Rebuilding the operating system from the ground up

Our aim is to make sure life on this planet, and the human civilisation currently embedded in it, becomes self-sustaining and flourishing. Right now it is self-terminating, with increasing risks of catastrophe and extinction from the combination of powerful technologies and weak wisdom on how to wield them. Right now it is hegemonic, with simplifying and all-powerful cultural and technological structures preventing many humans and animals from living a full, fulfilling life.

This requires rewriting the human social code at every level, starting from the level each of us has the most power over – the individual.

Humans are highly social animals, so our next focus is small groups of 5 to 150 people, which, when wisely organised and cared for, give individuals the love, courage and motivation to make big and terrifying changes, and can accomplish many powerful things on their own. Families, work teams, classrooms, clubs, and parishes fit into this category.

The next level has two main components – countries and industries. One is the representation of power in a given physical location, and the way in which a group of citizens carry out their broader social contract. It is here that we can create collective cultural training (in schools), complex infrastructure networks for living (cities), healing (hospitals), discovery (science) and fighting (the military). The other component is industries or markets, groups that we participate in both through selling our labour and buying all sorts of goods. These two types of groups (which vary in size from around 1 million to 1 billion people) are the ways our society has created most of the experiences we associate with modernity – air travel, contract law and supermarkets, but also tax returns, divorce settlements, and spam emails.

The most all-encompassing level some call the world-system. This is the group that includes all humans, all markets, countries and groups, and the animals, plants, infrastructure and other matter that make up one giant ecosystem. It’s hard to even visualise something this big, but we can start by thinking about the relationships between the biggest other things – nations, industries and companies. At this level, many changes behave more like waves in an ocean than a group of people doing something or a bureaucratic organisation executing tasks. The flows of money in global finance, the flows of people in immigration, the in and out of different substances into the atmosphere and water, the weather systems that create storms, heatwaves and floods, the international treaties that countries abide by that let them cooperate on fighting cybercrime or sex trafficking – these are all phenomena that only really make sense to talk about on a global scale.

On this global scale we are facing increasing risks to humanity’s survival, almost all of which we have created on the country/industry scale and the global scale by creating sets of rules that reward doing too much of one thing and not enough of another. Too much weapons development, not enough collective disarmament. Too much pollution; not enough prudence and creative ways to use fewer resources. Too much competition, not enough care and protection of humanity as a whole.

There are new ways of acting, new sets of rules that we as one interconnected civilisation can put into place in order to take away the worst of these risks and improve our collective abilities to protect humanity from new risks that don’t even exist yet. But the current ways of doing things are powerful, and many peoples’ livelihoods have been built around defending those rulesets or profiting from them.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to change them, just that in order to change them we must build communities, livelihoods and reward systems that can help people get the things they value from changing these systems for the better in order to outcompete the old ones. We need a big group of people, but probably smaller than we think. A group of 100,000 people, well-organised in many smaller groups, energised and focused, can probably tip the levers of enough of the systems at the lower levels to have a shot at tipping the levers in the big, world-system-level ones.

Tipping these levers is complex, because it involves two things:

– Changing the way things are done right now, in this context, well enough to avert or adapt to major catastrophes.
– Changing the way things change, so that as new problems come up, and people try to game the new systems, the system and the people who influence it are able to course correct and make the right changes to the right rulesets so that the system doesn’t veer off onto a dangerous course again.

This is a wickedly difficult quest, but in my opinion it’s the only thing worth seriously dedicating yourself to if you have the luck and privilege to be able to choose your course in life.

I mentioned the different levels earlier because we cannot fight to change the world system directly. Right now we are merely individuals, and it is too big and powerful for us to make any real difference. What we must do is take Gandhi’s timeless quote – ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ and expand it out, starting with ourselves.

We must turn ourselves into people capable of adapting; capable of healing rapidly, of building strong, loving connections with others, of changing our minds even when to do so strikes at the core of who we think we are. We must learn to train our attention, to decide what is meaningful, to do things that are hard and require courage. We must care for our physical bodies, root out and heal dysfunctional behaviours and thought patterns, and carve out space in our lives if they are too full to breathe, in order to make even more space, and to do meaningful work. We must build up financial savings so that we are no longer dependent on working in jobs that were created to serve the people and groups winning by the existing rules and defending them; we must build up friendships and loving relationships so we are resilient enough to endure terrible things and recover after loss and trauma. In the process of all this change we can learn the skill of change itself; we are born as self-changing organisms but some parts of us have forgotten that.

We must make ourselves whole again, and we must do this with others, and in doing so, rebuild the next layer of change.

