(possibly unable to attend… posting some thoughts related to documentary)
This episode is supplemental (and in some sort of ironic meta- manner a la Brown’s documentary, is both a distraction and a deep meditation upon the issues raised in the film).
Yesterday @Eduardo_Rocha posted this great summary and analysis of Byung Chul Han’s Burnout Society, a short and deep read on the “positive” feedback loop we encounter in daily life, whether we directly participate in the more is better mindset or not. This podcast episode and the short book by Han go hand-in-hand.
One theme explored in all three above (documentary, podcast, book) is the exploitation of the human animal, the honing in on our psychological traits through persuasion, manipulation, influence. Harris and Brown state that the big companies are exploiting our attention,: the phone is the 1st thing we see in the morning, outrage at the news, response necessary, slot machine mentality, perpetual loops. Han, in both parallel and contrast to Harris, writes that we are doing this to ourselves, leaving out the big tech companies and minds behind the algorithms. Man is the animal that lives in the age of self-exploitation, seeking more and more in the positive feedback loop, the multitasking, creating disorders resulting in the hyper-individual with hyper-disorders from overload or the depressive individual who is unable to measure up.
From "Beyond Disciplinary Society" chapter in Han's book:
(note: Han states we are moving away from the disciplinary society; the society of negativity that produces madmen and criminals; adheres to the Should; "obedience-subjects; into an “achievement society,” the society of positivity that produces depressives and losers…becoming "achievement-subjects;’ entrepreneurs of themselves; Can/“yes, we can” mentality)
The depressive human being is an animal laborans that exploits itself—and it does so voluntarily, without external constraints. It is predator and prey at once. …the achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom—that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation. This is more efficient than allo-exploitation, for the feeling of freedom attends it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Perpetrator and victim can no longer be distinguished. Such self-referentiality produces a paradoxical freedom that abruptly switches over into violence because of the compulsive structures dwelling within it. The psychic indispositions of achievement society are pathological manifestations of such a paradoxical freedom.
Other human animal themes in Han’s work include the shift from vita contemplativa to vita activa , in which our lack of “deep thinking” or even “profound boredom” and the increase of preserving life by any means possible takes away an element of our humanness. It makes human life radically fleeting. There is no real death of human, no shutting down, no real substance. Our previous human narratives found in religious messages is missing. It is replaced the active life.
Life today is even barer than the life of homo sacer. Originally, homo sacer refers to someone excluded from society because of a trespass: one may kill him without incurring punishment. According to Giorgio Agamben, homo sacer stands for absolutely expendable life. Examples he provides include Jews in concentration camps, prisoners at Guantanamo, people without papers or asylum-seekers awaiting deportation in a lawless space, and patients attached to tubes and rotting away in intensive care. If late-modern achievement society has reduced us all to bare life, then it is not just people at the margins or in a state of exception—that is, the excluded—but all of us, without exception, who are homines sacri. That said, this bare life has the particularity of not being absolutely expendable; rather, it cannot be killed absolutely . It is undead, so to speak. Here the word sacer does not mean “accursed” but “holy.” Now bare, sheer life itself is holy, and so it must be preserved at any cost.
The reaction to a life that has become bare and radically fleeting occurs as hyperactivity, hysterical work, and production. The acceleration of contemporary life also plays a role in this lack of being. The society of laboring and achievement is not a free society. It generates new constraints. Ultimately, the dialectic of master and slave does not yield a society where everyone is free and capable of leisure, too. Rather, it leads to a society of work in which the master himself has become a laboring slave. In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. This labor camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination. People who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder, or burnout syndrome develop the symptoms displayed by the Muselmänner in concentration camps. Muselmänner are emaciated prisoners lacking all vigor who, like people with acute depression, have become entirely apathetic and can no longer even recognize physical cold or the orders given by guards. One cannot help but suspect that the late-modern animal laborans with neuronal disturbances would have been a Muselmann, too—albeit well fed and probably obese.
