What would Marcus Aurelius tweet?

For my sins, I recently stumbled back onto Twitter. The first casualty of social media is peace of mind—but since I’m also reading about stoicism, which places tranquility as the highest good, I’ve resolved not to use social media to amplify messages of distress and outrage. And boosting these messages is something I used to do quite a lot. It’s not that I’m suddenly indifferent to social and political causes. I passionately believe in many of them. However, it’s not clear that constant fear, worry, and anger are helping us.

For example, in the case of the climate crisis, significant warming seems like a fait accompli. That doesn’t mean we should roll over and let emissions skyrocket but there’s a difference between writing to raise awareness and hosing people down with rage and anxiety. I’m trying to find a way to think and write clearly about these issues, without adding fuel to the fires of grief and anger that are so destructive and counterproductive. This means honesty about a reality that may be bleak at times but it does mean not melting down or abetting emotional contagion. This, to me, seems like an aspect of the Buddhist commitment to Right Speech, samma vaca.

After all, if you want to succeed on “social” platforms, it helps to stoke a little fury or despair. My fledgling tweets about things that interest me or are wholesome, such as Buddhism and Stoicism, are not exactly catnip to our ruler, The Algorithm, but that’s OK. Outrage gets one hundredfold the attention of tranquility. Dopamine is our drug of choice, likes and retweets the variable boons bestowed by our fickle mathematical gods. The result is my timeline veering wildly from being filled with lovely people doing lovely things to a white hot drip feed of toxic rage and worry.

It’s true that emotional rhetoric commands more attention; it’s debatable whether it galvanises people into action. But even if outrage guaranteed action, we must ask ourselves whether that action is worth the price of our mental composure and tranquility. I believe it may not be. Additionally, we must consider the nature of any change rooted in anger. Better to seek change rooted in clarity and calm. Revolutions that start with blood, end with blood.

This isn’t a criticism of people I follow. By and large it’s not normal folk who cause the problem: it’s social megastars who have consistently (perhaps knowingly) played the outrage game. Their furious missives get surfaced disproportionately compared to healthy messages. Perhaps I’m partly to blame, the algorithm has learnt that this is what I engage with. Well, no more. What I’ve read of the stoics inclines me not to allow anger to disturb my tranquility. Likewise, it’s incumbent on me not to needlessly infuriate and distress others, as far as that’s in my power. What would Marcus Aurelius tweet?

Original photo by Eddy Billard on Unsplash.
Marcus’ head: Jebulon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Personal computing

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash

I have conflicted feelings about computers. As a boy, I loved nature and playing in the garden more than anything. I thought computers were sinister, inherently bad, maybe even evil. Then, around 1990, my parents bought my brother and I an Amiga 500. At first, I was disappointed. What did I want with a computer when I could climb trees? But my parents made seemingly logical arguments in favour of this plastic devil. I could do my homework on it. It would be something to play with on a rainy day. It was fully upgradeable and would go with us through life, a trusted tool and companion. The marketers made big promises.

Well, we did upgrade the machine, doubling its memory from the original 512k. It was hard to know what exactly that improved. I don’t think I ever did any homework on it, though school friends and I thought it was possible to hack into banks through the plug socket somehow. People were talking about computers being connected in a mysterious way. These were the days when, confused at news reports of a computer virus, we would disconnect our internet-free machines from the mains.

But I did play computer games on rainy days, and sunny days. I even tried to make my own computer game by arranging letters in a text document. I knew that the action on screen was esoterically connected to patterns of alphanumeric characters. I thought that maybe if I moved the letters around to resemble the scene I wanted to create, something would happen.

And I wrote things on it. Computers and consoles came and went. Essays, poems, stories, and blogposts were written. I began to earn my living writing, editing, and making things on computers. I made music. I went down social media rabbit holes. Not long ago, I was browsing Twitter in a local cafe, reading a report from an Italian hospital, and realising that coronavirus was set to explode here too. Fuelled by corona uncertainty, it became a habit to check at every lacuna in the day. “What’s happening now? What’s happening now?”

For a while I was writing short poems on Twitter, like haiku. It was great to get an immediate response to my writing. I used to write a poem and wait months if not years before it found its way into a magazine or competition placing. But the social media reward loop can also become addictive, very sticky, and that isn’t very conducive to cultivating mind states useful to a writer or a meditator. One person I followed described Twitter as a gallery of souls. How fascinating and banal to see people’s thoughts flicker into life and soon irrelevance. But a palantír is a dangerous tool. The middle way probably means not having constant, trivial access to it.

Over the past few years, I’ve loved playing Xbox with old friends. There’s something about chatting together while collaborating towards a shared goal. I think it harks back to our early days hunting and gathering on the savannah. Not that I was ever there personally. Even in the depths of lockdown, we were so fortunate to be able to crew a galleon, (try to) survive a battle royale, or frag our way through a tactical shooter. I enjoy the imagination and challenge of these games, and they can be a great laugh to boot. I wouldn’t be without it.

Even so, there’s sometimes a part of me that asks, “Do I really need computers? Would I be happier without it all?” And another part of me is hopelessly enmeshed in it: the wires, the dopamine hits, the shiny promise of productivity, the self image. Will I ever get the balance right? Have computers lived up to decades of hype? Or do the costs weigh too heavily on our attention, on our planet, and the labourers who assemble them?