Rebuilding the small group layer means re-prioritising local experiences over solitary, or global, or anonymous ones. For some this will mean seeking out your tribe; those you can truly, deeply show your soul to. Maybe this means moving cities or countries. For some this means reawakening sleeping relationships and pouring intention, vulnerability and love into them to bring them alive again. For some this means standing up in a group and simply announcing your intention to build deep, long-lasting commitments to one another, and asking people to join you. The configuration will look different for each of us, but the important thing is that we don’t just build up a series of individual friendships, but create and strengthen groups that all rely on one another and that celebrate, mourn, practice and pray together. In some cases this will revitalising existing traditions and in others it will involve prototyping new ones that better suit the real people who want to be a part of them. We need to practice building connections, protecting a community’s boundaries, values and its weakest members, and creating and performing rituals that turn a group into a single unit. The original purpose of the first part of a Catholic mass was to turn a congregation of individuals into the body of Christ; one unified body; and we need to re-learn practices and traditions for doing this. We also need to get good at accomplishing things in these groups, but with the thoughtfulness, wide viewpoint and care that is so often missing from our modern work communities. This means re-viewing the structures of our small communities keeping in mind how human relationships differ in groups of 3-7, 8-30, and 30-150, as well as experimenting with different styles of group decision-making that can adapt to new contexts and viewpoints, and that express the values the group wants to have.

Building groups of people who value making human civilisation self-sustaining is the perfect (and perhaps only) way to make inroads into rebuilding the systems at the next level up – the country/industry/market level. Many runaway problems and structural fragilities that appear at this level are actually maintained and reinforced at the world system level, but some can be adequately addressed one country or industry at a time, particularly when one or two of these groups are responsible for an entire given problem, or are early adopters that other countries or industries might follow. At this level building a powerful enough group within a country or industry to influence the way it changes is a difficult but not insurmountable problem. Part of the challenge at this level is that many of us currently depend on the very systems we would seek to dismantle or transform, and we are rarely able to act against our own interests like that without the buffer of resources and social support, and the small group culture of self-awareness that allows us to catch our self-serving patterns (both as individuals and as small groups) when they arise. Transforming a country to become self-adapting requires building connections in government, creating policy, shaping public opinion through media, and building simulations and prototypes to try out and persuade those who exist in positions of power. It may also involve being strategic about which countries are even possible to influence in this way. Changing industries involves similar strategies but also directing public pressure, starting influential companies, and developing social and machine technologies that make it easier for industries to make changes of their own accord.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, part of my strategy in setting this plan out is in the hopes that we will be able to seed groups that diversify; it is not only a nice idea for us to have some communities working on policymaking and some working on starting companies; it is completely necessary if we are to act with the speed necessary to outpace major disasters like algorithmically-induced social collapse and runaway climate change. Human civilisation, as a ship, has a certain inbuilt turning speed right now for correcting course; what we are doing is building much smaller scout boats and tugboats that can understand where we are better and pull the big hulking megalith onto a better course much faster than it could on its own. Because of this, speed, timing, strength, some distance from the dominant cultural stories we grew up in and a certain amount of risk-taking are necessary to do anything useful at all.

It is hard to see how we might upgrade the world-system from where we are standing as individuals right now. Once we have had some experience changing countries and industries and have created collective intelligence tools that help us know how and what to change, we might have a better idea of how to do it. There are some parts of the world system we can access already, like the algorithms and moods of social media, the cultural narratives of Hollywood and the global stock market. We can certainly do disaster preparation without much influence, and when done on a large enough scale that is an important component of an adaptive world-system. Creating global paradigm shifts is probably possible by changing the minds of many key individuals and communities, but there is still much to understand about how this works and what we might need to change about it.

As the people we are right now, with our stubborn beliefs and our fears and dependencies, we need to be wary of any speculative potshots lest we simply change course, but to another wrong direction. We don’t want to crash the operating system. But if we thoroughly become the people, communities, nations, industries and markets that can self-transform and are no longer driven by dangerously simple metrics, then we might have a chance of not only getting the leverage to make change but even knowing what to do once we get there.

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Emotional waste collection: The care and feeding of relationship intimacy

I was asked recently on Twitter how to prevent the build-up of emotional blockages or waste in a relationship. I don’t do this perfectly, but in my primary relationship I do it consistently and man, has it allowed us to weather some heavy storms. A tutorial, as best I can.

First, an analogy:

Have you ever had myofascial release massage? The basic premise is that points of tension or soreness in your musculature are interconnected and have node points – places in your body where the tension or pain holds itself together and impacts parts of your body that seem unrelated. The massage therapist will search your body for trigger points, and then, upon finding one, press long and hard, but not to the point of overwhelming pain. Your job is to allow the muscles to relax under the pressure, and be present to the (often painful) sensations as they arise. Often addressing a single trigger point can unlock pain and tension in many disparate areas of the body.

And so it is with relationship tension. In any relationship, we build trust and belonging by asking for and expressing affection, attention and care. In relationship psychology they call the micro-expressions of these ‘bids’ and they happen dozens of times an hour when you’re with someone you care about. It’s worth reading John and Julie Gottman’s descriptions of bids within a relationship in the book ‘What Makes Love Last?’, to get a feel for what this looks like in your own life. Often you aren’t aware that you’re making them, seeing your partner make them, or accepting or rejecting your partner’s bids. Persistent problems that lead to incredible relationship tension often start with problems with bids, big or small.

What is a bid?