On multitasking (hyperattention):
The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking” does not represent civilizational progress. Human beings in the late-modern society of work and information are not the only ones capable of multitasking. Rather, such an aptitude amounts to regression. Multitasking is commonplace among wild animals. It is an attentive technique indispensable for survival in the wilderness.
An animal busy with eating must also attend to other tasks. For example, it must hold rivals away from its prey. It must constantly be on the lookout, lest it be eaten while eating. At the same time, it must guard its young and keep an eye on its sexual partner. In the wild, the animal is forced to divide its attention between various activities. That is why animals are incapable of contemplative immersion—either they are eating or they are copulating. The animal cannot immerse itself contemplatively in what it is facing [Gegenüber] because it must also process background events. Not just multitasking but also activities such as video games produce a broad but flat mode of attention, which is similar to the vigilance of a wild animal. Recent social developments and the structural change of wakefulness are bringing human society deeper and deeper into the wilderness. For example, bullying has achieved pandemic dimensions. Concern for the good life, which also includes life as a member of the community, is yielding more and more to the simple concern for survival.
We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible. Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention.
Can Silicon Valley be fixed from the inside?
There is a lot of focus on meditation in Silicon Valley. Burning Man is a big part of the culture, with its heavy emphasis on presence, on putting down your phone. There’s a lot of experimentation with psychedelics. For all the searching that people are doing inside Silicon Valley, for all the feeling people have that it’s too busy, that something is not quite right, the products they make keep pushing us further toward distraction, toward busyness, to being always and constantly on call. Can this be changed from inside?
No, it cannot be. I tried for two and half years inside of Google to change it. There is no way to change these things from the inside…
…There’s all these groups at Facebook, at Google, at LinkedIn, and they talk about their wisdom programs and their mindfulness programs. They go onstage and they push it out there to the world, and it’s so hypocritical because on the one hand, they’re talking about how they find balance in the workplace, how to not get stressed out by the overwhelm, the notifications, the stress. Obviously the elephant in the room is that the product that’s being exported by these technology companies is possibly the largest counter-force to all the things that they’re talking about.
This is the thing that needs to change. This is why I was working on this for so long. We actually have to change the thing that we are exporting to the world, which is distraction, outrage, slot machine-style rewards, constant stimulation, social validation, making it harder for people to tell what’s true.
We’re distorting every single aspect of the human stack, and meanwhile, we’re talking about meditation and how good it’s been for us and the cool programs that are helping Googlers and Facebook people meditate more. I think that’s the thing that needs to be reconciled.
There is a way in which it all makes you a little bit Burkean. It makes you wonder whether we’re changing some of this too fast.
This is an interesting thing too about changing too fast. There’s these dimensions to being human and one dimension, per your point about too fast, is clock rate. If we start breathing at a slower rate, speak at a slower rate, being here with each other, that’s very different than if I just dial that thing way up to 10X that. Things start to fall off the rails when you’re going really fast. This is one of the things that I’m kind of worried about — human animals, when dialed up past certain boundaries of speed, make poor choices. Basically the entire game now in high-frequency trading is to blow up the mountains so you can lay a cable so you can do a trade and a financial transaction a microsecond faster than the other guys. We’re competing to go as fast as possible in domains where, given the impact, we ought to be going as slow as possible.
Mark Zuckerberg recently made a bunch of changes to Facebook and said he wanted time on the platform to be “time well spent,” which is the concept you’ve been behind. My sense is you don’t believe that’s going to be a fundamental change in Facebook’s operating approach.
Now we’re getting into more of the practicality of what is the system and what is the problem and then how do we fix it? The advertising business model is the thing that forces the technology companies to maximize attention. Zuckerberg said on his earnings call that people were spending one or two minutes less on Facebook a day, and that was 50 million hours less per day. They can only do that to a certain extent. They can’t halve the amount of time that people spend on Facebook. That would be way too much. Their stock price is too hinged on a certain amount of usage. How do we decouple the link between the stock price and how much attention is extracted? This is the thing that I’m actually most alarmed about in the current system.