the captains of Saviano’s “capitalism without rules” out of the fetters they so truly deserve.

THE FATTEST OF CATS

I recently became aware of the work of Nicholas Wilson, also known as “Mr Ethical”. It would not be unfair to say that he is engaged in a fight against a seemingly implacable enemy. Consider some of the dirt he has dug up involving one of the world’s biggest banks, HSBC, in regards to the pattern of their employment.

hsbc

Why would HSBC entice former public officials to leave their posts and work for them? Perhaps to ensure that nobody shines too bright a light on the relationships and mechanisms that HSBC deploys to keep itself and its clients out of trouble?

It’s a distortion of Nassim Taleb’s notion of “skin in the game”—they put their skin in other’s game. By purchasing privileged insight and preferential treatment through the employment of—or, in other cases, “contact with”—former public officials, and by creating weak ties between these officials and the bank, HSBC also offers the implicit threat of, “If we go down, you do too.” Here’s an example of how this plays out.

Consider the strange case of Lisa Osofsky. She was employed to monitor HSBC’s adherence to a Deferred Prosecution Agreement relating to a billion dollar money laundering case. In October 2017 Lisa and her husband, Marc Wassermann—who also has ties to the bank—took out a multi-million pound mortgage with HSBC. in December 2017 the bank was given a “clean bill of health”. In August 2018 Lisa began work as the Director of the Serious Fraud Office, which is “a specialist prosecuting authority tackling the top level of serious or complex fraud, bribery and corruption.”

I won’t go much further into this. At least not right now—there are others who do it way better than I can. Like Nicholas Wilson. Polite warning, though: once you see all this, it’s hard to stop looking. But learning about it does have me thinking about how exactly one confronts such an immense entity.

SUPER WEIGHT

The treasure trove that is TV Tropes contains a few ways to classify villains. One is using the notion of character tiers (going from bottom tier to God tier). Another is using the sliding scale of villain threat, which goes from “local” threat (“The villain poses significant harm to a single person or small group of persons or a localised area”) to “omniversal” threat: “…these villains will not stop at a single Multiverse, but they will cross all of reality to take over or simply destroy the totality of The ‘Verse/Series Franchise (if said totality exists beyond a Multiverse), taking control over or obliterating all alternate dimensions, planes of existence, parallel universes, possible universes, timelines, alternate continuities, realities, and Multiverses within said totality.” But my favourite is Super Weight, which has a classification which goes from “Fragile Weight” and “Muggle Weight” to “Cosmic Weight” and “Author Weight”. The definition of an “Author Weight” character is as follows:

“Characters in this weight class are absolutely Omnipotent and likely Omniscient. They are capable of exerting their will on all of reality and the entire universe (or even the totality of the multiverse) or even the plot itself without exception. Destiny/Fate is their play-thing. They cannot be killed/destroyed by any means. Any limits they have are self-imposed. While this weight is almost always reserved for God, the Author, and the Game Master, characters can be written for at this level. Just don’t expect it to be a normal story. As a result, a character at this level is fairly rare.”

I’m more concerned with the low-end of the scale. What can a “muggle weight” playable character do against a “National Threat” that can “destroy a country or take it over and turn it into a Crapsack World”?

big bad inc

Not a totalitarian regime, such as Soviet Russia or the Third Reich. I don’t believe there is much one can do, alone. As I’ve said before, when you’re up against the power of the state resistance isn’t futile, but it’s not far off. No, I’m more concerned with how an individual can go up against a powerful institution or entity within the confines of a democratic state—the oil industry, the military-industrial complex, an international bank.

TABLETOP IT

On Twitter I follow an account called Tabletop Scenarios. They posit situations like, “The secondary keyboard installed on your mobile device has been sending keystrokes home.” Well, here’s my tabletop scenario:

“You have discovered evidence of corruption on a mass scale. An international financial institution is using its wealth to subvert international, national and regional regulations, and worse, it is dangling the carrot of lucrative future employment to officials in high places to ensure that itself and its clients remain free from public and private scrutiny.

You have followed standard protocols, made the right advances down the right avenues, and still you’ve heard nothing. What do you do to raise awareness and bring about action and change?”

SURVIVE

Before you can thrive, you must survive. This applies to business, to sport, to academia, and most definitely to the fight against an implacable, mid-level enemy. As Sun Tzu put it two thousand years ago: “In ancient times skillful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponent.” So how does one go about making themselves “invincible”?