I sit on the bed next to my partner. I’m checking Slack for work, and he’s on Facebook, alternately messaging friends and clearing his email inbox (he multitasks way more contentedly than I do). He knows, based on experience and conversations we’ve had, that I prefer to work in focused chunks, interspersed with completely disconnected breaks. Nevertheless, he reaches out and rubs my leg soothingly, just to tell me he’s there. Depending on how focused my work is, I might move his hand (reject), ignore it (which can be a kind of rejection), or do something small like look down at his hand, rub his hand with mine, or look up at him, smile and make eye contact. Any of these last things is accepting the bid, and having enough bids accepted as opposed to rejected is important for feeling safe in a relationship. Rejecting any individual bid isn’t bad, particularly if you both learn over time what kinds of bids are wanted at what times. It’s when bids are persistently mismatched, you don’t realise your bids are being rejected, or you are afraid to make bids that problems build up.

Each of us, growing up had certain kinds of bids accepted and certain kinds rejected. We built up a set of expectations of what we could expect in love. In many cases, we learned that we need to accept never having whole classes of bids accepted, or that in order to get love we need to ignore bids and rejections and just take what we want from the other person. Often you will find yourself building a relationship with someone whose patterns of bids and responses matches that of your parents or some formative person like your first love. You may find yourself in an insecurely attached relationship, in which case you will tend to find that emotional gunk (patterns of misaligned bids) builds up very quickly over time and tends to form the same way every time. One of you always wanting more, one always giving less.

How you relate to having your bids accepted and rejected is important too. Based on your history of loving relationships, you could find that you are hyper-vigilant to being rejected or smothered. If someone accepts too many of your bids you might get scared or bored or annoyed and want them to stop giving you what you want so often. If someone rejects even a few bids you might immediately assume they hate you and are planning to leave. Go check out attachment theory.

But emotional build-up doesn’t always have to happen because of deep-rooted patterns (although they always contribute somehow). It can sometimes happen simply because of mismatched attention, or confusion, or hard things happening in non-relationship life. What do I even mean by emotional build up? This essay gives a good description of what a lot of emotional buildup can look like, but it can look quite subtle as well.

You get bored with your partner. You don’t want to spend time with them. You have fears and anxieties about them that you are too scared to share with them. One (or both) of you don’t want sex, or the sex feels lifeless and mundane. Yes, we ‘get used’ to our partners after spending years with them, but these things can be signs that you are upset in some way and are worried about it. Particularly ominous are the Gottmans’ Four Horsemen:

* Criticism
* Contempt
* Defensiveness
* Stonewalling

If you notice any of these in your relationship (either from you, or your partner) – THIS IS A BIG DEAL. Relationships are like gardens; they benefit from frequent, careful weeding, and regularly sowing new things. Any of the above four means you have a huge weed infestation and you need to deal with it NOW.

So, what does an ’emotional composting’ session look like?

First, the setting. It is important that both of you have the intention to care for the relationship at the time, and that you don’t feel distracted by other priorities or rushed to finish. Some people schedule ‘quality time’ for this reason, but I find that building a collaborative orientation towards growth and stewarding the relationship works too, and lets you do this as things come up. Either strategy might work for you. It’s important that both of you feel safe (at least from anything outside the relationship).

It is useful to sync up and share what you have experienced lately and what you are feeling right now at the start, so you both know what the other is dealing with (in hippy-speak: this is ‘checking-in’). Check that your body language and their seems open and warm – turned towards the other, sharing frequent eye contact, relaxed posture. If you don’t, check in with your body and find out what is going on. If they don’t, then gently ask them if there is something in the way of them feeling relaxed. You may not both get to completely relaxed but it’s good to try this first.

You or they may have something that has been bothering you, in which case, you can bring up the thing that is at the top of your mind. If you can’t work out what might be wrong for you, but you don’t feel relaxed, open and loving, check in with your body and see if you can work out what you are experiencing. Practicing Focusing is good for learning how to do this. You may need to take turns, or you can devote the entirety of a session to one person, but the aim is for both of you to feel good and connected by the end – don’t race to simply get all your own venting out at their expense. This is not a time for your partner (or you) to become a punching bag.

So, you’ve chosen a problem. Next you need to tell them about the problem. You may find it helpful to practice Non-Violent Communication, or some other formal paradigm for expressing yourself without hurting others. In my experience, many intellectual people have a hard time connecting to their emotions, so asking your partner to help you continually come back to your emotional experience and not get stuck in your head can be good. Remember, the aim is not to use your reason to solve these problems. Your aim is to show how you hurt, have this person you love see that and accept that hurt, and, if there is broken trust, start to work out how to trust each other again. This is often way more physical than we expect it to be. Whether you are touching, making eye contact, facing towards each other, mirroring each others’ emotions; all of these things make a big difference in how much you feel ‘seen’.

Some problems may not be about the relationship. If your mother is dying, this will still stress your relationship and make it harder to give and accept bids and it has nothing to do with how your partner behaves. In this case, part of what you might need to hear is acceptance for maybe not behaving perfectly, empathy for your pain, and love even while you aren’t able to be perfectly loving all the time.

Sometimes, however, the problem is between the two of you, and here it can take some practice. ‘Having arguments’ is a skill, which is fundamentally the art of resolving your disparate views of the world and forgiving each other for the hurt you may have incurred on the way to that resolution. Many opinions never get resolved, and that’s fine; it just means you will continually need to weed this part of the garden.

