At one of the much better schools I worked at (better by the measure the teachers were very caring and better by the measure the students rather enjoyed their days as much as possible within a coercive system could) a well intentioned "service" reliably crushed the dreams of large numbers of teenagers on a single day each year. It was not the regular set of tests or assessments. Indeed the teachers had nothing whatever to do with this. In fact, it worked in opposition to those teachers' best efforts at instilling in students confidence, joy of learning and a sense of accomplishment and pride in themselves each year. The school administrators (because, presumably of parental demand) would go through one cruel ritual that undid for an entire cohort what was, I thought, otherwise less damaging work done over the previous 4 years of their schooling. Less damaging, as compared to almost all other schools. Schooling is compulsory in Australia - so it's important to choose a good one. But this is a tale of how even the best can utterly ruin what "good work" (or, as I say "less damaging work") was accomplished.
By “year 10” of high school this particular school had well qualified, kind and knowledgeable teachers helping the students learn, making it as fun as possible (and of course reliably failing - but they tried) - and helping ensure the “mental health” (psychological well being) of the students was, as far as possible within the coercive system, preserved or even improved. Teachers would do things like mark and remark and remark again assignments and essays and exams to maximise the performance of students. In short: the teachers were, broadly speaking *on the side of the students*. But the administration did one remarkable thing every single year to students in the 4th year (year 10) of their high school experience. This was the 15 and 16 year olds. And what was that?
Contract an outside company of psychologists to come in and administer a battery of intellectual IQ type tests on these students.
The students would undergo a number of tests from numeracy and more advanced mathematics, “mechanical reasoning” (physics type questions), other kinds of science type questions, grammar and vocabulary questions and solving of puzzles and more besides. What united all these questions and tests were that they were on content “you could not study for” - they were utterly unknown. The claim was: these were testing inherent mental skills.
I had the philosophy of mind I do now. As often as I could I reminded my own students: you can do whatever you like and learn whatever you like. The only difference is interest. If somehow you can find it interesting you will want to go home and just consume it and become a little obsessed with it and it will not be difficult but fun because it will be interesting. The trick is to somehow find it interesting. I don’t know what the trick is beyond just trying for a while or finding a teacher who can make it interesting - or a book, or something. These days there must be Youtube videos about whatever you want to improve in, if you really do, to help you find it fun.
So this is what happened: each year confident, joyful and bright students who I’d taught this lesson to year on year for many years and whom other teachers had likewise helped foster a sense of self confidence in and a “you can do whatever you want” attitude - were taken into the grand examination hall to undergo this battery of tests administered by “trained educational psychologists” - it was all very official and a little intimidating. It was said “the results of these tests have no bearing on your final marks” (relief - a little bit of fun indeed compared to those tests which did) and are more a test of your personality and might help with career choices later on (more fun! Just personality quizzes - and at that age, teenagers are passionately curious about things like their own personality and the possibility of careers are a major part of their dreams and goals - this would be fun!).
They sit the test and come out of it as they did any other test - though perhaps more dismissive, more smiles, less concern. After all “it didn’t count”.
But then, some months later, the results would come back.
And this is when everything changed. And for some students things changed dramatically. These students were impressionable. These students were told over and again: psychology is a careful and precise science and psychologists are the people you go to for help should you need it. While the latter is a fine heuristic, the former is utter baloney. What happened was, the results of these tests were broken down into types of reasoning. I cannot remember the exact details and do not want to provide them anyway in order to maintain the privacy of everyone involved. This school was not unusual. This is now a routine practise, especially in so-called “elite private colleges” in Sydney (but I think this is far more broad than this).
Students (and hence their parents - and the school administrators) were given a breakdown of their performance on these tests across things like “Basic Numeracy” and “Logical Thinking” and “Mathematical thinking” and “Mechanical Thinking” and “Interpersonal Skills” and “Communication” and “Vocabulary” and many more things besides. And many did not score as high as they might have thought in mathematical or logical or mechanical thinking. And this upset them. But that was not the worst thing. No, they left the absolute soul crushing for the end of the report. At the end of the report was a list of careers and professions you are most suited for and then careers and professions less suited for.
And you can guess exactly what happened. Not always. Once would be too often. But it happened every year to some large number of students.
Those who aspired to be scientists or engineers and had hitherto always performed well in every science and mathematics assessment task given to them at school were, for the first time, assessed low on mathematics, mechanics and logic and told: you’d be well suited as a journalist, or politician or lawyer (they did better on the vocabulary and grammar portion of the test) while aspiring artists, lawyers or doctors told they were not creative, good communicators or sufficiently empathetic respectively and would be better suited to perhaps a trade like hair dressing or working outdoors or perhaps going into child care work.
But the report had great authority - it was administered with gravitas and the results delivered with great seriousness. The report was always excruciatingly comprehensive too: printed on high quality paper with graphs and high-sounding terms: it resembled some kind of medical or pathology read-out in places returning the results of a blood test where experts had to worryingly pour over the numbers to see what it all meant for the well being of the patient. The numbers were then broken down into fine detail for the layperson, of course, but the data always seemed terribly complex. The "easy to digest" simple summary though meant you knew what it all meant at a glance. You didn't need to really look at the numbers much less question their validity or meaning.
Some teachers complained. Of course I complained. But there was a market for this. Parents demanded this kind of thing because other schools did it and after all psychology is a science so perhaps we should take seriously the results of this test.
And yes, even most teachers took the test seriously too. “Well although X has done rather well on their mathematics until now, the psychological assessment indicates their actual native numeracy skill is rather low. Are we sure X can take on the higher levels of mathematics in their final year of high school, pre-university?”.
I got to look at the test once. It was nothing but a set of puzzles - questions phrased in a way deliberately utterly different to the way students were familiar with how questions were put to them in other tests on a day to day basis in school. The psychological test, not studied for, was assessing perfectly learnable material. A bag of tricks and bits of knowledge any of those students could have learned in a week to ace the test across all indicators. But they were told this was assessing their natural talents in certain areas. So there was no point studying. And of course the test was strictly copyright. No one was allowed to keep or make copies of the test and they were carefully guarded online. We wouldn't want anyone "gaming the system", right?
It was a soul crushing, confidence destroying exercise. I saw many students lose heart - aspiring engineers simply give up from that day on - no matter my sitting with them in their exasperation and explaining “those psychologists don’t know what they’re talking about - this test means nothing”. The students appreciated it - but one could see it behind their eyes “There’s Mr. Hall again, just trying to explain why some subjects aren’t as good as physics - or real science. Now is not the time, Mr. Hall. This is a little more serious. Actual psychologists have assessed my brain. Mrs so-and-so who has a PhD in psychology taught us in psychology class how reliably predictive these kinds of tests are. The school carefully chooses to do this year on year. Anyways, I’ve always thought maybe I actually could just work with my dad. He’s got an accountancy firm and they take on trainees each year…”
An older version of this piece was written in December of 2020. Recent talk of high inflation and forecasts of recession make it seem things have only gotten worse since "stagnations" were predicted some years ago. My own views have not changed on any of this but I thought it useful to update the article in light of what many people have been saying about the extent to which younger generations can hope their future will be as bright as those of their parents and grandparents. They can have this hope - and one reason is that economic indicators are but one crude measure of how things were, how they are and how they might be in the future.
In the Western World it has recently been claimed that so-called economic stagnation has not seen the middle classes benefit from the great technological boom in terms of real wage growth. This, it is said, goes some way to explaining the rise of "populist" politicians and economic protectionism. I use a personal anecdote to illustrate a refutation of these ideas and conclude we are, all of us, more wealthy than the economists, politicians and pessimists want us to believe.
"Stagnation" is a term used in economics to denote a period of near zero economic growth. This is to be contrasted with inflation (more precisely "price increases" or better yet: a reduction in the purchasing power of money) and deflation (price decreases - an increase in the capacity of the same amount of money to purchase more). Sometimes high growth causes higher inflation, sometimes not. Things get complicated: https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/458/economics/conflict-between-economic-growth-and-inflation/) and while some are rightly interested in all this, I always find macroeconomic metrics (the numbers and rates and indicators of "positive" or "negative" signs - extremely crude when sometimes rather obvious real world physical stuff, rather than abstract measures reveal far more about what is, broadly, going on. Of course many things can be true at once: it can be there is high inflation and yet things are nonetheless getting better. All else being equal we should want everything to be getting better all at once: low inflation, low unemployment, high growth and increasing productivity - but when one or more or all of these seem to be pointing to "bad times ahead" let us keep in mind the things economists tend never to even consider. What is going on in the physical world of people and what they are creating? It will be my thesis here that when the news is "inflating" all the bad news and hammering to death the notion that various economic indicators portend something like a global catastrophe - turn off the television, pick up your smartphone (or turn on your television) and perhaps listen to a podcast or watch an interesting lecture and just reflect: when have things ever been better?