The first thing to do is to create an audience. Even an audience composed of a few people is enough to change the game. Spectators compel the antagonist to act with some measure of honour and decency—more than they would if left to engage behind closed doors. And a public figure, either major, minor, or minuscule, is one who cannot simply be removed from the confines of the game or eliminated (although there are exceptions—see Jamal Khashoggi, Meng Hongwei, and the many journalists killed whilst reporting and investigating the Mexican drug cartels).

Once the seeds of an audience have been planted, the next step is to assess your attack surface, specifically how vulnerable you are in terms of economics. Here the keywords are “debt”, “downside” and “dependencies”, each of which result in a definite risk to your campaign. If the total of these three things is substantial then all your opponent has to do to put you out of the game is put the brakes on your cash flow. What campaigner will pursue the fight if his wife and children are starving and homeless? Which brings me to the next step.

Determine your redundancies and your reputational fragility. Your redundancies are, essentially, the resources that would allow you to maintain a bare minimum living standard in the absence of income. If you have no cash savings, live in London and have no friends who will let you sleep on their sofa, you are more vulnerable than someone with a few months worth of cash in the bank, a paid off mortgage in a small, remote town and a strong supportive social network. Similarly, if your income is strongly dependent upon your reputation—perhaps you’re a politician or a lawyer—then you are particularly vulnerable to the simple smear campaign, the putting about of sultry and unsubstantiated rumours and allegations. If your income is dependent upon your rep being squeaky clean, then the obvious thing for an adversary to do is throw a little dirt on the canvas. It doesn’t really matter if the accusations and insinuations are true. What matters is that they sow the seeds of doubt, the seeds that can be the difference between “You’re hired” and “We’ve decided to go with another provider for now.”

Of course, there is a defense to this last—do nothing indefensible. A smear campaign can be endured if you are secure in the knowledge of your own good and have independent means. But bear in mind, “indefensible” does not mean an act that cannot be interpreted in a dark light. It means do nothing that you wold not be willing to stand up in a public forum and defend.

The final piece to the puzzle of the defense is, quite simply, documentation. Every interaction, every shred of evidence, every question, every response—save it all in multiple places.

BETWEEN DEFENCE AND ATTACK

Build an audience; assess debt, dependencies and downside; determine redundancies and reputational fragility; do nothing indefensible; become a documentarian of your cause. That pretty much handles the aspect of defense when confronting an immense enemy. Now, let’s consider the hybrid, kinda-attack-kinda-defense strategies, of which there are two.

The first concerns the ideas of optionality, slack and serendipity. As someone building a case, you need these things. Optionality and slack—usually in the form of unallocated time, money, energy and attention—allow you to pursue and exploit opportunities that arise due to serendipity. For example, let’s say that you’ve gone public and consistently talk about your cause and share your ongoing findings online. Doing so might net you a reader who is in close proximity to your struggle, someone who knows something you’re not in a position to ever find out. Unfortunately, this person may feel uncomfortable sharing his knowledge in any other format except face-to-face. With no optionality or slack in your system, it is hard to jump on this opportunity. But with a base level of stringently unallocated resources, such opportunities will occur more and yield a higher rate of return. It becomes possible to give up a day or two in pursuit of a long shot, or follow the trail for an improbable payoff of evidence.

The second hybrid strategy concerns narratives. The aim is, essentially, to narrativise your cause or fight so that it becomes easily comprehensible to an impartial observer, and thus make it more likely that they will pledge their direct or indirect support. Telling someone, “I’m campaigning against Bank A’s legal but immoral manipulation of regulation that is designed to maintain an impermeable barrier between the public and private sector” has less effect than, “Bank A is attempting to manipulate our system of democracy for extreme profits; I’m fighting back.” The former barely registers; the latter shoots right into the brain and pegs you as an individual engaged in a noble fight against a titanic enemy.

WINNING

You may not think it, but this is the hardest part of the game. It’s possible to survive for a long, long time. What is harder, and almost unheard of, is to win. But what does it even mean to “win”? Say you’re fighting a corrupt system. Is it winning to see the system itself and everyone associated with it crash and burn? Is it winning to see the system persist but the people punished? Is it winning to enhance the symmetry of the people involved—should those who reap massive profit also be liable for massive punishment? The question that needs to be asked is this: Are you trying to win the game, bring in new players, or change the rules?

With that out of the way, we can turn to offensive strategies.

