The Inner Game of Exploding Minds

We're in mind-exploding times. Practically every week, there's some new development that makes your mind go boom as you attempt to wrap it around the implications. We still don't quite know what to think about Pokemon Go when we learn about Snapchat Spectacles. Digital technologies, say the wise morons, allow us to balance work and life in new, more flexible ways. That's like saying airplanes allow us new ways to ride horses. When you work from home using a remote work arrangement, or go free-agent and worry about how to get a tax deduction for your home office, you're merely taking the first step down a path that, if you let it, will put your entire life in a blender. It will get chopped up and remade in forms that could not even be contemplated before. In 2016 with its AR spectacles and voice interfaces and drones, 2007 op-eds talking about how "mobile" changes the work/life balance seem cute and innocent.

What is common to all these technologies is that they expand the space of life possibilities and number of conensual realities. The difference between the few dozen standardized life scripts enabled by the industrial age, with its sparse menu of consensual realities, and the millions or even billions of unique ones enabled by the digital age, is not a difference of degree. It's a difference of kind. In a world where your imagination, rather than your context, is the limiting factor, how fulfilling your life is depends not on external circumstances, but on your inner, mental game. The headline for this issue is inspired by the great book, The Inner Game of Tennis. The Inner Game of Exploding Minds is how you situate yourself in the ever-expanding space of possibilities, to first rule your own life, and then the world (if that sort of thing interests you).

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The Inner Game of Exploding Minds

1/ At a coffee shop yesterday, I heard the young barista chatting with her friend about Pokemon Go. It might as well have been aliens talking about life on another planet.

2/ She and her friends now inhabit a consensual reality involving hunting weird fantastical creatures. A choice that could turn their lives into fantastically generative ones, or utterly destroyed ones.

3/ My own life, weaving its way through WordPress updates, consulting video calls, and a dozen weird behaviors, would be equally alien to many.

4/ To anxiously "early adopt" every shiny new thing for five minutes without ever allowing any of them enough time to reshape your life radically is to miss out on all of them, no better than the Luddite life.

5/ A good way to understand your relationship to technology is McLuhan's idea that first we make our tools, then our tools make us. To choose life is to embrace such transformation instead of trying to stay "in charge" of your tools.

6/ It means that when you allow your identity to flow, through your senses and fingers, into any new technology, it will then possess you and reshape you.

7/ You are the ghost in your machines, and your machine is the ghost in you. If you use a tool enough, you will develop a new persona that comes alive each time you use that tool.

8/ The results are mainly visible in the form of the various external social personas we inhabit. Today, these are still those determined by the industrial age.

9/ The technology called "literacy" using tools like pen/paper and keyboard/screen splits your personality into "mind" and "body." Those without this split are viewed as backward.

10/ The technology called "schooling" splits your identity into "work" and "life" (or "home") personas. They even wear different clothes.

11/ The technology of urban nuclear lifestyles splits your "home" identity into "spouse", "parent" etc.

12/ But pre-industrial personas like "grandparent" or "cousin" or "church-goer" created by technologies like "farming" become less important.

13/ What is common to all these pre-modern ways of personality being reshaped, primarily through a process of being split into aspect personas, is that it is externally driven.

14/ To follow a social script, in the form of received wisdom, is to allow society to "refactor" the whole you into "pieces" (technically, horcruxes) that fit various roles, over a lifetime, with hopefully minimal trauma to the psyche.

15/ The crucial thing about digital technologies is that they are so much intimate, personal, and flexible/programmable that they behave differently.

16/ Standardized schooling mass produces children split for work/life in roughly the same ways. They dampen difference and amplify similarity. Digital technologies do the opposite.

17/ The "Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age (a sort of immersive VR tablet with a part AI, part turking teacher behind it) captures this idea.

18/ The protagonist, Nell, has her personality shaped by the Primer which adapts to both her circumstances and the way she's developing internally. And she develops into a very unique person.

19/ We are surprisingly close to this kind of technology already, but it exists in a fragmented state and must be assembled piecemeal. It also extends through life rather than a schooling period.

20/ To understand this process, we have to switch gears and talk about an inner process of personality evolution that loosely tracks external life events but is visible only to you and your closest confidants.

21/ Tool phases in your external life, both scripted (schooling, employment, married life) and unscripted (illness, accidents, wins, and losses) constantly break and remake you.

22/ Life itself could be defined as the ongoing attempt to make yourself whole again each time life breaks you. The only question is who controls this process and how.