It has been argued that much of the Western World, but especially the United States is in an extended period of stagnation-and now, as 2022 rolls into 2023 inflation is high and a debate rages over whether we are in a technical period of recession or not. Emblematic of this idea is the work of Economist Tyler Cowen, whose 2011 pamphlet "The Great Stagnation" argues that the causes of growth in America are largely spent and we are now in a period where there has been little "real growth" in wages for some decades and will be for some decades to come. My aim here is not as a critique especially of the work of that economist or even that pamphlet (which is worth reading) but rather the broader idea that things are not much better now than they were a decade or more ago as measured against the index of "real wage growth" or the thesis that is contained in the article already linked to above by Amanda Novello where, writing about the economic "recovery" that is discussed post the 2008 financial crisis:
"Digging deeper exposes that middle and low-income workers and their families in the United States have not reaped their share of the benefits of the apparent recovery, benefits that such a recovery should produce for all, and not only the few. Data shows that, in fact, it’s only wealthier households and larger corporations that have gained noticeably since the recession ended a decade ago. This is because long-developing trends of inequality have proven impervious to the decade’s economic growth."
Is it true that "only wealthier households and larger corporations" have experienced benefits over the last decade? Economists will say numbers speak for themselves. Look at "real wage growth", for example. Real wage growth is a measure of how much wages have grown as compared to the rise in the cost of living (or broadly the average cost of other things in life). Real wage growth is supposed to be a proxy for a quantitative measure of one's standard of living. So if there has been no "real wage growth" is it true one's standard of living has not improved? This is all a very abstract way of talking about people's actual lived experience: their work, their lives, their day-to-day activities (including, in small part, their spending habits). In particular we must consider actual individuals - not groups of people. People seem to think that if those on minimum wage have, as a group, not seen "real wage growth" that this is a cause for concern. But which person on minimum wage 10 or 20 years ago is still there, in the same role? Don't people change jobs - and, in part, because they no longer wish to be on the wage they were? Don't people take on other responsibilities (like study) in order to improve their lot? Economists are quick to define into existence something like a "real wage growth" metric and claim this indicates some deep truth about the lives of individual people. Rather than bring to bear various other metrics that might stand in contrast to this, I want instead to simply consider a narrow aspect of my own life and ask the question: am I no better off? Obviously a single data point cannot refute a trend, but I am doing this for the pessimists who are complaining their lives are no better off. Those who, at 30, 40 or 50 complain things are not much better for them now than when they were 20. I hope that any reader who persists with this piece simply compares my life with theirs. I note that my story parallels that of all my family and friends - many of whom, I would suggest, are far worse off and less mobile than I will demonstrate I have been.
In recent times there has been an absolute obsession in the western world with whether, how and to what extent young people can enter the housing market: https://www.afr.com/property/residential/more-difficult-to-get-into-the-housing-market-than-it-s-ever-been-20210205-p5702q Of course the real headline is: it's more difficult to enter the housing market where people have already built houses which they now own and have upgraded over time increasing the value of. Previous generations have sunk their long earned wealth into a single thing: their physical home. So, no wonder it is now so expensive in the most desirable places. The most desirable places become increasingly more desirable as they are constructed to be more desirable by those older generations who have continued to "gentrify" the already gentrified. The 20, 30 and even 40 somethings who complain their parents had it easier than they do in finding some vacant block of land, or "fixer-upper" house close to the centre of the city with a large garden for a tenth the price a similar thing costs today is rather like their parents complaining their great grandparents were able to purchase a 1 bedroom wooden shack without electricity or plumbing right on the water but with a beautiful view of the "city". It is hardly comparing like with like. Technology means that those in the housing market today can indeed still buy cheap housing - just not where those of their parents generation already live. Sure, it seems unfair "I was born in 1990 and now there's only space far from the central business district where there is so little public transport and the restaurant scene is non-existent". Yes, how terribly unfair. But what of the argument "I was born in 1950, and though I live in a multi-million dollar home right in the city, walking distance from beaches, cafes and restaurants to my hearts content, my heart itself is nearing 80 years old and it seems terribly unfair I was not born decades later when, sometime during the next 50 years, there will be technology to allow me to live 50 more years and experience the joys of technology we could never have imagined when I bought this home."
The property market is the one thing young people reliably complain about as if they have been particularly hard done by - as if "the boomers" are especially out to get them and ungenerously guard the very thing they were brought up to value almost above everything else besides their own family. Even "conservative" thinkers on the topic sometimes even agree with this millennial angst about not being able to find a 5 bedroom mansion on the water (or even an apartment in some tiny high-rise crammed into the tiny footprint of one of the few megacities around the world). Douglas Murray, of all people, bemoans "capitalism" as perhaps deserving of the blame for a "housing crisis" https://unherd.com/2018/04/talking-housing-crisis-means-talking-immigration/ linking it, dubiously, to immigration. But are unskilled and illegal immigrants buying up the best properties in San Fransisco and London? Is that really the problem? It is true many more people these days are renting. There is some argument that maybe for some of them it would be better were they instead mortgaging. And they could: if they made different choices. Generations that grew up in the 40s near the coast anywhere in the United States or Australia might well reflect "It's so unfair I could not get a waterfront property. Instead, here I am 2 streets back with barely water glimpses." It is simply reality that the beachfront is finite in length and not everyone can live there. Then, those who grew up in the 60s complain "I'm an entire suburb away from the beach. It's so terribly unfair that property prices where I want to surf, swim and walk my dog along the promenade means I need to take my car all the way down to the seaside. How unfair! I'm locked out of beachside property". And those born in the 80s. "I'm barely even in the city anymore. I'm so far out in the suburbs - it's unfair. All those people born before are so very lucky and now they are locking me out of city living." And so it goes. This fixation on one metric - how close your house is to the most desirable location and how big it is, while ignoring how wonderful the rest of life and the world has become is no indication that you are worse off than any previous generation.
Before I go on, and because I am about to say what I am about to say less I get flamed for being "out of touch" or some such, I will reveal just a little of my private circumstance. I do not own property. I rent. I have always rented. I have not bought. Perhaps one day I will. I made different decisions. I decided to plough rather a lot of my (rather meagre!) income as a student (and soon after) into paying for my studies. Perhaps too much. And then? I was focussed on travel. Whilst others did what may have been the "mature" thing and saved and worked and invested in property I did not know what I wanted to do exactly but high on the list never was: I want a stable job so I can have property as close to the city as possible. Of course, that's just me. Now I happen to also know there existed members of the generation before me, on relatively low incomes who managed to: both get a loan and purchase a comfortable home not far from the city and travel the world. But what they did not do, because they could not even imagine doing, was travel the world and work or move from job to job, having different experiences and sampling from the most diverse range of experiences because they needed little more than a roof over their head anywhere, a device and a wifi connection.
The very generations doing the complaining about not being in the property market (well to be fair the very media doing the complaining ostensibly on behalf of these apparently "hard done by" generations) simultaneously are those also wanting and able to do almost everything remotely. "Why do we need offices?" they ask - and rightly so. So much of what they do can be done behind a desk anywhere - without the boss over their shoulder either leering, scolding or monitoring their every moment "on the clock". Their parents and grandparents were required day after day, month after month, year upon year, decade upon decade to go to the same repetitive, uncreative job, with far worse conditions and no expectation of doing anything other than that same job for all or almost all their entire life. Perhaps their "big dream" was to one day be elevated to the position where it was they who would be able to leer at the new generation of subordinate workers in their factory or office? This is the generation who had it easy? Their reward? They got to go home to a house of 2 or 3 bedrooms on a quarter-acre block of land with...a television that had a choice of 5 different stations where one watched whatever was playing at the time because not only was nothing on demand - nothing could even be recorded. Where the kitchen was the most comfortable room in the house during winter because that's where the oven was on. Where the car literally needed to be started on those cold winter mornings a few minutes before you wanted to go anywhere because you needed to "warm up the engine so as the carburetor would function". Economic metrics suggest high inflation - and I agree it's bad. Recessions are always and everywhere bad things. They are caused almost entirely by bad policies of governments - state intervention into the economy where the state has no business intervening in the first place. Simply "printing money" is a recipe for price increases and affects the worst off most of all. It is a form of taxation. It is an evil - literally - because it is due to a lack of knowledge by some about basic economics. And yet for all of this we should remind ourselves: people are fallible and so in matters political and economic - problems are inevitable. But what I want to say is that if we only focus on certain crude economic metrics it may seem that everything is getting worse when that is far from the truth. There are other ways of measuring progress and how things get better. So here's my story.