The truth is that while computers promise so much, every device wants you to enter into an uneven power relationship. We may naively think that hardware and software are simply tools that we control but increasingly they are engineered to control us, to nudge us towards purchases, political candidates, eyeballs on adverts, and “time on site” metrics. So Twitter’s algorithms have learnt to serve you snippets of outrage throughout the day because—thanks to a quirk of psychological evolution—what infuriates you is an order of magnitude more effective in capturing your attention than nice stuff. The games I enjoy increasingly want to hook you in so you’ll spend money on their season pass. They do this through addictive mechanics lifted directly from the gambling industry, such as variable rewards. I even suspect that skill-based matchmaking may be manipulated to keep you hooked by throwing up a mix of easy and punishing games. Are you still having fun?

In many ways computers have isolated us, atomised our work, and made it abstract. In other ways they have connected and empowered us, democratised information, amplified our voices, unchained creativity, and made it possible to work anywhere. I have less doubt that these tools are a necessary, inevitable step in our evolution than I have about their current marriage to market capitalism. Regardless, we’re only at the beginning of a journey towards finding balance in how we use information tech, and figuring out its uncanny ethics *cough* AI *cough*.

I was ten years old when I turned on my Amiga 500. Who knows how many hours I’ve spent personally computing in the decades since. Is there still time to unplug, go outside, climb a tree?

Photo by Lorenzo Herrera on Unsplash.

Urgency to live

How should we live, considering that human history–as we’ve known it so far–may be coming to an end? If the ice caps melt, if the Amazon burns, if the world becomes a hot and desperate place we will lose the narrative of progress and security upon which our choices and values are based. What is the point of our commercial and cultural endeavours when this civilisation is so far out of balance?

Impermanence is nothing new, of course, but previously it was easier to turn a blind eye to the precariousness of life. We could believe the world would always be there, much as ever it was. There have always been parents, governments, schools, employers, and advertisers who are all too ready to give us a game to play to keep us busy. These forces have preserved their momentum but nothing matters in the way we once thought it did. What are the works of Shakespeare when crops fail? Who cares about an ambitious startup? Sporting successes? These things seem to be haemorrhaging relevance. It was ever thus – but now it becomes harder and harder to filter out the roar of emptiness.

To be aware of our finitude is a bittersweet thing. It makes urgency the currency of our times. Urgency for gratification, urgency to act, urgency to fix problems. However, there is also an urgency to live in the present. Whatever else we do, an urgency to show up for life whatever it contains may be the trait that ultimately decides the quality of our lives. This means being present and reflective. It means giving time and energy to things that matter, however we decide what they are. Perhaps this global crisis clarifies what is truly important in our finite lives. It teaches us that we can’t depend on a future that has always been uncertain and indifferent to our designs.

We keep playing the same old games, looking around to see how earnestly everyone else is playing. At the same time, it’s hard to know what’s next. Can we give up consumerism or will we continue destroying nature? Do we want economic growth or economic contentment? I find this very hard myself and frequently ruminate on what kind of device will make my life easier — usually when stressed out by those very gadgets.

So what do we really need as human beings? This is where the humanities can be restored to their rightful place after decades of devaluation. You could say that Shakespeare’s plays matter more than ever, especially to the individual mind and heart. Art has an inward effect. It can enrich our appreciation of life beyond the urge for sensory satisfaction and conspicuous consumption. It can make sense of our relationship to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. And art is often less destructive than other things we can engage with. The carbon footprint of reading a poem is smaller than many outward-bound activities but the personal reward over the long-term can be much greater. Art, literature, music, psychology: we may value these things more as a society in years to come, rather than seeing them as luxuries.

Meanwhile, in the 2,500 year old Buddhist tradition, we find the Pali word “samvega”, often translated as “spiritual urgency”. In this unpredictable world, meditators have always been chastened not to waste time but to practice meditation as though their life depended on it. To seize the moment. Ironically, I avoided my meditation bench to futz around with this piece and enjoy my favourite (unpeopled) view in the world, above. Even so, looking out at the horizon and finding myself actually where I was taught me a brief lesson in taking things as they come, and not trying to get anywhere but where I am. I was able to put down my ambitions and neuroses for a second and realise some very basic things about how I want to experience the world. It reminded me that even if the future is uncertain there is always this moment–only this moment–in which to live.

Thoughts on consciousness

If we believe that consciousness is the only ground of meaning and value (i.e. a universe without any conscious beings to experience it might as well not exist) then three conclusions may follow.

1) There would be nothing more worthwhile doing than enriching the conscious experience of self and others through activities like philosophy, meditation, the arts, counselling and cultivating our emotional lives, sciences, socialising and collaboration.

2) We might value neurologically diverse minds not only for their inherent worth as conscious beings but also perhaps as comparatively rare forms of consciousness.

3) Any meaning derived from the exploitation of conscious animals for food or sport would be at least partially undermined by violating this quality that makes all other value possible.

Finally, I’m not yet convinced about an AI singularity but (by these standards) bringing about a super-conscious intelligence may also be one of the most worthwhile things we could do. This providing it didn’t suffer inordinately or inflict greater net suffering on conscious life.

The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a powerful indictment of consumerism. In twenty minutes it paints a horrific picture of the planet-stripping supply chain that furnishes us with ephemeral gizmos. For instance, did you know that for every binload of recycling you put out, there are 70 bins of waste produced further up the chain?

Most astonishing is this quote from economist Victor Lebow in 1955, which seems to have been stated in seriousness:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

It’s clear that we have to find alternative ways of living and producing. As many have pointed out, it’s not like the current system is making us happier or healthier. Chatting with a friend in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we were sure that change was in the air, that governments would take this opportunity to make decisive policy changes. How wrong we were. And yet, everywhere you find people who think the same way. Clearly, Lebow’s is an idea whose time has passed. The question is will change follow in the global economy, and how much too late?