PLAYING OFFENSE

The simplest offensive strategies are the mirror of those strategies your adversary uses against you. They consist of the undermining of foundations, the sowing of doubt and discord, the public examinations of damning evidence, the asking of awkward questions, the pursuit of prosecution and change using typical institutional means alongside a barrage of guerrilla marketing and individual warfare. However.

The odds are stacked in their favour. You may have right on your side, but right doesn’t always equate to might. As much as we like to deny it, self-interest and power—in the form of money and connections—run rampant over morality. Add to this the fact that, alongside might, your opponent can unleash immense complexity to slow you down. An example of this comes in the form of shell companies.

Big money leaves a trail. There’s no really inconspicuous way to move it. So the next best thing is to camouflage its motion behind a series of complex legal manoeuvres and border crossings, to make the resources required to trace it accurately and definitively so immense that following the trail to its end is just too costly. (For more on this type of tomfoolery, see James Junius’ Russian Dolls and reports about the Panama Papers.)

EXASPERATION

When I began this post, I had a vision in mind: a mini-playbook that individuals can use to take down or combat nefarious collectives. It hasn’t turned out that way, mainly because as I’ve thought about going on the attack I’ve realised that the search for and exploitation of vulnerabilities is so difficult. As I said above, the probable result of engagement with a morally questionable but definitely powerful adversary is a whole lot of pain and not a lot of change. It’s no wonder that whistleblowers run out of breath. The whole system is set to bring about the exhaustion of their resources. And a long time before that happens, exasperation sets in. A noble fight is easy, especially when audiences applaud you. But when nobody seems to care? When you slave away and see no recompense, and worse, no progress? In such a situation it’s easy to ask yourself, “Why do I bother?”

You’re fighting a system which is a consequence of human nature. Greed is in our genetic code. As soon as one system which gives it expression is stamped out, another steps in to fill the void. So it was, so it is, and so it will continue to be. Which, again, raises the question: Why bother? Why fight when you can’t win—or not indefinitely, at least? In answer, I turn to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and to David Rowe’s The Proverbs of Middle-Earth, which says:

“…to act with hope and nobility however dark the future may appear. This is encapsulated when he and Gimli recount their journey with Aragorn. Having braved the Paths of the Dead, galloped through southern Gondor to Pelagir, and raced up the river in the nick of time to turn the tide of battle outside Minas Tirith, they still know that if Frodo should fail, all their efforts would be in vain. Was all their effort therefore a waste? Legolas says no, on the basis that results neither define nor denigrate virtue.

Follow what may, great deeds are not lessened in worth,’ said Legolas. ‘Great deed was the riding of the Paths of the Dead, and great it shall remain, though none be left in Gondor to sing of it in the days that are to come.’ “

This timeline may be one without Elves, Dwarves, or other magic creatures, but it is still one filled with doers of heroic deeds. Investigative journalists, campaigners, activists, whistleblowers—they fight not because their victory is likely or permanent, but because it is the right thing to do. For that, I am thankful, and by that, I am inspired. And while it may not help them pay their rent, or serve as the capstone in their prosecution case, I feel that it is worth saying to them while I have the chance, thank you.

Antidotes to depression

I’m reluctant to play the game of self-diagnosis but I’m pretty sure I don’t have bipolar disorder (which involves rapid fluctuation between periods of severe depression and periods of great energy). However. I can relate to such see-sawing between extremes. In the morning I’ll be having dark thoughts about life and death and meaning, then in the afternoon I’ll be whooping and hollering and rolling around on the floor with the puppy, laughing like a madman while she tries to lick my face off.

As I said, the intensity and duration of these swings isn’t on the scale of bipolar, but it is significant enough, and consistent enough, to have forced me to evolve a go-to response. Amongst the collection of documents that I use to manage my life I have one containing daily, weekly and monthly processes, and one of those processes is my “recalibration” protocol. It’s a self-righting mechanism for when anxiety or depression has me in its teeth and is ragging me like a chew toy. Specifically, it directs me to do one of two things:

Breathe or move.

Now, the reason I’m thinking (and writing) about this is because I saw the following from Ido Portal on his Instagram:

“I was asked by a professor of psychiatry once if I ever experienced depression. I answered ‘not to the best of my knowledge/experience’.
He replied simply: ‘of course not. You move too much….’ I tell all people I meet but especially those battling depression, loss of meaning and similar states: MORE NON-VERBAL EXPERIENCES DAILY is what the doc prescribes and movement is the best medium.”