(What follows is a true story, and you may be able to predict where it’s going. So, if you want, skip straight to the final two paragraphs.)
My father was (and remains) what has become known as an “audiophile”. These days the suffix “phile” is added to just about anything one likes to indicate a passion for: numberphile (i.e: a mathematician), retrophile (one who loves cultures of the past), bibliophile (you get the picture). Anyways, before the term existed, my father was an audiophile of the kind that today is rarer than one might think. Or at least I might think. He used to obsess - during the early stages of CD audio - about whether the CD was recorded in DDD or some lower quality like AAD. The "A" was for "Acoustic" and the "D" for "Digital" and the three letters in a row told you something about each stage of the recording process. DDD was clearly "Digital recording" at all stages - so of the highest quality. I knew of no one else who cared about this. But today - I get it. So often I walk along a street to hear a person blaring music for themselves from an iPhone or some other smartphone. I mean - public music played from an iPhone speaker! Now don’t get me wrong - the latest iPhones have reasonable speakers given their size. But outdoors on noisy streets? Putting aside what I consider the discourtesy to fellow pedestrians and others to have their senses assailed by music they may not like following them to the train station, there are very very cheap alternatives that solve all the problems of: faster battery drain, annoyance to fellow travellers and chief among them to my mind: the quality of the sound. Any half decent (and cheaper by the week) set of ear buds or phones completely outclasses inbuilt phone speakers. If one can afford a smart phone, one can afford a reasonably cheap, reasonably high quality pair of earbuds. Whatever the case, I have inherited (ok, learned) this preference from my father. People who listen to the sound from the television’s inbuilt speakers rather than always ensuring it runs through their separate amplifier and high quality speaker system instead - a mystery to me. People content to remain using the included white wired headphones with their iPhone - I just do not understand. I also do not understand Apple's AirPods, period. Given the price - why is their sound quality so low? Why aren't they noise cancelling or at least noise isolating? Earbuds half the price do a far better job. But I digress.
When I was a child - under 10 - I really wanted some good, private set of speakers I could tune into a radio or - even better - play cassettes. I wanted to emulate my dad, of course, and be something like a connoisseur of sound. The first bit of tech I got in this regard was a little mono radio - and I was very proud of it. But within a year - I guess for a Christmas present - I was bought a portable stereo cassette player with radio. And that, to me, was simply amazing. Stereo I could carry around…and play cassettes on. I’m not sure I ever carried it far. It ran on something like 6 D-size batteries. It looked something very much like this.
Next I found, I guess in a catalogue, a pair of over-the-head headphones that had an aerial and could be used to tune into the radio. Well now that was really it! I could walk around listening to the latest hits and not annoy anyone else. These didn’t predate the Sony Walkman - that had been out for almost a decade already - but the Walkman was well over $100 - and in our family - back in the 80s - $100 may as well have been $1000.
But the problem was, it only played whatever the radio stations were playing. I wanted to be able to play my own cassettes. Back in those days, the technique was to wait by the radio station until your favourite song came on, and hit record. This way you could make your own "mixed tape". I wished I could play my various "mixed tapes" on some portable audio device. Alongside my love of portable audio, I had begun to develop a love of hiking. I lived in a part of Sydney surrounded by bushland (forest, in other words) - and in other parts quiet suburban streets. I could imagine few greater pleasures than walking, jogging or running and listening to music. The problem was, of course, the batteries never lasted long with these things. A few hours at most. And, back in the day, you really did stand out as odd wearing such a contraption as pictured above on your head. They simply were not that popular. Especially among people my age. Nevertheless I do recall dreaming of the possibility that I might be able to actually record my own favourite music rather than have to listen only to what the radio was playing at any particular time. This was something a walkman - with in built cassette - would allow me to do. But, again, they were for rich people…not children from the suburbs until, I guess, sometime towards the end of the 80s. By then, there were cheaper (Chinese, I guess) knockoffs. And so finally I was able to get a portable cassette radio. Now I was really cooking because I could record my own music, from the radio on my stereo system (no doubt in violation of copyright law at the time), onto a cassette and then carry it with me. This was the height of technology and personal agency. I think it was in 1993 I was able to ask for my first “digital” actual Sony branded Walkman. I say digital, because it had an LCD read out. It looked exactly like this:
The absolutely remarkable thing about this walkman was that it could store in memory your favourite radio stations. So by hitting the 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 position one could quickly switch from station to station at will rather than, prior to this, having to manually find the station by tuning using an analogue dial. I was able to record from CD onto cassette all my favourite music - and some comedy radio shows I enjoyed. The first CD player had arrived in our home in 1988 and so I was building a library of cassettes to carry about with me. The only problem with this procedure was that I would often hear a song on the radio and have no way to record it on the fly. I would either have to wait until it came on the radio when I got home - or (increasingly) buy the CD and then transfer it to cassette. I dreamed of the capacity for a walkman to record onto cassette whatever was playing.
When I left school I went to university - full time. By which I mean, 5 days a week, for 7 or 8 hours a day. Lectures commenced at 9am and finished at 4pm, except on Wednesdays when it was 5pm. Uni was located a considerable 90 minute journey away using public transport (which I did) and after university on some days of the week (especially Thursday) I was a security guard at the largest shopping mall in Sydney - and also on weekends. This left very little “free” time except travel time (which was around 3 or more hours a day), but a part time job did make me more wealthy than most of my friends - at least in those early years - because while they went to university as well, they did not tend to work jobs as I did to pay their own way and save a little. Or where they did work part time jobs, they chose to work in fast food or at a grocery store and so on. A security guard required a little training, and there were hazards, so there was a monetary reward for making that choice over some other kind of minimum wage position. Nevertheless it was never paid well (for example, in the late 90s, a weekday shift would be around $13 Australian dollars per hour. McDonalds paid something closer to $10 per hour. In both cases the evening and weekend rates were more (on Sunday, I got "double time"!).
So it was, then, in the late-90s I was able to upgrade my older “play only” Sony Walkman for one that could indeed record. Not only did it have a record function it had so many other features (like a digital equaliser and “bass boost”). The great advantage now was that my journeys too and from work and to and from university could be accompanied by my favourite radio shows even if they were on whilst I was at work or in lectures…because I was recording them for my travel time. I absolutely loved train/bus journeys with music of my choice, or radio show of my choice while reading/studying my university notes...or rather more often some popular science book I had bought. I seemed to have reached the absolute zenith of what I wanted from portable audio. Although I did imagine the possibility of having a recordable CD. Whatever the case this walkman also accompanied me on long patrols of the shopping centre late at night (always at low volume, sometimes with one earpiece out so I could still hear if there was ever any broken glass. Only ever once did this happen - and the alarm system was loud enough that no set of earbuds at whatever volume would ever drown those out)
But, as the 90s rolled into the 2000s and I was merely a security guard on minimum wage in an unskilled job - I was nevertheless able to afford almost as much technology and creature comforts as my imagination allowed me. I was able to build my own PC from buying the best motherboard, CPU, RAM, Hardrive and so on I could find…and I could afford among the best portable audio. Somewhere in the 80s the Sony “Discman” came out - it was a portable CD player…but it was never popular because it wasn’t really very portable. The slightest bump and the machine skipped making listening and walking (for example) an intolerable experience. In around 1999/2000 I did buy one of the first CD-walkmans which came standard with a RAM buffer which meant if it did get bumped, it was able to store about 30 seconds worth of audio on solid state memory rather than skip. But actually my top of the line Sony Walkman then had sound quality that easily matched the discman - because the earbud headphones had really increased in quality. One of my friends, who was also in a low-wage job, bought this for me for my birthday:
That walkman was set apart by the quality of its earbuds as well as its excellent record feature and pseudo-digital fast forward and rewind (it could tell where songs stopped and started again, making your favourites on the cassette easier to find). All of this made my life absolutely wonderful because…as I said, I loved walking. And the more I loved walking and hiking, the more I wanted to listen to music and other audio (like my favourite radio shows I had recorded). But the problem was, one had to carry additional casettes and each cassette was usually only 90 minutes or so. For long hikes that just really did not do. And during this time I went to Africa (Zimbabwe) on Safari which included lengthy hikes...and lengthy travel times and also South America for some months, even hiking the Inca Trail in Peru…a three night long trial at high altitude through the Andes. I think I carried 6 cassettes with me for that journey. There are only so many times you can hear your favourite hits over and again. If only cassettes were smaller…or could store more songs?