If you are the listener, and you can see that your partner is showing you something vulnerable, remember to hold that gently. It is a gift for them to show you something so raw and intimate, even if it hurts to hear because what is raw is anger or pain that you have caused. If the problem is big or overwhelming, you may find yourself (or they might find themselves) slipping out of sovereignty – unable to thoughtfully navigate your actions and experience to make sure you aren’t lashing out and acting from an intention to wound. If this is the case, your relationship may benefit from agreements about taking time out – so you can move away, experience emotions you may not yet feel safe to show them, or control emotions that are overwhelming you. Depending on your respective emotional skill, you may need to use these kinds of tools incessantly, and that is totally ok.

You may come across the opposite problem, which is a lack of emotion about things that should be highly emotional, and in this case there are skills you can practice (check out The Body Keeps the Score and again, Focusing) but in this case intimate partners can actually be wonderful, for noticing and showing you lovingly the moment when you tend to shut down in these conversations.

Your collective stamina, and your collective backlog, will determine how much of this work you can do at any one time and over any time period. If either of you needs to stop, you should stop, and if either of you needs to add something to the backlog, you add it to the backlog.

Yes, you may have noticed that these lists get long. Over time, you can get to a point where both of you have the stamina and willingness that you can process issues as they come up, but it’s ok too to not be there yet. The important thing is to keep coming back to it.

Some practical notes: Don’t try and do this over a nice dinner out. Ideally, no one else should be around, or at least no one you feel uncomfortable bearing your soul to. If you don’t feel comfortable taking your clothes off it may not be private enough for this kind of conversation

Lastly, what might come of this? Often, in a period of extensive, thoughtful, patient sharing, listening and responding, one or both of you will experience a breakthrough. You may realise a reason something felt so painful, or feel the urge to forgive them, or feel the urge to change some behaviour you previously didn’t care about. Feel is the operative word here – breakthroughs of this kind are fundamentally emotional things. I have ended many a session like this holding my partner in my arms with both of us crying. Sometimes, actionable things will come out of it (changing a plan that was thoughtlessly scheduled, sending a message to organise something forgotten), but sometimes just knowing that your partner didn’t intend to hurt you and still loves you makes the hurt dissolve. The dissolution may be smaller and less explosive, but the distinctive shift you are looking for is from a feeling of separateness to a feeling of unity – you should feel closer to them at the end than the beginning.

It is a very good sign if you both want to make love (not fuck) immediately afterwards.

What is this for?

Put simply, a committed relationship is a connection of love, trust and intimacy between two or more people. Between our emotional patterns from childhood, our other priorities, and stressors in our lives, there are many ways in which we can inadvertently hurt our partners that inevitably build up over time. Deeply connected conversations that involve seeing your partners’ pain, accepting it, and giving and receiving forgiveness are the ‘gutter-cleaning’ of our emotional lives. The better you and your partner can get at them, the easier it will be to avoid a pileup of emotional issues that stop you from feeling connected to each other. When avoided or done wrong we end up with piles of hurt and resentment that we are unwilling to share, and we start hating or feeling indifferent to our partner; like trigger point massage, patient, loving attention can start to break up tensions and heal hurts that may have separated you two and help the relationship weather myriad crises.

Spoiler alert: this is great for any relationship, as long as all parties want it!

Leaving our bodies behind

‘Oh, yeah, I used to run a circus.’

Generally, introductory smalltalk conversations with me take an abrupt turn at this point.

My life looks much less weird on the outside than it used to, but the past still creeps in and weirds the place up sometimes (this and the bodypainter thing are a big part of that). This bit about my previous life as a circus director is normally followed by jokes about running away from the circus, and I normally gloss over the running away part by jumping into how I got into working in tech (which seems like a weird leap to most people). But the part I’m glossing over (the running away from the circus part) is a several-months long saga that has partially built who I am today. There were practical considerations, to do with relationships within the company, and money, and family obligations, but the real, hulking reason I shut the circus down was a blaring existential crisis.

(I had one of those a year, every year, like clockwork, for a while. Highly recommend it.)

At the time I was running a fairly successful, if esoteric, independent touring circus show. Directing, writing, performing, and running the production company with my business partner. At the same time, I had found Effective Altruism(TM) and finished a degree in economics and was chomping at the bit to Have An Impact On the World. These two endeavours (Having An Impact and running a circus) seemed pretty fucking incompatible. This paradox is what led me to a miserable mid-tour breakdown where I basically just ate, slept, and performed, and was a psychological zombie to everyone (except the Swedish magician I picked up at the artists’ bar and proceeded to have a weeklong fling with).

Hearing ‘Oh, it must be so wonderful to be able to follow your passion!’ from strangers at the artists’ bar felt excruciating.

Creating a live production is very much a physical endeavour. You make things with your hands; people move their bodies; you put physical bodies in a specific physical space in realtime. And in this respect it is both very alive and very limited. You can only fit so many people in a theatre before they can’t see the stage, or their experience of the show is so crappy they may as well have watched it on a smartphone.

And you are only impacting them so much. I interned with a famous circus director in Brisbane once, and on a rare chance I had to have a 1-on-1 conversation with him over lunch, I asked what was, for me, my burning question at the time:

‘Do you ever stop loving circus? And what do you do when that happens?’

(Me hoping he would spout sage platitudes about the inherent meaningfulness of physical art.)