23/ Some seem happy to be entirely shaped by society. Their twitter profiles often say things like "father, husband, Christian, Seahawks fan"

24/ Others struggle mightily to impose their authoritah. Their twitter profiles often say things like "Seeker of the Sublime" or "Blogger of the Unrefactored Spaces"

25/ Whether it is others who define your script, or yourself, if the personality-script fit is not right, generative life energy begins to drain away from you, triggering an internal, existential crisis.

26/ The triggers for such crises may have no correlation at all to the "important" events in the evolution of your external persona, like graduation or marriage.

27/ Nevertheless, they drive a much more profound and unscripted process of shattering and remaking your mind, internally. This is how you become a person, whether brittle or tough.

28/ When such a crisis is simple and socially scripted/managed, it splits your mind into only a few meaningful pieces. You get some control in the form of a "decision".

29/ You pick a few fragments to pour your life into, and the rest wither away as unlived lives, taking some life energy with them.

30/ Every big decision is in fact a controlled, pre-interpreted existential crisis with guardrails. Like a planned demolition/new construction.

31/ But when possibilities multiply explosively, the fragmentation feels like a continuous, unmanaged crisis of uncertainty and ambiguity, what I call "weirdness".

32/ A poll I just did, suggests perhaps 70% of you feel highly fragmented. This matches my general observation that many people are in a state of deep anomie today.

33/ This state is not about "decisions." It's not like a graduation event framing and scripting a decision for you about how "you" will split into "work you" and "play you",

34/ Instead, you might have some trivial stimulus with no clear meaning, like the sight of a plastic bag dancing in the wind, the smell of a madeline, or the roots of a chestnut tree, shattering your mind into a bunch of unnamed fragments.

35/ Now this is the important part. To choose life is to choose to put yourself together again each time your inner realities shatter in small or big ways. Enter technology.

36/ Banal though it might seem, it is our relationship with our tools that both enables us to put ourselves back together and determines the nature of the results. When your inner realities collapse, your most intimate outer realities -- your tools -- are your lifeline.

37/ Whether you exit a bout of severe depression by making art, starting a new company, baking up a storm of cookies, or going insane trying to learn VR programming, the choice of tool and how you inhabit it MATTERS.

38/ To understand this at a slightly more helpful abstract level, it is useful to turn to two ancient Greek concepts: praxis and poiesis, which very roughly, mean "doing" and "making" (or "production").

39/ The two concepts may sound similar (after all, all "doing" should also "produce" something, and both should "remake" you in some way), but are in fact very different.

40/ Praxis can be understood as a socially situated form of doing. Praxis implies a relationship with tools that socializes you. The new you fits better into society.

41/ Poiesis can be understood as an internally situated form of doing. Poiesis implies a relationship with tools that individuates you. The new you fits worse into society.

42/ Think this is abstruse philosophical-psychological mumbo-jumbo? Think again. This distinction is the psychological heart of our relationship to technology.

43/ To be product-driven is to be poiesis driven in a deep way, and to embrace a creative-destructive, non-zero-sum, growth-oriented mindset towards the world. You disturb old beauties to create new ones.

44/ To be customer-driven is to be praxis driven in a deep way, and to embrace a harmony-seeking, zero-sum, stability-oriented mindset towards the world. You preserve old beauties by mangling new ones.

45/ Tools themselves have biases. Java is more praxis. Ruby is more poiesis. Enterprise software is more praxis, consumer software is more poiesis. Lifestyle businesses in Bali are more praxis, hipster cafes in Portland are more poiesis.

46/ Shaw famously said, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

47/ Choosing poiesis over praxis as your mode of doing is to choose to be unreasonable. There is something fundamentally sociopathic about it. An orientation towards the limits of material reality rather than social.

48/ Though both represent what Arendt called "via activa", (the active life), and distinct from "via contemplativa", (the life of contemplation), they lead you in different directions.

49/ They produce different forms of impact on the world. Praxis with a new technology often looks like what critics call "solutionism," an authoritarian approach to "saving" the world from an old problem with a new tool.

50/ Solutionism is nevertheless socially situated because it accepts existing ideas about what is worth doing. It is praxis, the root of the modern "practice" which implies a socially defined role such as a "professional."

51/ Poiesis often looks like self-indulgent pursuit of your own private idea of what you think is worth doing. The word is the root of the modern "poetry." Poiesis is poetry with a new instrument, and a self-defined role.