Now in truth the Sony Minidisc player had been out since 1992. But it was well outside my budget. So it was not until 2002 I bought one - and what an astonishing device it was. I still have it. It looks like this:
This was merely incremental progress in some ways, but seemingly revolutionary for my life. Casettes had improved in quality markedly over the decade, but now the option of a small optical disc - much smaller than a cassette - could store many hours of audio. Indeed one could choose the sampling rate - the highest selection meant your minidisc could store about 70 minutes of audio, while the lowest quality meant 4 times that amount. There were science, philosophy and other radio shows I could download/record straight from the radio in low quality and keep, while I could transfer my CD audio music collection to minidisc - all stored on generic branded discs which were very cheap, and getting cheaper all the time as competition entered the market. And of course, at this time, this was one of the first devices one could actually hook up to a computer and download songs and other audio directly to via USB. Now that, I guess, deserves the term "revolutionary".
Throughout this time I changed jobs - going from being a security guard, to a “science communicator” with the university (which actually was paid quite a bit less - but this was an exchange I was happy to make as the “confrontation” - physical and otherwise - which is the life of a security officer - had become something I felt I had outgrown).
In the early 2000s, parts of the education system in Australia permitted graduates with just a Bachelor’s Degree to work as casual teachers in schools - so I took on this while I completed a Bachelor of Teaching (which would entitle me to work in schools on a permanent basis, for substantially more money). This brought with it a real increase in my financial position - money like I had never had before and didn't even know what to do with (I should probably have invested - but no, I was having too much fun travelling). But, once more, during this period I was working, then studying, working, then studying. Nevertheless I was able to save more. I paid my way through and completed two more degrees and then used these as tickets to travel for even longer periods. I had been to Africa, and South America and to numerous places within Australia (Tasmania was and remains my favourite. I agree with Edmund Hillary who described it as "the greatest hiking country on Earth".) After saving up from all those jobs, I moved to London and my minidisc player went with me - as I could download music from NAPSTER (which ages you, if you remember it) and radio shows from Australia to salve the homesickness as early versions of podcasts began to become popular. But, of course, the minidisc player still had the problem that the finiteness of the discs meant carrying quite a number of them, if one did not want to get repetitive with their audio. Solid state MP3 devices early on never had much memory - but were better for jogging (minidiscs were still liable to skipping). But the move to solid state seemed inevitable.
As I have continued to work, I migrated fully to an Apple device. At first it was the iPod nano - which was amazing - great for the gym and for jogging because it could store thousands of songs and podcasts in a device one barely noticed they were even carrying. But the first iPhone was for me also truly revolutionary because now, here was a device effectively with unlimited storage: the cloud meant that radio shows were there for download so long as you could find a WIFI or 3G signal. Especially for exercising and jogging this was a true game changer. Suddenly everything on the internet was accessible from my pocket for the first time - and streaming became a thing. The finiteness of the memory was barely a factor anymore.
And now we come to today -and on my wrist is an Apple Watch, as small as an iPod nano with so many of the features of an iPhone - and in my ears are wireless bud earphones. This is the stuff of dreams for my 10 year old self. Or my 20 year old self. Or my 30 year old self.
If I had remained a security guard at that shopping mall all these years - I guess I would not be paid much more now in "real wages" than I was then. Indeed I know, because I can look up, what that job pays here in Australia. And given the rise in living costs - indeed, it’s not like “Security Guard” is a more attractive job now than it was then. Why should it be? Jobs like those, in the main, are not meant to be kept for life - unless one really wants to get into the security industry say and own their own security company. That certainly could be a reasonable ambition. But had I stayed there, in that shopping mall, wearing that uniform, I expect I would have been promoted to supervisor, then manager and so forth up into the corporate section of the centre (interestingly the rank-system in a large shopping centre like that was quite a complex affair!). So no one stays in an entry level job like that forever, that’s common sense. Unless they really try hard not to try to get promoted or find some other job more attractive. People do get promoted, they do gain experience and so are moved into “higher” positions of greater responsibility, or sideways into a position where the ladder is easier to climb. Or they do a course for some hours a week and retrain to take on a different, by their lights better, role that pays more (or is more interesting, more fun, less hazardous and so on).
But say, for argument's sake, I never did any of that and remained a security guard in precisely the same position. Is the lack of increase of income of “security guards” relative to the cost of living - some sign of “stagnation” as it is often suggested to be? People say things like “real wages have not increased” as if people are stuck in the same job, forced to make the same choice day after day? Whatever the case - say I did make the choice to stay in that job and not made the choice to spend the rest of my time studying whenever I had the chance (when I wasn’t listening to recorded radio shows) - would it be fair to say I would have been “no better off” now compared to then? That because my "real wage growth" had been near zero that I was someone being "left behind"?
No. No way! Not by a long shot. Because today, even on that same wage, I could have afforded an Apple Watch and wireless earbuds. Which is exactly what I have now and the pinnacle of portable audio technology for me, so far as I am concerned. The Apple Watch I have comes to me on a “plan” via my mobile provider. It costs me $20 a month to pay off. I could afford that, even as a security guard. Easily! And yes, my data on top of that costs a little more (which I can share across multiple devices) - but the point is - the very best technology and access to the world’s information and music library - almost unimaginable technology to me 20 years ago - is available even to some of the least wealthy people in modern western societies - and soon to everyone else too!
Wealth is not about how much money you have, or cash you can pull out of your bank account. It includes that - but it also includes all the many things that money can buy and which you already have. My Apple Watch - if I could travel back 20 years - I imagine would have been regarded as one of the most astonishing devices in existence making me one of the most wealthy people on the planet. By this measure: the technology on my wrist would have been bought by Bill Gates or some other billionaire - for many billions of dollars if I could have convinced them what it truly was. If you have seen the movies: it would have been like the chip from the first Terminator which, if you recall - was not destroyed when Arnold’s evil character was killed. That last remaining chip was used by a technology company to “go in directions they never could have imagined”. It was basically alien technology. So too my Apple Watch placed in 2000, or let’s say 1990
The Apple Watch really does confer wealth onto you far beyond what its price would suggest. If you own one, you are more wealthy than anyone living in 1990. In 1990 there was no way to get any book in the world fed wirelessly into your ears - read to you by a machine. To thus learn the knowledge that could, potentially, improve your lot so easily. There was no way to call overseas…all from your wrist. People are rather pessimistic about the idea there has been such astonishing progress and an increase in wealth over time. They point to statistics like: wages have not increased while the cost of homes has. Some use this to explain the appeal of particular political movements. The same house today in some town costs 10 times what it did some years ago while the wage for the same job has only increased by a factor of 2. Doesn't this mean society is "going backwards" in some way? Now there may be some legitimate concerns here: there may be government regulations making the cost of housing greater in some places and more or less appealing in others. But none of this is really about how "wealthy" one is. Or if it is, that is merely one metric: how big is the house that a particular income earner can purchase now?
The security guard that I was from 1996 to 2000 no doubt was right to think he was near the bottom of the “Australian” wealth pecking order. But today - were I in the same job, being paid the minimum wage today - I would nevertheless be far far more wealthy. Not because my income relative to other jobs would have been greater - it isn’t. And shouldn’t be expected to be. But rather that the “purchasing power” of that same amount of money is unimaginably greater than what it was in 2000. Namely it can purchase technology absolutely unthought of in that time and which makes any security guard today in Australia on minimum wage the equal of the most wealthy on the planet by the metric that they can buy the best of certain things. I don't know what Elon Musk wears on his wrist in terms of smart-tech - but I know it's not much better than what I do, if at all. And the quality of his earbuds and audio he experiences each day I can bet is not much better than mine. In many ways I am just as wealthy as Musk on a number of metrics even though I have but a fraction of his income. Yes: he can build rockets. But I don't want to build rockets. I quite like doing with my time...precisely what I do with my time, much of the time.