‘Well, you have to be realistic. You are gonna pour your heart and soul into a show for months, and the acrobats will sweat blood over it. And then the audience will come in and be entertained for two hours, and then leave. You just don’t affect their lives that much. You have to really love the craft, otherwise there is no point.’

(At this point I should have done the sensible thing and not subsequently started a career as a circus director, but I apparently took four years to get that memo.)

I remember bodypainting acrobats for four hours every night, having them destroy the bodypaint as part of the show, and then showing up the next evening to paint the same thing again. Like the archetypal Soviet worker stacking and unstacking boxes for no reason other than employment, I felt the nihilism seeping in through my pores. I not only didn’t love the craft, I was in a borderline abusive relationship with the craft and it kept trying to convince me to stay. What even was the point?

Months of depression, several breakthroughs and a move to a new city and a new industry later, I found the point.

Surprising no one, meaningfulness has predictable characteristics. Something will be more meaningful to you, all else being equal, if it has more impact – affects more people, more strongly, for a longer period of time. All of the limits I found with circus (artistic form, time limit, scale of the production versus effort) evaporated when I started writing and making software. Meaning, but scalable! My sense of meaning and purpose did go up, and predictably so.

Working on improving the way humans collaborate has always felt more meaningful than working out how to entertain an audience with essentially a live performance Avatar-knock-off. Every part of my soul feels more aligned in the direction I am heading now.

Except one. And it’s a pretty important one.

My body has been left behind.

All of the activities I consider the most meaningful, impactful, and contributing require sitting or standing looking at a 15 inch glowing screen and typing on a keyboard. I’m not even that good at typing, and my posture is terribly un-ergonomic, but leaving those factors aside, there’s just not much demanded of my body when working on a computer. Other meaningful activities include emotional and spiritual practices (which use my body slightly), sex (which uses my body quite a bit), and things like networking and public speaking (which use it, but demand barely anything at all). Engaging in meaning-making or meaningful activities feels like it pushes my soul and mind to their limits, and leaves my body agitated like a dog kept inside on a rainy day. And as hard as I try, I can’t incorporate it into my conception of meaningful action without playing some funky mental jiujitsu and making myself believe something that feels useless and untrue.

This has manifested itself most strongly when thinking about the idea of ‘exercise’. Exercise is the systematisation of movement into a predictable input for specific abstract end goals. The actual movements aren’t meaningful; their specificity just doesn’t matter that much. Unless you’re particularly oriented around competing in zero-sum competitions of physical aesthetics, you generally just need to find something to do to keep your body healthy.

Yes, I should get some ‘exercise’. But what? I cycle most places, which is some exercise, but in the city it challenges my traffic navigation and self-preservation abilities more than my muscles. It’s the bare minimum. I picked up jiu-jitsu and boxing for a year in the hope that learning to defend myself would feel meaningful, but if I were to honestly assess physical self-defense in a hierarchy of meaningness it would not rate highly at all. I tried rockclimbing (for socialising with all the friends who enjoy it), hiking (for communing with nature), and aerial silks (for doing something I’m good at, and creating beauty). Entering competitions of arbitrary physical prowess is fun, but no one competition is intrinsically more meaningful than any other, really. And none of these would realistically rate in power or importance against activities like coding, writing, organising events or meditating in terms of meaningfulness bang for their buck.

I believe this is a symptom of a wider societal meaning-body dilemma. As our social imaginaries get expanded, and we concern ourselves as individuals with nation states, cultures, markets, and giant forces that we believe we can have some influence over during the course of our lives, on the human level we contract away from the embodied intelligence of engaging directly with our environment, and into a much more limited-bandwidth sphere dominated by the thinking mind. And the body is left out.

I have been in a long-distance relationship with my partner ever since I moved away from my hometown, and after a recent trip home one of the things we noticed was how low resolution modern communication methods are. Even in video calling, the highest resolution mechanism available, we still miss out on the temperature of their bodies, feeling subtle movements like shakes and a sharp intake of breath. You can’t communicate using relative stance, or full body posture, or use your sense of smell. Bodies aren’t well-served in this information economy – they’re used mostly as vehicles for brains.

It seems like with every type of abstraction, there is this trade-off of resolution for abstraction, and in modern abstractions, at least in this moment in history, the body is losing out. If your sense of meaning is connected with society- or humanity- level abstractions, unless you have a very niche profession like a performer or an online physical coach, you cannot challenge your body in the process of meaning-making in the same way you can challenge your mind or your soul. In the same way that womens’ work has been less valued in part because it is less scalable, manual labour of all kinds is devalued because of its limited reach.

And this leads to the absurd commodification of physical challenge, to things like Tough Mudders, as you pay a company a lot of money to make you suffer and create a body-level hero’s journey for you. Apart from perhaps the military or performing arts, no other modern or post-modern institution creates this for you. Why climb a mountain? No one else cares if you do, so you develop absurd tautological reasons like ‘to inspire others’ and ‘to push myself’. It may be practicing the values and character traits that allow you to succeed in ‘real life’, but it isn’t real life, it’s just a simulacrum.

I wish I had a better answer to this dilemma. I’m unwilling to give up the scaleability of the way I make meaning. So prosthetic physical meaningfulness (like the made-up meaning of Tough Mudders) seems like the next best solution right now.