The above got me thinking about the nature of depression and anxiety, and consequently, their respective antidotes. (An aside: depression, anxiety and other “negative” states are an integral part of existence. That they are present and experienced is not the problem. The problem is when they make up a disproportionate part of day-to-day life. A diet that relies only on one macro-nutrient and no micro-nutrients isn’t healthy; neither is a life filled only with depression and anxiety.) Ido Portal and others recommend movement as a response to a depressive state; my study of mindfulness indicates that the breathe is an equally potent defense. But why? Let’s take a look.

DEPRESSION VERSUS MOVEMENT

It’s been posited that many mental health disorders, like depression, are due to chemical imbalances in the brain. So, supposedly the solution is to correct those imbalances, either via medical treatment or lifestyle adaptation. If we imagine the body’s total chemical and hormonal system as one big soup then we can position movement as an activity that flushes and renews it.

In actuality, it ain’t that simple. The mechanisms at play are more complex than we first thought and we understand them less than we would like to. But, as anyone who’s just completed an intense bout of physical activity will tell you, movement does modify mood, and usually in a positive manner. Sometimes before a Brazilian jiu-jitsu session I feel un-energised, tired, lazy. After, I feel strong, I feel good, I feel happy. Similarly, if I’m feeling blocked when I write I can take a walk and come back to work revitalised.

This is because physical activity transforms your physical state. It impacts cortisol levels, the circulation of insulin, glucose usage, it releases endorphins and other neurotransmitters, it increases brain activity, and it takes the edge off of mind wandering and rumination—it’s hard to think about all the shit at work when you’re chucking a twenty-plus kilo kettlebell around or trying to deadlift double your bodyweight. And in regards the dark thoughts associated with depression and anxiety? Simple. It yanks your mind off of them. It lifts you out of the reinforcing loop of destructive thoughts and loss of vitality. Which is the opposite approach to mindfulness.

DEPRESSION VERSUS MINDFULNESS

Movement’s antidote is concerned with distraction. Mindfulness’s antidote is concerned with acceptance. For example, one of the core practises in most forms of meditation is the act of non-judgemental noticing. It is sitting, consciously noticing the feelings that arise and refraining from judging them—either positively or negatively. Neither grasping at the type of thoughts you want to have and holding onto them, nor pushing away the thoughts you don’t want to have.

If a person does this enough, so the idea goes, then it becomes possible to separate the thoughts you have from the person you are. Or, more eloquently, to realise that You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are transient. Stay with them long enough, watch them closely, and you will see them be born, grow, fade and adapt.

How exactly does this relate to riding out depressive episodes? One way to think of it is that depressive episodes are existential threats. And like most threats, you can either bend to them or call their bluff. But here’s the rub. Depressive thoughts often aren’t the Mafiosi they seem to be. They are normal fears and typical worries hugely amplified by our own internal mechanisms. And to see that all you have to do is sit with them.

Next time you feel anxious, worried, depressed, or in any other “negative” state, stop what you’re doing. Cease everything and go sit down somewhere quiet and comfortable, preferably in a semi-active posture—meaning, sit upright and attentively, don’t slouch. Once sat, close your eyes and breathe in. And breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. As you do this your mind will wander, and that’s okay. Just bring your awareness back to the the breath.

If you do this for ten or fifteen or twenty minutes, you’ll come down from DEFCON1 back to DEFCON 5. You’ll see that the dark shadows were concealing only minutiae, not monsters.

THE DANGER ZONE

Movement mitigates depression by destroying our focus on the negative aspects of existence. Mindfulness mitigates depression by enhancing our focus on the negative aspects of existence, thus revealing them as transient and not as omnipotent as we first thought. The simplest way to encode this into your brain and remember it forevermore is via the use of a simple diagram. Consider:

the danger zone

Chronic, low-level activity of the physical and psychological systems simultaneously is the prime breeding ground for the bacteria of depression and anxiety. In contrast, alternating between acute episodes of high activity gives such bacteria little chance of staying put. Our powers of contemplation and attention, when turned all the way up to eleven, dissolve depression and break its insidious and reinforcing cycle; the various mechanisms of our body, when fully engaged in a task requiring immense co-operation and effort, shunt all resources down the necessary channels and leave little room for rumination.

It may not work for everyone. But for me, depressive episodes require a recalibration. And to recalibrate what I need to do is move or breathe.