If I had been told in 2000 all the features of an Apple Watch and then asked to guess what it cost, I do not know exactly what I might have said. But given that the cost of the best Walkmans at the time were well over $1000, and the best earbuds (wired of course) some hundreds, I guess I would have thought $5000 would have been a steal. And back then I could not have afforded the best quality walkman with all the best features. But now - the Apple Watch I has does precisely what the best smart wearable tech can do for the wealthiest. Everyone now is far far more wealthy according to that standard: they can afford personal technology that is not super outclassed by people who have much more income. Wages have all gone up in the sense we can all buy more than we ever could because there is more stuff to be purchased - more innovation and creation and technology to make our lives easier, more interesting and more mobile. And by more mobile I mean both more portable and more able to move into other jobs or other interests. Because we can put on our wrists (you don’t even need an Apple watch - there's lots of "wearable tech" far less expensive with almost all the same features) devices that can feed into our ears lessons that can lead us down lanes that in decades gone by would have required us to enrol into university courses at great expense. Now, it’s so much easier. So much more fun, and all so liberating. So is there stagnation? Stagflation? Recession? Cause for pessimism? Whatever the technical definitions from economics behind these terms, it should not cause one to think it has any direct bearing on their own individual life (unless they lose their job, let’s say). Those terms are never about individuals - but groups. Individuals are mobile and move between jobs and thus income bands and, meanwhile, as they do - the innovation continues despite what the naysayers say. Because whatever the gross metrics happen to be, they tend never to account for all the other ways life has improved, individual wealth increased and our personal purchasing power so much greater. Those who claim you’re worse off or that things have not improved are trying to sell you something. Something political rather much of the time. The truth is rather different: wealth continues to increase - you can do far more for far less cost. David Deutsch says in "The Beginning of Infinity" that wealth is “the repertoire of physical transformations that one is capable of causing.” Now just consider all the ways in which your own life has been transformed by technology and ideas, regardless of your income having increased or not and all the ways in which you can, now, if you choose make choices to transform your own life through - for example - education at near zero cost by downloading anything you like - the knowledge - so you can make things better for yourself. By any measure, almost all of us are far more wealthy now than we have ever been before.
There is no perfect policy; there is no solution that will once and for all solve a problem unproblematically. This is to say: no solution, however good, will not open up more problems. And oftentimes our circumstance is worse than that, for while moving from worse to better problems is a virtue and indeed one of the joys of life - a beginning of infinite progress - there can be occasions where purported solutions turn out to be anything other than genuine. Some (so-called!) "solutions" exacerbate our circumstance: they actively make things worse. We cannot know ahead of time how things might fail or succeed. All we can rely upon at any moment are our best explanations and those can always be improved.
It is for this reason, that in the area of politics, our system cannot be designed to install the optimal solution or the best solution or the solution that will once and for all solve our problem(s). The world simply does not bend to the hopes of some that once the best policies are enacted that finally then, there will be relief from needing to continue to strive for something ever better or, in many cases, to undo an attempt to improve things that turned out only to make things all the worse. But people can and do become ideologically wedded to particular policies even in the face of failure and so this is why we need a system for removing those failed policies and people in power so wedded to them.
This is why democracy is about not installing the ideal or best leader who will do the thing that solves the crisis because they can no more foresee the future than any of us. They are guessing their way to a better future - but they, like we, are fallible. Their policies and plans imperfect and the world changes around them anyways in ways they could not have foreseen with political culture such that “changing ones mind” when new evidence is found is a virtue and no vice. We should expect our politicians and their policies to fail just as we should expect our scientific theories to eventually fail. Politics, to a large degree, is still mired in a philosophy of being deeply committed to one’s beliefs and for this reason punishes those who might try to adapt and change when the circumstances do. This is unreasonable. It is irrational. The eventual failure of any solution is the normal state of things and so being wedded to any particular solution is a recipe for disaster. We must always be willing to adapt, change our minds and perhaps on a dime turn around and go completely in the other direction. Or simply change tac so our progress can be far more rapid.
Our political system is not for answering the question “Who should rule?” so the answer cannot be “the most erudite; the most qualified, the educated and the experts” - for they are just as fallible as the rest of us. Plato’s mistake was not necessarily in thinking that philosopher kings were preferable to rule by the demos (the citizens) because the demos was a mob. It may very well be that the demos is a mob and should not rule over other minorities. It may very well be that philosopher kings would be preferable to rule by a rabble. Or it may be the opposite. It does not matter in either case because what Plato imagined was not democracy. And democracy is the only rational system for governing a group of people. So what is democracy?
Democracy is not rule by the demos. That is not what it is. Democracy is a system for removing the rulers without violence when those rulers fail. Whether those rulers are “the mob” or “philosopher kings” does not matter. It does not matter if one of them claims to be “a man of the people” or “the smartest person on Earth” - they are part of a democratic system if they can be removed from office without the use of force. Votes are cast and they leave with the traditional peaceful transfer of power.
In any modern democracy, the mob does not rule anyway, though their representatives may. And once in power they might try to implement the policies of the mob. And those policies may succeed to solve the problems that caused them to run for election in the first place - in which case one presumes they will be re-elected. Or, of they fail, they will lose the election and be removed from office. And the self-designated “best and brightest” can try their hand at fixing things. And when they succeed or fail, the cycle continues.
But what no one can expect is an unproblematic state. Because even if the very best happens: even if your favoured candidate succeeds and your party wins an overwhelming majority and all of their policy platform enacted with very little delay - those solutions reveal new problems not able to be seen before. Obscured, as it were, by the detritus of problems right in front of your face and only once removed is your view now clear and you are able to see so much more. And besides, our universe is in flux and at any moment the unexpected and inherently unpredictable happens to undo all of your grand plans for finally setting up society in a way that is better. And the existing policies will fail to make things better - to solve the new problem at hand. And creativity will be needed, and thus new policies. And if the existing people in power lack new ideas then the purpose of democracy is to remove them. Guessing a new answer and checking it against reality. Iterating by error correcting. Because problems are inevitable. There is no way of installing the best candidate because "best" is always relative to a problem situation and different people have different problem situations.
Civilization could well be regarded as the state of removing the initiation of force - of violence - from a society. It may well begin with knowledge - take no one’s word for it. The removal of “authorities” when it comes to “what one should endorse as true”. We rightly recognise now that religious zealots beating children into submission until they can recite pages out of some holy book is the sign of an uncivilised society. Learning through violence does not work. We rightly recognise now that commissars and barons who would by decree divide up the labor of the peasant farmers by sending soldier backed tax collectors to take all of the grain and the cattle - is the sign of an uncivilised society that has no learned how free trade can benefit both the baron and the peasant. And democracy is where not the will of a tyrant is imposed once and for all upon the citizens not even the will of the people imposed once and for all upon the citizens. But rather leaders and policies are tried and tested and when they fail, just as in science, they are discarded as not actually solving the problem after all.
We are part of an ever improving civilisation. Our institutions are a recognition of the fact there can be no unproblematic state.
Our education system, ideally, does not use violence or coercion of any kind to inculturate and teach those who come new into it, the lessons those who went before us learned over millennia. Violence is anathema to learning.
Our methods of research - in science, technology, art, the humanities, academia and industry do not use violence to insist that their way is the best way. We try, we fail, we try again and improve. We know this enables the most rapid progress. Violence is anathema to discovery.
Our business and commerce is predicated on the assumption that providing a service is the way to provide value to the rest of society. No one is compelled to purchase your good or service. They can walk right out of the store or not renew the contract. Violence is anathema to trade.
Our democracy is predicated on the assumption that no one has all the answers and no policy can provide all the solutions. Any actual solution will reveal more problems and any ruler will, eventually, fail to offer up something as good as some alternative. So we have elections - the purpose of which is to remove peacefully, without force, bad policies and bad rulers. Violence is anathema to democracy.
Becoming civilised is the state of gradually eliminating violence wherever it still lurks in our society. It is the incremental removal of authorities who can make and enforce rules or the adherence to ideas at every level in every place, where possible, and where we know how in such a way as to not make things catastrophically worse. (For example: eliminating police tomorrow in any major city would fail to make things better - the exact opposite). People are fallible and will not always be reasonable (including most especially people we are yet to encounter) and so a civilised society must also have at its disposal the option to use force where necessary and so it will need individuals especially highly trained in its use because a civilised society will not be civilised for long if it outsources all expertise in violence to the uncivilised - especially to vast uncivilised mobs.
But, as a rule, civilisation is where peace reigns. Swords and guns exist but they are almost all of the time sheathed and holstered because the business of civilisation is to peacefully keep on trying to solve problems that have nothing to do with violence as rapidly as possible. Because problems are inevitable. Happily they are also soluble. As people that is our very purpose of life: to solve our problems today so that new and better and more fun problems can be solved tomorrow. Civilization is what allows us to continue to do that peacefully.
