There’s something called wilderness therapy that offers a distinctive approach to helping troubled young people: make them live outside for a couple of months, camping and backpacking with therapists and a small group of peers. I happen to know about it because someone I know went through it.
I think the absence of *maintenance* is one of the ways we lose contact with reality on the day-to-day level. If you spend a long time renting, your house's problems aren't yours to solve. Versus, if you're able to buy, you can't BS your house the way you can your boss. You have to learn how the physical systems work and how to tend them.
I worked at a start up that frequently needed ops people, and one of the best indicators we found was whether they had a background in stage crew. In theater, on the prop/costume/crew side, you can't BS for long—the show must go on. So people who had worked in that role had an essential honesty and practicality (a desire to *actually* solve the problem, not just prove they had *tried*) that was a great fit for ops.
"Living in a world of artifice, no longer exposed to the unyielding hardness of physical reality, our minds now operate in a kind of cognitive bouncy castle — where all sharp edges have been eliminated and pratfalls are more exciting than dangerous... Inside the bouncy castle, where reality consists only of what’s inside your and other people’s heads, the truth is always negotiable — to the point where the very idea of objective truth can be dismissed as a negotiating tactic."
Millions of Americans still live in a state of hyper-agency, where even minor lapses in diligence could kill them. Whether it's asthma, anaphylaxis, insulin-dependence, or something else, the risk of pratfalls that are far more dangerous than exciting (nothing exciting about "I forgot my Epi-pen") is still real for many. But it's "freak" risk, risks about *your abnormality*, rather than a risk in common, like hunger or cold would be with less material abundance.
The risks of losing the fire flint or the food on a wilderness trek is a socially-legible risk: everyone can understand it, and stands to suffer some themselves if they decide to help you after your lapse rather than abandon you. Everyone *could* go a bit hungry to help the guy who lost his rations – and expect to trade in on the favor they did him later. No-one else catches "a bit of asthma" if the asthmatic kid loses his inhaler. Indeed, one form of "character building" abuse sometimes inflicted by well-meaning counselors is advising people physically dependent on medication to leave their medication behind, as if it were more a psychological security blanket than mitigation of real physical risk. This is rarely appropriate advice.
One would think coping with bodily medical risk grounds one in non-negotiable reality, but in fact it does not, since access to medical risk-mitigation is social access. It's fairly normal for patients who aren't "the standard patient" to find their physical reality dismissed because of social judgments:
"[R]are diseases in the U.S. affect about 30 million people. It takes an average of seven years before a patient is properly diagnosed. Any sort of misdiagnosis doubles this diagnostic delay. Getting a psychological diagnosis extends it 2.5 to 14 times, depending on the disease. 'Once you’ve been labeled an unreliable reporter, it’s almost impossible to get your credibility back,' Dusenbery said. 'Anything you do will just reinforce the perception and the circular logic built into psychogenic theories.'"
Those with the authority to run medically-standardized physical testing will not do so unless they can be socially persuaded to do it. Unpersuaded, resorting to the Prosperity-Gospel logic that patients can will themselves well remains appealing. It's hardly new logic, after all: Job's friends thought of the same thing, that his real material difficulties were spiritual, not material, consequences.
Questions like "How can I present as a credible patient?" and "How can I persuade someone to give medication priced far above its manufacturing costs at a price I can afford?" – questions more about social manipulation than material reality – increasingly preoccupy the minds of those facing daily non-negotiable realities, too. And perhaps it was ever thus. Social manipulation is an instance, not a failure, of instrumental rationality, just one using others as means, not ends.
Excellent post, thank you for providing some interesting ideas to think about this morning. I do love the insight about wilderness therapy and consequences -- I had always assumed that the impact of encounters with nature was about experiencing something bigger than oneself. Consequences fit within that idea, but are a much more direct mechanism for learning that seems likely to be true.
I also agree with your entire premise that humans are in a species-wide transition from a focus on material survival to an open-ended exploration of human potential. That Keynes called this new freedom "leisure" indicates how little we know about what it might look like and what skills will be required to thrive in this completely new world. As far back as Aristotle, we knew that leisure was important -- Aristotle maintained that what one did with ones free time was much more important than one's work. Now we know why -- it reflects the choices you make for yourself as opposed to those imposed on you.
I am less convinced, however, by implications in this most recent piece that changes in society -- fewer physicists, "expressive rationality," or "de-materialization" of goals -- are necessarily steps backward, although many do seem crazy in the short term.
My main objection is simply that this new age of man, as we climb Maslow's hierarchy from the very clear metrics of survival to the ineffable goal of "self-actualization," is so new and different that we literally cannot predict what modes of thinking and behavior will be adaptive in the future. It does seem safe to say that "habitual lying, manipulating, and bullshitting" should not be part of the equation, but if someone is conscientiously pursuing "their truth" in a sincere and open-minded way, I think the correct attitude is curiosity. I think we need to accept that nearly anyone's truth, as long as it is not harmful, might contain a grain of the "actual" truth, whatever that means.
Thank you for your article. I am concerned with how we manage instrumental rationality. Obviously some of our technical expertise has led us to this anthropocene. The bible suggests we assert dominion but this does not seem to be the right answer, there are unintended consequences. Any thoughts? Allen
Society ended up stigmatizing human power over the physical world for two reasons.
1) Society realized that the old dynamic of “The world is there for the use and domination of Man.” is and always was false.
2) Society realized it had no way to pick and choose which technologies to to advance or prevent or the ability hold accountable rapacious technologies.
