The Cyberpaleo Ethic and the Spirit of Postcapitalism

The challenge of avoiding burnout reminds me of that old witticism, "It's easy to quit smoking. I've done it thousands of times" (the provenance is unclear). Burnout is inseparable from the industrial work ethic, and the industrial work ethic does in fact seem as terrible as smoking from certain perspectives. The very act of sitting for hours at a desk inspired standing desk evangelist James Levine to remark that "sitting is the new smoking." Yet, in other contexts, like meditation, sitting still for long periods has an entirely different narrativization. Why is sitting around for hours read as burnout in one context, and self-actualization in another? The difference, I believe, has little to do with surface behaviors like whether you are sitting, standing, or pumping iron between bouts of brogramming on a surfboard. Whether work leads to burnout or self-actualization is related to our ability to answer two questions about what we are doing: is it necessary, and is it meaningful?

The Cyberpaleo Ethic

1/ Sitting is a synechdoche for industrial work just like repetitive stress injury, sleep deprivation, or increased error rates. All are symptoms of impending burnout.

2/ Industrial work requires daily limits, weekends off, and vacations because burnout conditions aren't the exception, they are the default.

3/ Industrial work makes survival a highly predictable matter, unlike say in hunting or foraging.  One unit of work buys you one unit of continued survival.

4/ The cost is that the connection between what you do and why you do it is no longer innate. You need an ideological theory of how the world works to make that connection.

5/ When the outcome of work involves the variability of the environment in a consequential way, meaning and necessity are  coupled. Life can be interesting without ideology.

6/ What happens to you has variety, novelty, and unpredictability, and actually makes a difference to whether you die, and what it means if you live.

7/ Under such conditions, work keeps you both alive, and interested in remaining alive. You cannot burn out or get bored. You can only live, or die.

8/ Necessity relates to the capacity for staying alive. Meaning relates to the interestingness of doing so. Burnout happens when one outruns the other.

9/ Internal burnout is very familiar. It is not the repetition in what you do (and sitting is a sort of degenerate repetitiveness), but the fact that the environment is also repetitive in response.

10/ We can only learn, stay interested, and manufacture meaning, if the same actions do not always have the same results (within the limits of our ability to discriminate events at all of course).

11/ Industrial work makes this very challenging. While it is possible to develop mindfulness to the point where assembly-line work becomes interesting, it is not easy.

12/ The universe of course, is always interesting if you have the ability to probe it deeply enough. Under the microscope, "identical" mass-produced nails look different.

13/ But the variability inherent in foraging or hunting is obvious to human brains because we evolved to be sensitive to that variability and interact with it in a life-or-death way.

14/ Industrial-era "hobbies" are a compensating artifact for the internal burnout default of industrial work. They separately cater to our need for meaningfulness that necessary work does not.

15/ We can now understand the two types of burnout. Internal burnout is when you accumulate an interestingness debt. You do what's necessary to live, and it slowly drains your will to live at all.

16/ External burnout is when you accumulate a survivability debt. You do what's necessary to stay interested in living, but it slowly drains your ability to stay alive at all.

17/ This is deeper than merely running out of money. Even with inherited wealth, all play and no work leads to external burnout. Necessity itself is necessary.

18/ Or more precisely, it seems that an element of necessity is necessary for things to be interesting; mere variability in environmental responses to actions is not enough.

19/ Survival being trivial can kill you. Why is this? Because surviving in a costly way, through risk, is what enables you to value interestingness, in proof-of-pain currency.

20/ Gambling for higher stakes is different from gambling for low stakes even if the game-play is identical. Life itself is the ultimate thing you can stake, to make things interesting.

21/ Necessity is what turns distinctions into differences, and allows us to care enough about variation to make it interesting enough to survive for.

22/ In the concluding essay of Breaking Smart Season 1, I quoted my friend Seb Paquet: "any sufficiently advanced kind of work is indistinguishable from play."

23/ In the industrial age, we've come to conflate "play" with inconsequential and unnecessary, but pseudo-interesting activities. A luxury that is mainly for children. With some allowance for adult hobbies.

24/ But a truer sense of play is the kind that precedes the industrial distinction between work (necessary but meaningless) and "play" (unnecessary but meaningful) activities.

25/ Is hunting or foraging work or play? The question makes no sense. It is play that works. Meaningful behavior that is also functional enough to ensure survival.

26/ When young animals of any species learn survival skills, they learn it in play form. Lion cubs chase each other and wrestle. Deer run for fun. The are interested in surviving.

27/ In humans, as Huizenga argues in Homo Ludens, the play element of work becomes, through the civilizing process, distributed in culture at large, splitting meaning and necessity.

28/ What he calls the play element of culture (not in culture) pervades the structuring of all work and serious "adulting" in all domains: law, war, manufacturing, flipping burgers, programming.

29/ But as he is careful to note, this is explicitly NOT play in the sense of the natural behaviors of baby animals of all sort, including baby humans, which represents coupled meaning and necessity.

30/ By externalizing the play element of our essential natures into the external scaffolding of civilization itself, humans have made great gains. Principal among these is predictability of survival.

31/ Because all the necessary and meaningful play-that-works aspects of human behavior are now embodied by institutions and societal structures, we can live to 80 instead of 30.