(Postscript: By the way so called “direct democracy” is not democracy either. It seeks to install, as a tyrant of a kind, the demos. Direct democracy is this idea that for any problem a particular set of policies are put forth (exactly by who and how, is another matter altogether) and then these are voted on by everyone. It has recently become popular with the advent of the internet and the real possibility of being ruled by some sort of technocratic voting system on…well anything people can think of presumably. But this is just to say: we can imagine a system where the majority can never be removed from power, by definition - because their votes on any given issue will always win the day and if you tend to disagree with their underlying philosophy the only thing for it is to leave that society or tolerate living subdued beneath it - for you cannot ever vote out those who rule over you and try out something different. Again: democracy, properly conceived, is the ability not to install any particular policy but to remove it. Minorities, outsiders and iconoclastic rebels need protection and representation too. A "direct democracy" is a direct path to their removal from a society and that would be the undoing of any such society because it is often those people who push genuine democracies forward.)
Some time ago I responded substantively to the content here: https://meaningness.com/ via a podcast-type bit of audio that can be found here:
What follows is a supplement to that motivated by some further tweets that came across my feed. Hence it seems to be worth emphasising the following if they were not clear from that audio:
“CR” is just an account of how knowledge is created. It is not an ontology. Realism is not a hugely substantive ontology either - it’s little more than the stance “reality exists” and CR says both “it’s knowable” (in the Popperian sense) and we can be wrong about it (which is “fallibilism” by another route and merely underscores what “in the Popperians sense” is getting at with knowledge and our relationship to it). a
Unlike with what is stated here https://meaningness.com/resolution and here https://meaningness.com/nebulosity and at the links one follows from those pages about “meaningness” and “nebulosity”, CR, fallibilism and realism are silent on *ontology* in a way “meaningless” and “nebulosity” are not.
The epistemology Popper and Deutsch among other - what we simply call “epistemology” (along with science & everything else) allow us to create knowledge about reality but are silent on what reality “really” is (which is to say “ontology”).
In other words what that reality is *ultimately* like (the ontology) is not knowable by fallible means - by any epistemological, philosophical, scientific or other methodology. And these (and related domains like mathematics, introspection and so on), broadly speaking, are all we have and the only means by which we imperfectly access reality - never directly - only through our knowledge - our interpretations of our theories which are themselves interpretations of that underlying reality which exists but in what form precisely we cannot say.
So it seems “ontology is nebulous” or meaning is, and so forth are far stronger claims than anything in CR, the work or Popper, Deutsch or other kinds of “vanilla realism” so to speak. Because we cannot utter perfect truth (which would require us speaking in perfect propositions - an impossibility) we cannot make claims about ultimate reality rather only claims about reality as it is known. So we stay silent on final reality aside from the rather prosaic claim that it - reality - exists and we can know it imperfectly.
Beyond that there are only faith claims and *no problem is solved* by conjecturing what final reality is like in any sense. So, instead, we just do science, mathematics and philosophy and create fallible explanations which are imperfect but somewhat accurate (they are not utterly false) accounts of what is out there and how it works. But whether reality is made up of “discrete” or “continuous” quantities, or only one of those, or some combination of those, a “third option” which is neither of those at all and entirely separate to them, whether is be something “nebulous” or something physical, abstract, physical and abstract or something stranger than all of these realism does not say. It - realism - merely says reality is knowable imperfectly. I raise all this only to highlight how far divorced from dogmatic claims, superstitious claims or faith claims this philosophy descended from Popper (and, say, Xenophanes) is. We only admit of what we know (in the Popperian sense as fallible conjectures) and remain silent on either statements or propositions about (ultimate) reality. Not because we know that reality is or is not nebulous or that it is in reality nebulous or not but rather because no such claim can be made. What we know instead is reality in terms (and via) of science, reason, philosophy, morality - explanations as a whole. What we understand at any given time are theories of reality - not reality itself. So we understand general relativity that describes a continuous spacetime and a (quantum) physics that in part describes discrete quantities and physical “stuff” as well as a continuous aspect of those things across the multiverse. So is reality nebulous or not? Again, that is not knowable anymore than “it is discrete” or “it is continuous”. Our theories now say of some things: they are continuous quantities and of other things: those are discrete. But is reality as a whole discrete or continuous? Both? Neither? Nebulous? Wait and see until we learn more? None of those as a stance (which “meaningless” seems to admit on one page: https://meaningness.com/stances-are-unstable only to make the substantive claim, and take the stance, “meaning is nebulous” https://meaningness.com/nebulosity-of-meaningness and reality is nebulous https://meaningness.com/countercultures. We are more modest in making no strong claims about “reality” in this way or what “meaning” or “knowledge” and so forth might represent in some “final” sense because all of these set the stage for answering the wrong question given how knowledge works and what we are as conscious explanation creators that only access reality only ever through interpretations indirectly - not “perceiving” the ontology directly.
But there is a sense in which none of these statements about “meaningless” or “nebosity” ever “land” so to speak as the philosophy does tend to hold itself immune from criticism by claiming logic does not apply to it as it would to other “stances” https://metarationality.com/formal-logic and can seem to say of itself - it is not a philosophy as such https://meaningness.com/complete-stance-appeal and the author claims not to be “doing philosophy” https://twitter.com/Meaningness/status/1258138059415019520?s=20&t=0ruRGIsW8vKtpYgt4ulMYQ
Which might all suggest that this is more akin to religion of a kind or as the author says “To help the reader…shift to a more enjoyable way of being (thinking, feeling and acting).
Which is great - but would also entail not engaging philosophically either. But its adherents do engage with those who want to pin them down on what is being claimed about reality exactly and those adherents do indeed defend the thesis as a substantive philosophy.
Of course saying it’s “not philosophy” can act as a way of holding the arguments made immune from criticism when “the mood strikes” so to speak. Very well. But here we might all do well to follow Wittgenstein’s lead and endorse “Whereof we cannot speak thereof we must remain silent”. In other words: we can take the author at his word: it’s not philosophy, it need not be regarded as being about anything but rather is more of contemplative, subjective tool of introspection couched in (at times) the language of philosophy. Which as hinted at already, is reminiscent of a more religious sensibility or, more precisely still: theology. This is not meant to be pejorative. Theology can serve a useful purpose. And what “meaningness” is, could be something more like an English translation of some of the central messages of a version of Buddhism. Personally useful and even, for some perhaps transformative - but, despite the superficial similarities: not a philosophy and not able to be understood as anything like a domain of explicit and explanatory knowledge as (say) some field of science (even a first person science) or philosophy might be despite what is claimed explicitly here https://twitter.com/JakeOrthwein/status/1386922593052094464?s=20&t=0ruRGIsW8vKtpYgt4ulMYQ
So it can be confusing for anyone who wants to understand this vision of reality. Which, yes, even science can be. But at its best science and philosophy strive for clarity. It is not at all clear this is in any sense a priority for the content of meaningness at times. Sometimes it seems clear that it is a philosophy making substantive claims about ontology which will be defended by its adherents...but to be blunt, when the questions begin to pile up there is a retreat position open to "meaningness" at that point. Namely: this isn't philosophy - with an implication almost of the kind "Why are you even asking these questions? The fact you are means you do not understand the true purpose of this - which is not to do philosophy." And so we go in circles. One thing can be acknowledged: this is indeed a branch of something like philosophy, theology, religion, introspection and self help and a style of explaining those things that does have its audience who do claim benefit from it. So, to that end: more power to everyone involved.
People have problems. If either (or both) the magnitude of any one (or more) of them becomes too great, or the total number of them too large is combined with rank ignorance - which is to say a lack of knowledge (both general and specific) - then solutions become elusive. It is then that those problems can become overwhelming and joy becomes diluted and suffering more concentrated. This happens throughout life - but particularly for many towards the end of their lives. It is then that, finally, the insurmountable problem is ultimately encountered. The health issue for which no one knows a solution either in oneself or in a loved one. Another time common to many, but not to all, when one problem after another can seem to be “overwhelming” are the teenage years - especially the late teenage years and leading into the early 20s.
The reason, in epistemological terms, is that at this time there is a rather unique confluence of events. The number of new problems well outside the range of what has been encountered before in terms of emotional stress begins to maximise precisely at the time when one’s knowledge of “what to do” in such circumstances is at its lowest ebb. For most of us (though admittedly not all) this is a time where personal decision making becomes increasingly less constrained by the adults in one’s life. One begins for the first time to have all the thoughts that plague many throughout their lives (if they never learn the lesson in their teenage years): what should I be doing with my time? Am I wasting it right now? What is the point of this right now? This is not fun: why should I have to do it? X seems to be having more fun then me - but then X has more money than I do. How can I get more money? Y seems fitter, stronger, better looking, more intelligent, more skilful and more popular than me - what can I do to be fitter, stronger, better looking, more intelligent, more skilful and more popular?