Still, it feels hollow.

Acceptance as a superpower

I suspect that when people get older, they become creatures of habit, and my Dad is no different. Since moving to a town near the ocean he has developed a daily morning habit. Every morning, he puts on his towelette poncho and sandals and trundles down to the ocean baths in front of his house. He gets in, swims a few laps, says hello to the same three other guys who swim at exactly the same time he does ever day, gets out, walks home, and has breakfast with his wife.

When I’m staying with him I try to join him, more as an exercise in sensation tolerance than anything. Because at 6:30 in the morning, the Pacific Ocean is fucking cold.

There are a few ways you could approach getting into the water. The first is to jump in, shiver, and refuse to pay attention to the sensation until it becomes reasonable enough to handle (or you realise you’re never going to be able to feel your feet). This is my Dad’s preferred option, and more power to him; he certainly gets in the water faster, and he’s generally swum a few laps before I’ve even been able to dock my head under.

But my approach is different. I use entering the water each morning as an opportunity to practice my approach to extreme discomfort. And because of this, I don’t want to be shut off from sensation. I want to dial it up as much as possible.

When I enter the water I do so very slowly, and I bring my attention to my feet as I wade down the steps. My instinct is to tense up and push the feeling away; to distract myself. The game is to relax into that feeling; the feeling of extreme discomfort. As I take each step I get another opportunity to face the icy pain of the cold water, the muscle twitches, and the ripples of the felt-sense of suffering.

Practicing not flinching away turns acceptance into a superpower.

In western cultures, so many of our social problems come from an unwillingness to touch our emotional responses directly. We have been conditioned (and have conditioned ourselves) to hide emotional responses away for fear of them having an impact on others. The stereotype of this, the avoidant-attached type, infests social environments in the Bay Area and so many other cities. Everyone buzzes around flinching away from their own emotions and everyone else’s.

And yet, having an impact on others is precisely what emotions are for. So why don’t we trust them enough to let them speak?

A friend asked me what my favourite tools were for addressing conflict, and I realised that by far my most powerful strategies had to do with the same kind of acceptance of discomfort I had been developing in the ocean baths at 6:30am. Mediating conflict requires first seeing it.

And being able to fully feel your emotions requires not running away from them.

Over the last few years I’ve been developing the following personal growth heuristic – Do what scares me. And not in the cutesy ‘go pet a spider’ way, but finding growth areas by systematically inventorying my fears, and then devising and enabling situations in which I can run headlong into them.

I would find the people who annoyed me, and deliberately spend time with them. They were likely a reflection of my shadow self, as what I despised in others was truly a reflection of what I hated about myself. I sought out situations where I had to adopt the kind of mundane normality I was afraid of – working in an office, researching health insurance, having people rely on me.

But this heuristic turned into a powerful compass direction when turned towards my emotional reactions. First while journalling, then while doing a somatic meditation practice, then in arguments with people I trusted, then finally in all high-stakes situations. I would tune into the experience of fear and investigate the feelings hidden behind it even more, much to the chagrin of the part of me that was doing the deflecting.

Everyone has their own menagerie of emotional defense mechanisms. Some of mine: bragging or demonstrating my knowledge of something, making the other person seem unreasonable, shutting down and becoming small and quiet, and occasionally, falling asleep.

Learning what these were, what it looked like when my personality was trying to protect itself from pain or attack, gave me a cheat sheet for finding the things I was afraid of. Suddenly become sleepy in the middle of a tense conversation? Whatever you were talking about just before the sleepiness – time to poke at that!

It has become a game to notice the defensive shells the moment they arise, and before they harden, in an attempt to tunnel underneath them into the squishy bits.

Recently I spent nine months without seeing my partner. When I finally returned to his city, I felt cold, and distant, and wanting him to go away all the time. There’s one way of looking at this that would see this as a sign that the relationship was over. I saw this as a sign that something was wrong, but that I didn’t yet know what it was.

For the first two weeks I was with him again, I did nothing except commit to being open to what I was experiencing, and refuse to let myself do something I didn’t want to because I thought it would make things less awkward. No papering over feelings with politeness, white lies, or people-pleasing – doing what he wanted at the expense of what I wanted. But also, no running away, ‘cutting people out of my life’ that don’t serve me, or trying to figure everything out alone.

And man, were things awkward.

I looked at his face and it seemed old and grey. Everything he did irritated me. I didn’t like the way he smelled. All of this was new and weird, and instead of moving away or ignoring the feelings, I simply experienced them again and again and accepted them the same way I accepted the pain of the cold water in the ocean baths. And, as I explained what I was choosing to do and why, something happened that I’m eternally grateful for – he did too.

And slowly, the feelings started to tumble out. The anger, that he hadn’t come to see me when he promised to visit. Even though my logical brain knew he was being reasonable; even though at the time I had agreed to the plan because I knew how important it was that he stay home for his work. The resentment that we had let some many niggling problems build up and yet on Skype papered them over with smalltalk. Many of the feelings I felt were things I felt I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to feel – and yet the person forbidding them; suppressing them, was myself.