32/ But the cost is that we have split meaning and necessity in human work. We swing back and forth between more hobby-like and more work-like behaviors.

33/ Work-life balance is not about actually integrating meaning and necessity, or interestingness and survivability. That is fundamentally not possible within the industrial order.

34/ It's about not letting either survivability debt or interestingness debt accumulate to the point that you either die from inability to continue living, or kill yourself because you've lost the will to live.

35/ But with the addition of computers to the mix, true re-integration of necessity and meaning is starting to become possible in small ways for all.

36/ Consider hipster businesses. We make fun of them, but in the past they would have been pure hobbies: all interestingness and meaningfulness, and no contribution to survivability (a drain on it in fact).

37/ Or consider lifestyle designers. We bemoan the empty arbitraging, but in the past that would have been kill-me-now factory tedium instead of a way to backpack at a profit.

38/ But these are not enough. We are barely scratching the surface yet of what life looks like when the play-work distinction dissolves into play-that-works.

39/ We are reinventing work to reflect the deeper cognitive structure of paleolithic environments of evolutionary adaptatedness (EEA). This is deeper than "gamification."

40/ But we are also re-imagining work to have the post-capitalist macroeconomic structure made possible by software eating the world and creating various kinds of abundance.

41/ I call this the cyberpaleo human condition. It integrates the postscarcity economic logic of computation with the psychological structure of human play-that-works.

42/ If terraforming is making other planets more hospitable for human life, the industrial age helped hyperterraform the earth to make physical survival easier on earth itself.

43/ The post-industrial age is hyperterraforming the industrialized earth to make psychological survival easier, by using digital technologies to reintegrate meaning and necessity.

44/ This is why the idea of a leisure society is ill-posed. It extrapolates the industrial age work/play divide into a human condition where life itself is one big hobby. This is unworkable.

45/ Because necessity is necessary for meaning, humans never cash out material surpluses to make necessity 100% unnecessary. We always find a way to stake our life on things.

46/ I call this the cyberpaleo ethic: all the conveniences of the cyber age, with all the life-and-death meaningfulness of the paleolithic age -- engineered by choice into the environment.

47/ Just over a century ago, Max Weber argued that the spirit of capitalism was animated by a protestant ethic. The spirit of postcapitalism is animated by a cyberpaleo ethic.

48/ The fundamental drive of this process is to use abundance to create necessity out of the unnecessary in order to create meaningfulness, even at the expense of some survivability.

49/ Those who hope to abolish necessity by using abundance entirely to take care of what is necessary are doomed to disappointment. Humans don't work that way.

50/ Pure cyberutopia would be deadly to our paleo brains. If necessity becomes unnecessary, we lose the will to live. We'll find ways to turn universal basic income into life/death gambles.

51/ Equally, those who yearn for a "natural" condition where raw survival of the strongest in some stylized non-Darwinian sense is everything, are doomed to disappointment.

52/ Humans don't work that way either. We like to survive, but keep changing the game so the meaning of survival changes. As gamblers like to say, "let's make it interesting."

53/ Which brings us back to our original problem of burnout. We are now in a position to answer the question of why mere sitting can have such different meanings.

54/ If meaning and necessity are truly integrated, then your mind and body can heal from all non-fatal stresses. What doesn't kill you does indeed make you stronger.

55/ But if there is a fundamental schism between them, then standing desks, sabbaticals, and yoga retreats won't save you from one sort of burnout or the other.

56/ Ultimately, whether you can recover from a stressor is a function of two variables: whether you have the resources to recover, and whether you have the will to recover.

57/ In the past, I've written about "great works" and what the phrase means. This is what it means: play that works, and is both meaningful and necessary, making it interesting to survive.

58/ Play-work had those characteristics 10,000 years ago, then lost it in the last 1000. Now we're regaining it.

59/ The difference is that 10,000 years ago, the scheme worked, but only for you and your immediate forager band, and only for 30-40 years on average.

60/ Human beings "worked" (as in, a machine that works) in the paleo environment but weren't great. In the industrial age, they were great, but they didn't "work" properly.

61/ Great works is about having your cake and eating it too. Great as in industrial-age great. Moonshot great.

62/ Works as in, it actually works rather than deeply breaking its human parts to the point that they cannot enjoy the greatness they've produced.

63/ How do you do this? There are no general answers. To create a great work that embodies the cyberpaleo ethic and the spirit of postcapitalism is an individual challenge.

64/ We are learning slowly. I learned by myself for a decade. I started the Q Lab experiment a few months ago partly to help others, partly to swap notes with them.

65/ Will scattered, spotty efforts like that eventually interconnect to transform the world as the industrial age ethic once did, or will it die a painful death? We don't know.

66/ The idea of the cyberpaleo ethic is to create a new environment of evolutionary adaptation, for our technologically extended selves.

67/ An environment where not only do bodies evolve in response to the pressures of biological survival, but minds evolve in response to the pressures of meaning-making.

68/ Stewart Brand once famously remarked, "we are as gods, we might as well get good at it." In the cyberpaleo environment, what doesn't kill us will make us god-like.

69/ Can we pull it off? We can either fearfully cover only what is necessary and watch our will to live drain away even as abundance slowly overcomes scarcity.

70/ Or we can choose to make things interesting again.

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