Society needed a pause to reset and calibrate how handle new technologies. I maintain that the environmental movement was society refocusing what technologies to advance. Agriculture, Information Technology, and the biological and material sciences. Not Anti-Promethean but refocusing. As you say, refocusing from putting footprints on the moon to understanding how to reduce the human footprint on the earth.
While non-IT productivity growth has been basically 0, and I agree that 140 characters vs flying cars is no bargain, that's not all that's been done. The growth of IT has been amazing and while I don't think 140 characters and Uber are great, Amazon and Walmart are. Not to mention the build out of the internet, the rise of the internet of things, and miniaturization of instrumentation, electric cars and the recent refocusing on space.
I agree that virtually all financialization since the late “60's early 70's has been fraudulent, a total scam, and entirely detrimental. It has destroyed and concentrated more wealth than has benefited society, and has been extremely bad for developing countries. The multiple financial crisis and the recent crypto implosion are simply the largest examples.
I agree that the inward turn from an external focus has caused a problem, as we learn to focus on more than one thing at a time, or even one new thing. But I believe it would be a lot easier if we weren't being actively manipulated by people seeking status and profit. Politicians and profit seekers.
We spent 3 years travelling around Aust in a RV5 Oz Tent. You get to appreciate the weather/ climate in a way that you do not with 4 walls and a roof.
“the stratospheric level of contemporary financial flows is wildly in excess of what is needed for good price formation.”
That’s a good hypothesis, but it needs to be tested. Basically you need a model that can a) find the optimal amount and kinds of finance and b) identify the distortions that lead to the hypertrophy.
Nice essay, but I have a quibble. The impressive chart at the end of your post documents that PhDs in math and computer science have not increased in the past 30 years, unlike PhDs in visual and performing arts. Disregarding whether there's even any point to a PhD in visual and performing arts (did Picasso have a PhD?), the data raise the possibility that the pool of individuals competent to achieve a PhD in math and computer science was tapped out quite a while ago.
To continue the thinking there may be a way to deal with the Dan Kahan point and to reconcile intsrumental rationality with environmental concern. And it comes from a consideration of how the harm principle, establishe by JS Mill no longer operates in the world and the search for an alternative way to express it. It also, somewhat dangerously I think, suggests way around Humes point about the separation if menas and ends. https://www.crimejusticejournal.com/article/view/1280/939
Worth noting that there's no evidence that Maslow's pyramid is actually a hierarchy:
Whether editing a journalistic article or terse report, or editing an expansive and analytical essay the imperative maxim "Don't bury the lede" retains its value. That is why this piece by Brink Lindsey could use some independent eyes and a red pencil. Circle the concluding paragraph and consider opening this essay with it. Also, consider a better leading graphic than the photo of a 21st Century physically matured human let loose in an air-cushioned "cognitive bouncy castle" to visually represent the recurring image used to advance this otherwise very compelling and relevant essay's thesis.
Here is an opening lede paragraph taken from your conclusion that would draw in many more readers whose curiosity I'd recognize in our decades-long malaise and our half-century of now quantified Wage Stag-Nation\Working Class Food Stamp 'flation and the normalization of homelessness in western life and our media representations of ourselves and the societies we've built, whether urban or rural:
(italics to set this conclusion by Brink Lindsey as a more effective lede or more gripping abstract)
"Yet if we’ve lost interest in physical reality, it would appear that reality hasn’t lost interest in us. A global pandemic has killed millions; the upsurge in extreme weather events confirms the worsening impact of climate change; war has returned to Europe, sparking fears of famine and the rattling of nuclear sabers. We’ve been floating weightlessly in the gap between actions and consequences for decades now, but consequences cannot be postponed forever. We can think of the recent covid-19 pandemic as our privileged, misbehaving society’s first round of wilderness therapy. And with over a million Americans dead and counting, it’s obvious enough that this round didn’t take. Even with an invisible killer roaming free among us, we could not rouse ourselves to the requisite seriousness; we could not break from our habitual lying, manipulating, and bullshitting."
Thank you to Australian economist and Independent Australia columnist John Quiggin for recommending this piece by Brink Lindsey by way of widening access to a clearly vital voice on what ails us (US et al) from an interdisciplinary perspective. Both Quiggin and Lindsey ought to be Public Intellectuals and regularly appearing social\policy analysts. Regrettably the US Media System offers not any national broadcast channel or cyber media platform insulated from Market Forces and the Corporate Caliphate that might offer some peer as well as public reviewed and discursive forum for performing post mortems on failed E-CON and Social policy-making.
Think of the death blow to "dynamism" that squandering of 20th and now 21st Century Mass Communications' truly innovative technology has dealt US! Less severe perhaps in other societies that do offer such insulation from the marauding "Greed Is Good" Golden Rule and Imperative in the Privatization\Financialization of Public Interest Policy pioneered by Uncle Miltie Friedman, Washington's Cold War Czar of Propaganda against centralizing commies and totalitarians, along with the doctrines and military interventionist force majeure of the 'Chicago Boys'.
Mitch Ritter\Paradigm Sifters, Code Shifters, PsalmSong Chasers
Lay-Low Studios, Ore-Wa (Refuge of Atonement Seekers)
Media Discussion List\Looksee
I like the basic idea. Maybe you need to slightly open the focus of "reality" to include "real social and economic effects." Sure these are more uncertain and harder to discern that "physical" reality. GOTV of a presumed majority that already agrees with you may be more fun, but it does not necessarily work as well as persuading a persuadable margin.