As each previously closed-off emotion tumbled out, and as I accepted it like icy shooting pains in cold water, I found my perceptions literally change in front of me. The most striking change happened in such a short time it blew my mind. Over the course of less than half an hour, I released months of pent up resentment about the abandoned trip, and he accepted it, adding his own sorrow and fear. And in a few minutes I watched my physical senses change.

Smells suddenly became sweet. His mouth, which had seemed crooked and jagged, suddenly seemed warm and inviting and I wanted to kiss him for the first time. His face seemed a decade younger, and much healthier than it had just minutes before.

In each moment, I had a set of choices. If I felt an emotional defense arise, I could let it overtake me, I could rebel against it, or I could renew my desire for connection and openness and trust that the shell would fall away. And when I felt an emotion I was scared of, I could let the fear carry me away to somewhere safer, or I could, with his safe and open support, open it up and unravel the knots of sensation inside. It felt a lot like I imagine an exorcism might. Many times I felt myself grow silent, only to feel into it deeper and discover a new layer of pain.

Eventually, after weeks, it all shook out, and I was left with openness, presence, and love. So much love and gratitude for the soul who had come with me, scared as he was at the time.

This process changed him irrevocably too, and a handful of defense mechanisms that were previously fundamental to his identity became permanently loosened and dropped away. It didn’t create a personality change overnight, but it was abrupt enough that others noticed, and from that seed of defenselessness he uncovered with me, he was able to let his new, unadorned self grow.

Over the space of a few weeks we dropped into a relationship that was so much deeper than it had ever been previously, backed by deeply entwined layers of mutual trust. And we’ve stayed there, even through more time apart and some hardcore external challenges. We know, at a gut instinct level, that we have the capacity to heal even very deep rifts – because each chance to practice gives us further evidence it’s possible.

Having been recently through this destructive metamorphosis, I now have a keen eye for the flinching defenses of others. I see where one person’s shell butts up against another person’s, and it pains me to watch conflicts unfold that are created entirely by the combatants’ respective mechatronic selves. When you are able to be truly present with your emotions, your feelings and lived experience in the moment with someone, and they are able to be present to theirs with you, you cannot be in stupid conflict with them. Even yelling at them in anger is done with extreme compassion.

This takes more than just acceptance and the courage to run towards fears; it also takes trust, and ideally trust that is earned. It’s misguided to try and build this kind of connection with everyone. It is definitely worth building with yourself. It is probably worth seeking out people who you trust enough to build it with. But it is possible, it is glorious, and it is oh so worth trying to build.

Even just once.

