Noise alliance

A knee brace provides external support following a skeletal, muscular or connective tissue trauma. A dental brace is used “to straighten crooked, crowded or protruding teeth, close gaps between teeth, and correct the bite so the top and bottom teeth meet when the mouth is closed.” Both are temporary by design; they’re support-providing structures meant to be progressively dissociated from as the user approaches “normality”.

For a year or two now, I’ve been using my own braces. The attentional kind. For The Magnificent Seven, I curate artefacts around seven themes:

  • Ecology/systems
  • Philosophy
  • Technology
  • Movement and health
  • Politics
  • Other – light
  • Other – heavy

The explicit rationale I formulated for this is “to ensure the breadth of my attention is always sufficiently stretched.”

When it comes to regular book reading, I have another attentional brace active. For non-fiction, I’m currently reading across three tracks:

For fiction, I’m rolling:

A bonus fiction constraint for the last year or two has been this: only female authors. Reading The Black Company is the one violation of that constraint that I’ve indulged. At the turn of the year I’m switching it up and aiming to read only comics and graphic novels. I picked up Middlewest and The Midas Flesh at a local book fair in preparation.

Despite enjoying these approaches, I’ve begun to question them. Not so much their continuity; more the impact of their ongoing use.

The knee and dental braces above are designed to aid recovery or recalibration—ideally to an accepted, normal state or function—within in a bounded window of time. The attentional braces I’m employing for Mag7 and for reading are different. They’re:

  • Indefinitely active
  • Selected in an attempt to fork my thinking away from normality

The aim is to guide my attention—and thus my thoughts, and thus my actions and decisions, and thus my outcomes—towards more fertile, unexplored, non-normal territories.

It feels like this ploy has worked. In arbitrary exercises of thought, it feels like I have a wider band of perspectives to draw on, as well as a deeper bag of initial references with which to inspire further explorations. I’m also, as a result of the attentional bracing, more aware of what I’m not paying attention to. What I’m ignoring, avoiding or otherwise blind to; how much of a crackpot I could be.

This is hardly surprising. Attention has its own equivalent of Wolff’s Law / Davis’ Law; it adapts faithfully—if counter-intuitively—to the stressors placed upon it, and those adaptations are durable. What is surprising, however, is the effect attentional bracing has on collectives.

Let’s pretend that a collective—be it a social media swarm or a startup, a study club or a group of kids in school—can pay attention to five different classes of things in a particular domain:

  • All things
  • Some things arbitrarily
  • Some things deliberately
  • One thing
  • No things

Paying attention to all the things is like a heightened state of attentional arousal. A cross between red or grey situational awareness and adrenaline-induced Fingerspitzengefühl within a particular domain. It’s sustainable for short periods of time; minutes, hours, days. Longer periods are plausible, but come with an exorbitant interest rate. Burnout and the like.

Paying attention to some things arbitrarily is default existence mode. Easy, simple, sustainable. Paying attention to some things deliberately, however, is a little harder. Mostly because attention doesn’t want to be stuck, confined, have its scope made too explicit. This creates a tricky game where one must balance the organic movement of attention in response to encountered novelty and changes in an environment against the purposeful, decided-upon bounds that have been set.

Paying attention to one thing is like monk mode. It is a difficult state both to enter and to continue occupying. If you don’t believe me, try some basic breath counting. One’s attention wants to wander—it will wonder.

Paying attention to no things? That’s apathy. Total disengagement. Disillusionment. Like its inverse—paying attention to all the things—it’s not sustainable in the long term, and invokes a heavy cost which must be repaid, often in a different currency.

Braces like the one I employ for Mag7 and for fiction and non-fiction reading help me pay deliberate attention to some things. Within the Yak Collective, there’s several study groups, often with overlapping membership, paying deliberate attention to particular things—how collectives form, coordinate and evolve; distributed systems; fermi estimates; the practicalities of contemporary AI tooling. Such attentional bracing has an obvious and expected effect on me; the effect is less obvious and expected on collectives, such as the Yak Collective study groups.

In both cases, managed attention compounds and creates a positive feedback loop that results in an expansion that leads to unexpected, alternative futures. The difference lies in the tempo of that compounding. In collectives, its slower.

As a collective scales, the ratio of inertia versus rapidly-exercisable agency shifts to favour the former. Collectives are not individuals; the consequences of attention take longer to be incorporated because there are more layers for it to travel through, and those layers aren’t as porous. As Donella Meadows said:

“The reason the market system and democracy work badly, when they do, is that feedback is often distorted and delayed, sometimes inevitably, often deliberately. Politicians and merchants dominate the media with information that is — well, let’s just say inaccurate. Prices don’t carry full information about actual costs, especially environmental costs. The world is full of incomplete, late, deceptive feedback.

Quick, tight feedback promotes not only learning but responsibility. The pilot rides in the same plane you do — that gives him or her instant feedback and intrinsic responsibility. There’s responsibility in the New England town meeting where people vote directly on the expenditures that they themselves will have to fund.”

This is the norm: “…incomplete, late, deceptive feedback” is bad, “quick, tight feedback” is good. In product development, shortening cycle time and limiting work in progress is an unfairly effective stratagem. When it comes to software, Craig Mod champions the same convention:

“It feels — intuitively — that software (beyond core functionality) should aim for speed. Speed as a proxy for efficiency. If a piece of software is becoming taurine-esque, unwieldy, then perhaps it shouldn’t be a single piece of software. Ultimately, to be fast is to be light. And to be light is to lessen the burden on someone or some task. This is the ultimate goal: For our pocket supercomputers to lessen burdens, not increase them. For our mega-powered laptops to enable a kind of fluency — not battle, or struggle — of creation.”

The temptation, when it comes to a collective’s ability to sense-make and generate alignment, is to attempt to shrink that cycle of feedback. To excise excess layers and increase porosity in a quest for a greater shared sense of meaning and alignment. And that’s often a wise decision. It makes sense for small, aggressive, startups. It makes sense for groups of kids in school. It makes sense for traditional organisations. However, if the sole and explicit objective is learning then it’s not as good a move.

The risk of slower feedback loops, as described by Meadows above, is that “feedback is often distorted and delayed”, that it is “incomplete, late, deceptive”. Not a palatable situation, in most cases. But for collectives solely interested in learning, the presence of distortion, delay, incompleteness and the like are opportunities, not risks.

In the typical narrative, distortion, delay et al. are malicious actors that damage the truthfulness of the feedback we receive. They’re noise that must be controlled to protect the sacred signal. And that’s true, in most arenas. But in other arenas, distortion, delay et al. are generators of interestingness and novelty. They reveal options, insights, questions, patterns and impacts that we otherwise never would have been exposed to nor had a chance to witness, yet alone feed forward into future feedback cycles.

For the right type of collective—one whose sole purpose is learning—a common enemy is actually an ally.