Problem after problem is encountered - but at this time for the first time and there is no background knowledge to call on. No “previous experience” and perhaps no one to ask in many cases. Or if there are people to ask, the responses given can seem - which is to say can be - unsatisfactory. There may be wisdom in the words of others, but in a cruel trick of logic, one might simply lack the knowledge to know wisdom when one hears it. One can be told “Problems are soluble” all day long or encounter The Desiderata framed on a wall every day or recite The Serenity Prayer each morning and not ever really get it much less get anything useful from it:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Which is yet another way of saying: Either a thing is prohibited by the laws of physics and cannot possibly be changed - so accept that fact of reality or you cannot change the thing due to a lack of knowledge - so perhaps with some effort you can create the knowledge that will be the solution to your problem. In all other cases: you can change things; you can solve your problem.
The wisdom passed on through ancient traditions sometimes takes work to distill out from the noise - but it is there. We cannot blame the ancients who often got there first for having to dig the gems from out of the mud if sometimes those gems are not so perfectly polished. We can do the polishing now.
But back to our proverbial teenager (or indeed almost anyone) encountering problems at a rate exceeding their capacity to deal with and their background knowledge to - seemingly - help with. If one’s immediate social circle or even any larger concentric circle seems unable to provide the guidance needed it can feel an isolating time and in those situations many will turn elsewhere: books and the lectures or guidance of notable thinkers. Self help pop psychology books might be consulted, perhaps experimentation with religion - particularly any religion far removed from that dominating the culture into which one has been born.
Sometimes these searches can bear fruit. And the problems begin to be solved. Peace and joy are found again. But this is rare. Often what is found is that much of the “self help” is of a nature so general (like The Desiderata) as to seem useless and is easily dismissed on that basis. Other times sources of self help seem to strictly contradict. Some will say suffering is a part of life that needs to be accepted because it is inevitable. “To be is to suffer” and so on. Others will say that suffering can be overcome and can be replaced with joy. So do I accept my suffering and meditate so as to be relieved of it - for all suffering is in the mind? Or do I avoid the suffering and seek out joy? Can I do both? Now one begins to be paralysed by indecision, confusion and some amount of skepticism. Perhaps none of these gurus has any clue? After all they’re not me and have not been in my exact situation (which can tend to seem more hopeless by the minute). One could very well become not merely skeptical of the “older and wiser” but cynical that any of them have useful wisdom to impart. Many of them seem downright depressed and confused themselves as if they’ve learned nothing of much use at cultivating joy in their own lives. Sometimes the problem is: why doesn’t he or she like me? One can quickly pursue entire courses on psychology motivated by: how to understand the mind of others. What are they all thinking? What is he, in particular, thinking? What is she? But none of the books seem to ever have the answer.
The truth is there can be no one size fits all self help. There is no universal theory of psychology unless it is so broad as to be of very little help in any specific situation. “Solve the problem” is indeed a universal claim that might be of some help to someone who is paralysed by complete inaction. Perhaps. But it does not say how. “Drop the problem” might be of use to someone who is in extremis and distress over some mental anguish. But detachment, mindfulness and even complete divestment of self will not solve any actual problem - it will merely alleviate the symptoms caused by the discursive thoughts for the short time one maintains that state. Perhaps it helps to declutter. But no amount of decluttering removes the tumour, brings back the dead, repairs the relationship, gets the job, finishes the work or improves the fitness.
Ultimately, we have to find our own paths and often the paths that lead to joy, greater enlightenment, fun and a fulfilled life of equal measure are wildly divergent - at least on the surface - so that for any young person following in the footsteps of one they admire (for example) who seems to have it together can be fraught with simply misinterpreting the wisdom they offer about how to replicate - at least imperfectly - what they have achieved in one’s own way.
Members of the same species are not identical. The differences between them are described by the term “variation” and it is variation between the members of the species that allows for them to evolve. After all, if it really were the case that members of the same species had “the same DNA” or something like that - if their genomes really were identical, then when the environmental change occured-when there was “selection pressure” (like a drought) then if one of them was to perish because of the change, all of them would. For example if there was some species of deer which, going 5 days without any water, would die and all members of the species lived in some area where all the water had dried up and no rain fell, then if one of them would die after 5 days, then so would they all. For they would all be identical and the one to survive longest would be the one who drank last of all.
But in the real world, within a single species of deer there is variation. Some might only last 2 days without any water. Some might last 2 weeks, even if on average “a deer can go 5 days without water”. Not all deer are identical genetically. They are just more identical to each other than other species of deer and hence, they are (on at least one definition of the term) regarded as being of the same species. (There are other definitions of species like, for example: “two members are of the same species if they can mate to produce fertile offspring” - which is all very well unless they cannot “mate” at all because they are trees or bacteria).
Sometimes the genetic differences between members of the same species can look wildly different. Consider dogs. Dogs have remarkable variety - because of what we have done to engineer them that way through artificial selection. But even the genetic variety of dogs is nothing like the variation among people because the variation among people is not primarily down to genetic differences. The crucial differences between people are differences in their mind: not their bodies (or brains). The knowledge, experiences, dispositions, values and preferences of one person as compared to another is like the difference between one entire species and another. Or more than that: an entire kingdom of life (almost). People are wildly different one from another. Sure there are exceptions to this: people within the same family are quite close at times - but not always. Twins will often have completely different preferences for food or music or ambitions for life. One can remain within the same family and witness completely opposed political stances. Moving outside the family and people are just huge unknowns to each other - at times delightfully surprising and other times confusing. As Jaron Lanier observes in his book “You are not a gadget” words to the effect that people are infinite wells of mystery. We have no direct access to the mind of another person - we can only take them at the word (or their outward behaviour).
People are minds and minds are a form of software running on the hardware that is the brain. That software is a unique algorithm (so far as we know) in the universe for generating knowledge: creative explanations of the world and renderings in the virtual reality of those minds. Those renderings evolve rapidly, changing and adapting to new circumstances, events and other inputs like the sudden rush of emotion that accompanies the unexpected. And this uniqueness - this differentness is uplifting at one extreme - you are entirely unique and therefore literally irreplaceable. Never mind your genome - your mind and your unique experiences and knowledge is the truly unique thing. And at the other end, we are apart and this can cause some existential crises in many and is also the reason why these crises: existential or just more mundane forms of worry - can be so difficult at times to deal with - most especially when the knowledge is lacking.
As a much younger person I ran through the gamut myself of “self help” - beginning first with informal studies into psychology - reading what I could garner online before a brief (but formal) study of psychology. That branched into more “common sense” self help with people like “Dr Phil” whose plain talking “tell it like it is” approach was something I preferred to so much that (even then) cast a person as a victim of circumstance. Encounters with Eastern mysticism and contemplative traditions came and went once the central messages were distilled out. Eventually I found myself that Nike’s motto “Just do it” contained within it just about all that was needed whenever some crisis or life decision presented itself. The problem, rather often, was inaction. If you do something then there is no need to worry about what would happen: it would be happening and there would be no mental space left for worrying about what will be because one would be right in the midst of what is.
I still find much self help personally useful but I can also spot that which is of very little practical use. The first form of self help is the anti-coercion kind that one can distill out from the work of David Deutsch. If things seem difficult - that is useful information. If something has ceased to be fun and you need to really push yourself through: that’s useful information. It’s a red flag. If you do not want to do something, but you are doing it anyways: red flag. Bored? Red flag. Just not having fun? Red flag. Now none of those are disqualifying. I have been terribly bored on long international flights even though I can do just about anything I like within the limits of what is reasonably possible in the “culture of air travel”. But we just lack the knowledge of how to “have fun” even in a comfortable chair with the world’s entertainment at your fingertips. Because the chair just isn’t quite comfortable enough and, well, it was fun at takeoff but after 14 hours of roughly the same position - you have to just push through because there are few other options. The best one can do is minimise the unpleasantness by repeating the distractions from it. Those kinds of exceptions aside, if coercion can be almost entirely eliminated then that solves a vast spectrum of problems and when a problem does arise the question: am I being coerced here (by myself or others) - is a central one to be explored.
Seemingly opposed to this at the other end of the spectrum, I find discipline to be another piece of “self help” that I have embraced. Jocko Willink the ex-Navy Seal who has been a guest on Joe Rogan and Sam Harris’ podcast posts a picture each day on Twitter of his watch upon waking up. The time is always around 4:30am. He works out - hard and posts the sweaty “evidence” on Instagram soon after titled “Aftermath”. The man is supremely disciplined.