52/ Silicon Valley is often accused of operating by the religion of "doerism" by critics, but this is actually misguided. The old economy is "doerist" too, except it's all praxis (and practice), and almost no poiesis (or poetry). "Irrelevant app" translates to "why ars gratia artis?"

53/ Criticisms of Silicon Valley can be understood as two distinct things: professional practitioners of an old praxis threatened by the emerging practitioners of a new one, and as an unpoetic world threatened by a poetic one.

54/ The New Economy is new precisely because it is young enough to have a strong dual tradition of BOTH poiesis and praxis, which wind around each other like strands of DNA, creating the genetics of a new societal order.

55/ The Old Economy is old and sclerotic precisely because it is old enough to have lost all poetry, and for its practices to have become old, worn ruts of behavior.

56/ Ruts of behavior that perfectly craft and sustain social identities for those stuck in them, but are otherwise increasingly irrelevant to modern environments, and incapable of either "solving" its terminal "problems" or creating new frontiers with poetry.

57/ But let's return to the inner game. As you break yourself and remake yourself over and over through life, you grow into yourself. The cringe-worthy personal branding movement of a decade ago did have germ of truth to it.

58/ But it's not about finding your "authentic" self as though that's some sort of innocent, child-like "original" you buried under layers of pragmatic adult compromise. A snowflake buried under a clod.

59/ It's about looking around and seeing the technology landscape for what it really you: a furnace and a forge, where you can repeatedly break and remake yourself into newer, refactored versions of you.

60/ Do NOT assume that when you choose a tablet over an artisan paper notebook and fountain pen, that you're making a trivial choice. You're choosing how to regenerate your entire self.

61/ The second law of thermodynamics applies. Mortality exists. You cannot remake yourself an indefinite number of times. I think the limit is about 10 regenerations, like Dr. Who, until the show cheated.

62/ You do better if you control the process at least a little than if you let society control it entirely. Less life energy drains away in the fragments that fall away with each regeneration.

63/ In this process, you cannot let either pure poiesis or pure praxis drive you. The dynamic balance that will most renew you with generative life force is unique to you, and your goal is to find it anew with each regeneration.

64/ You can get better at this process, but it never gets entirely smooth and flowing. As I said in the weirdness article linked in point 31, it is bugs and crashes all the way down. And wabi-sabi sensibilities won't change the process; only help you see beauty in it.

65/ And THAT'S the balance that defines digital realities. The "work/life balance" rabbithole goes far, far deeper than industrial HR training workshops can even begin to imagine, let alone help you explore.

66/ Now for the optional extra part: if you choose to go beyond and reshape the world beyond your own life, your relationship with tools will create larger realities like billion-dollar corporations that shape the lives of billions.

67/ You cannot get beyond a certain scale with praxis alone. Praxis by itself simply cannot disturb the universe enough. It needs the poetic imagination of poiesis to put a dent in the universe.

68/ Praxis by itself, when it gets too ambitious, can only create darkness. There is a sense in which politics ("the art of the possible") is all praxis: words that sell visions big or small, but lack the inner-game poetry of technology to deliver more than tiny increments.

69/ Trump's "Make America Great Again" is a slogan devoid of any inner poetry; that's the big lie there, beneath the little ones. There is no hope for poiesis there. Clinton's vision too, lacks all poiesis, but doesn't promise much either, which is something.

70/ Poiesis by itself cannot scale either. It can only create precious-snowflake artisan scale hipster realities. There is a reason the unambitious seek out older technologies for their poetry. Pretty output, but no dents in the universe.

71/ But with both, big things happen. Amazon is an example of a company that led with praxis, and then acquired enough poiesis to grow big enough, fast enough, to punch a dent in the universe.

72/ Google and Facebook began with poiesis, but also acquired enough praxis as they grew to punch a dent in the universe. All three help make humanity great again.

73/ Twitter is perhaps self-destructing via wild poiesis/praxis (reductively, product/customer orientation) swings in pursuit of opportunities that are perhaps too big to nail.

74/ These individual and collective processes of being and becoming, through making and unmaking, doing and undoing, create self-sustaining new realities out of crumbling old ones: this is autopoiesis. The poetry of emergence through creative destruction.

75/ Sofware eating the world is perhaps best understood as the world giving birth to itself at all levels from individual to entire planet, through one of the biggest autopoietic events in history. Fasten your seat belts.

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