Is he coercing himself? Is he suffering through all this? At first pass it seems these worldviews: do not suffer coercion and: be disciplined are completely at odds. But they need not be. Sure: if you are taking orders from someone and obeying them this might be called “discipline” and you might hate each moment of it. Clearly that is coercive. But if you find that waking up each and every day is the very thing that brings you joy - you would be coercing yourself not to do that thing. It is a subtle point. I do not think Jocko is coercing himself in quite the same way (indeed I do not think he is coercing himself at all) as someone else who does not want to get up at 4:30am each morning and work out…before breakfast. Jocko’s personal recipe for success could be hell on Earth for others. But for him - it is the very thing that makes him himself. He is doing exactly what he wants to do because he is someone who can do exactly what he wants to do. He actively makes choices and he is something that happens to the world. The world does not merely happen to him. Jocko has said that the reason he gets up at 4:30am each day is because (1) That’s all the sleep he needs (2) To get ahead of the enemy - who will still be asleep.
Now that last point is said somewhat tongue in cheek. Of course during his military service is could very well have been literally true. But now, speaking on Jocko’s behalf - a dangerous thing to do - we can actually interpret “enemy” as “all those unpleasant problems that would be encountered by sleeping in”. Namely the emails not answered because the workout was completed later and the opportunities missed and, as Jocko observed - having to have so many more encounters with other people and other conversations simply because almost no one else is awake at 4:30am. So it actually solves a bunch of his problems. The “discipline” of following this regular pattern brings joy and fun because it has eliminated many sources of potential suffering.
Jocko is disciplined in doing exactly what he wants. He does not let others dictate what he is doing. He chooses. And that takes discipline. It takes discipline not to give into coercion: either self coercion or the coercion of seeking first to please other people before you please yourself by doing just as you please. Far form anti-coercion and discipline being at odds: they can be in perfect harmony: if you’re playing with them both just right.
There is much made in some (so-called) “rationalist” online communities about “just do what you like” - which is true. For many people. For some however it is a recipe for disaster unless coupled with an instruction to be disciplined: to pay careful attention to what one actually wants. And often what one actually wants is to solve specific problems that will take attention and effort. For some less effort will be needed. But the idea that one can live a life of “no coercion” without thinking further on it can lead to a kind of apathy. If one has not yet figured out what to do - what they actually like - then the instruction to “not coerce yourself” is of no help at all. One is still left with: so what do I do now? Which actually is the first and most important problem and remains the most important problem each moment, hour, day and throughout ones life. What now?
Once one figures out what is fun (often by a process of elimination: by trying and finding out what is not) - then one will find that Just Doing It is rewarding in and of itself. But how to go about doing it can be part of the process as well. Perhaps you find that working 24 hours straight really is the thing. You might not find out that it isn’t the thing until you try. It can take time to figure out you’re not a morning person. Or you are a morning person. Or you were for so long not a morning person - and now - you are. And so that can take discipline so that the experiencing self and the remembering self are aligned. This is why people can train themselves (which is to say learn) to love exercising and lifting heavy weights or running long distances or doing any kind of hard physical activity that they know is beneficial in the long run. But what if you’re not there? How can you pull yourself up by non-coercive bootstraps to begin exercising if you already hate it. Well: you don’t know you hate it and stop telling yourself you do. And why do you want to work out hard anyways? Perhaps just try for 10 minutes. Later try 15. And so on. Be disciplined in trying. Does this mean coercing yourself? No. Well: not exactly. Ah! You might think. Got him! He’s appealing to a form of coercion so that you can “find the fun”. Well no.
Words have multiple meanings and senses: they cannot be infinitely precise and many times words can have two senses that are even opposed to each other. Words that mean their opposite are called “Janus words”. A common one, more often used in military settings is “fast”. If a guard is told to “stand fast” - they are being told to go nowhere. The fast means “to secure in place” - as in fasten. But of course we all know fast can mean move quickly - rather the opposite of going as slowly as possible - moving nowhere. More classically “cleave” can mean both to split apart and to join together.
At the other end of the spectrum we have words that appear to be opposites but are synonyms. Flammable and inflammable is the go to example here. My only point is to illustrate that insofar as there is a science called linguistics: it does not have the precision of physics (which is not infinitely precise either - for one reason it needs to be expressed in ambiguous language). We simply cannot pin down perfectly precise definitions of words. That is the “Wittgenstinian error” and rather too much of what passes for “philosophy” is consumed by it. Debates about terms. Language evolves, can be quirky and is made up of words themselves “defined” in dictionaries using other words to label concepts which are not perfectly precise. All of that said: it is possible to be wrong and there is an objectivity to this. Black is not white. Tomorrow is not today. The existence of grey does not change that and nor does midnight. The thing is you can be disciplined and you can use it to find the fun you did not know was there to enter into a state of non-coercion. All this is possible. And at no point does any genuine suffering need to go on.
So there are, what I would say two quite distinct senses of the term “discipline”: an enlightened and a naive species. Discipline of the form “I am doing this because of someone else’s expectations” - is naive. And it is coercive. There may be no understanding of why you should or why it is best for you. But doing what you want and being disciplined in ensuring you’re doing just what you want is not a matter of coercion but its opposite.
Discipline - being committed to getting something done - to getting something solved can actually be fun. For 25 years or so now I have witnessed people in the gym appearing to suffer. And some are. But others are experiencing the opposite. Same outward appearance. Two diametrically opposed experiences internally. People come to learn to love the pain they learn to love the struggle. It is fun to push through that pain and struggle not merely in expectation of the feeling afterwards but because “I did it - I set a new record” or whatever else it might be. In my case these days it’s rather often “this is amazing - I can multitask - I can get through a book or podcast while staying strong and fit. Life is truly brilliant.”
Sometimes from the outside the phenomena is the same but internally the experience is utterly different. And sometimes from the outside the phenomena is utterly different but internally the experience is completely the same. Jocko will yell and seemingly coerce and be disciplined! It will be testosterone to the maximum and for many this discipline and all the outward signs will make it seem like a kind of self coercion that might barely be possible to exceed. But it is not coercion in our sense. Because he finds joy in it and is doing it even though he has the option of doing just about anything else money can buy. Many can have fun doing what others would find hell. The human mind is universal. It can take any stimulus at all and turn it into almost anything one likes.
These two ways to succeed in the world: being disciplined and not being coerced need not be opposed. One can live “to the full” and experience joy, contentment and fun all the while improving yourself and the world by solving the problems you are interested in and perhaps only you are interested in. Joy through discipline and joy through non-coercive fun are both actually experiences in reality to be had and in reality there can be no contradictions. Both are paths to enlightenment and both end up in the same place. A person may walk one or the other or straddle both perhaps. But it cannot be the case that these two worldviews are in any deep sense in conflict. They may appear to be. But so what? Stars appear cold and dim even though they are the opposite.
I explained earlier how Jocko has explained why he gets up at 4:30am each day. He was once asked on a podcast how he was able to get up at 4:30am each day. The listener wanted to know how he just did not hit the snooze button even if he was tired. He said what he said whenever someone asks him this. He said: “You know what I do? Get ready. So to get up at 4:30am each day I…get up at 4:30am each day.”
People who want to do that - or think they do but it gets to 4:30am and they lay in bed and don’t and go back to sleep haven’t coerced themselves to sleep. But if they get up - they just get up. But there is a strand of person who will think and think and think and perhaps coerce themselves up out of bed or rather try to.
“Do or do not do. There is no try.” As Yoda admonished Luke. Rather: trying - trying to do something rather than just doing something (even if you fail) is the thing. If it’s a trial - if you’re trying and there’s no joy to be found - there’s your problem. But if you cannot wait to attack the problem even if you think you might fail then you’re not quite “trying”. You’re doing. And maybe you’re failing to succeed that time. But that might come with excitement, fun and learning - quite the opposite internal experience from “trying” and failing and suffering.
So much of self help won’t be helpful because it’s not tailor made to you. You are utterly unique. Things may seem gloomy at times and fun may seem to have leached out of life - but this is always a temporary situation because problems are soluble. Sometimes the most pressing problem is how to discover: what do I find fun? Not just now: but all the time? And “fun in the long run” - the kind of fun that is fulfilling - that brings joy in the moment and contentment on reflection. Once the fun is found then you won’t need to coerce yourself into doing the thing - you won’t require more “self help” to figure out “what to do next” - you’ll know what to do. But you just might need to be disciplined about how to go about it. Like Jocko. Because if you can make your life about something, it will be something.
Pseudoscience, Coercion and Contemplation
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