Crazy mad love

Have you ever fallen for two people at the same time?
No, scratch that, have you ever fallen for someone?
Falling in love feels very much like an addiction. All the physiological signs are there – obsessive, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, extreme highs and lows of mood in relation to the object of your affections. You might have boundless energy to direct not just at the object of your affection, but at anyone.
Picture a wave, a force moving just under the surface of the ocean. It gathers momentum as this cluster of water molecules rolls through other, less excited water molecules. And then another wave, at a right angle, on a collision course with the first.
I am both of those waves at once.
It can be wonderfully engaging to watch your mind be alive like this – like watching a monkey engage with other monkeys at the zoo, or a seal play with some specialised aquatic mammal toy. There’s something brilliant and beautiful about watching something in the process of living, however chaotic. It’s hard to see chaos as suffering when it’s in the context of a broader canvas of life.
Once I watched for an hour as a blind otter and his partner waited ecstatically for their daily fish. Once it arrived, the seeing otter took both fish and hid one beneath her paws while eating the other. Meanwhile the blind otter was going insane trying to work out where his fish went. Eventually the gig was up and she gave him his rightful prize. I wonder whether she does this every day, the bitch. But watching this whole saga unfold it was hard to overlay some trite human sense of morality on it; they were just engaging in the play of life.
Observing the inside of my brain in chaos is a little like that. The little different sub-agents play and crash into each other; jumping, overtaking, steamrolling. I had wondered how the ‘feelings for person 1’ and ‘feelings for person 2’ trains would interact. It appears they can dance with each other without one attempting to submit the other.
There’s a lot of muck-raking to be done when you’re first starting out being a person in close relationship with other persons. I think 90% of it is tending to your own neuroses, at least until the point where the answer to ‘and in what ways are you mad?’ doesn’t make you hate yourself. For me it took years of reading, journaling, doing personal growth exercises and pinning down willing friends to talk out traumatic experiences and pain points with, but I’m now at the point where I feel like I’ve tipped from ‘mostly dysfunctional’ to ‘mostly healthy’. Some growth probably just came from having more data points, but plenty of people rack up the data points and don’t accumulate the associated wisdom, so I feel proud of the work that has been done thus far.
A big part of ‘making yourself healthy’ is unlearning patterns that led you to have skewed beliefs about what kinds of partners you would like, and healing trauma and attachment issues that lead you to consistently fall for people whose crazy doesn’t mix well with your crazy in some fundamental way. Here’s when you learn that you’re dismissive avoidant, and dig into where it might have come from, and slowly and safely practice the kind of vulnerability that might eventually turn into deep intimacy so that when you try that again on humans in high-stakes situations you have the tools to remain open rather than shut down and run away.
Incidentally, many dismissive or anxious attached people ‘know’ their attachment style is whacked, in the same way that your uncle ‘knows’ he drinks too much but won’t deeply acknowledge it or do anything about it. That trait of yours that you joke about, that you make fun of, that you ironically warn people away from? No really, look at it, deeply, preferably in the safe embrace of someone who cares about you as unconditionally as possible. That reason, the same reason all your previous relationships have failed, the reason that’s almost a punchline now? That’s it. That’s where the real work, the real juice lies.
Building trust and intimacy with people who have fixed their shit, in the exact places where they fixed it is one of the sexiest things ever. That guy who used to be afraid of intimacy, who can talk about it, and how he overcame it, and tell a mournful but meaningful story about the girl he lost that drove the need for change home to him? And moreover, who demonstrates with every action that he has overcome the barrier he used to have? Sexy as fuck.
Another one of the main structural beams is confidence. Confidence isn’t linear – it’s your brain’s best guess at a prediction about how an interaction between you and your environment is likely to go. Sometimes the prediction mechanism is faulty (commonly broken by parents or early lovers); sometimes it is accurate but keeps screaming that you don’t have enough *whatever* to engage with your environment right now. Fixing the things the confidence are about is straightforward but hard fucking work, but often our brains build little specialised blinders to protect said insecurities and keep moving them around so we have no idea what is wrong with us even as our friends are yelling about it in our faces. Any way you can slip under or trick those blinders is useful. Some useful tools: fiction, anything intensely relaxing like hypnosis, certain drugs and certain types of meditation. This one I’m still stuck on, because when helping friends poke at their own blindspots I feel like I’m often just poking them in a way that hurts and they still have no idea where the blindspot is. Use caution.
Your pattern recognition abilities are your friends here, particularly over long periods of time. Every girlfriend you’ve ever had has betrayed you? Great, you have a clear problem to work on. Never feel like you’re good enough for your partner? Another clear formulation for you. Each of these problems is best approached individually, and I find a toolbox approach works best – just be a packrat and accumulate tools from basically any psychological theory or framework that seems useful. Grab when needed.
The upside of this work can be felt, not only within a long-term romantic relationship, but within every relationship with everyone you encounter. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used a framework I’ve learned on some problem with a colleague or community group and had to be bashful about the fact that the framework came from BDSM. Still worked though, even if no-one knew its provenance. But the advantage is huge – once you are able to relate openly, with well-backed confidence, with appropriate levels of vulnerability, connected to well-calibrated intuition and a sense of your values and meaningfulness – once all those pieces are in place, the quality of every single relationship, platonic, professional and romantic, skyrockets.
I’m currently on some sort of ship on a rocky and chaotic sea. Falling for someone is intense and unpredictable at the best of times; falling for two people is like playing two improvisational symphonies at once and hoping they line up somehow. But experiencing that, with the trust that the self that is experiencing it has healthy boundaries, intuition, competence and connection to values is exquisite and to me is the pinnacle of lived experience. Being healthy in relation to others and your self is extraordinary and well-worth fighting for. Some of the work is even fun to do.
But you know, I’m in love, so take what I say with a grain or two of salt.

Attunement

When we’re together, dropped deeply into our bodies, we fall into a subtle dance of call-and-response.

I look into his eyes, acknowledging the tiny flicker of fear that wants me to break his gaze. I see the flicker of something in his eyes – connection, desire, want, vulnerability. That flicker sets off a microexpression of wanting in my eyes, and it bounces back and forth across the invisible net that is the short distance between us. He touches me, the lightest of touches on my arm, but deliberately – he is watching, and waiting carefully but lightly for a response. There’s a shiver, and the tiniest wordless moan. That moan sends a shiver back up his spine, and his face flashes with pleasure. Neither of us break eye contact. Seeing his face makes me moan, harder.

If someone wanted to prevent me from ever being productive, they could just stick me in a room with this man in this feedback loop where my pleasure makes his eyes flash with pleasure, which makes my eyes flash with pleasure, which makes his eyes flash with…

There’s an idea that I’ve been thinking about that seems to be at the core of a lot of the interpersonal problems bouncing around in my life lately. It’s the idea that the depth of your relationship with someone can be approximated by the frequency and sensitivity of what I’ll refer to as ‘attunement’. To attune to something is to listen for its pitch, its expression, and match it, to drop into a vibration that has exactly the same rhythm. Co-attunement could be seen as the process by which two individuals, with their own rhythms and moods, drop into listening to and responding to one another, with at times such subtle sensitivity that it might seem like they become one organism.

Ever heard a woman complain that her partner never listens to her, or heard a man complain that his partner wants him to read her mind? What they’re reflecting, respectively, is a desire for more, and a frustration with the demands of, co-attunement.

Attunement goes hand in hand with vulnerability. You could even go so far as to say attunement plus vulnerability is what intimacy IS, what it at its core is made from. When we talk about getting ‘quality time’ with someone what we are referring to is time and space for co-attunement – to renew the process of becoming one organism intertwined by feedback loops. This is why someone can give you their time, yet not be paying close attention, and it isn’t enough. It doesn’t feel like enough, on a gut level. You aren’t getting into their pores, and they aren’t seeing into your soul. You end the time as separate as when you started.

How does attuning expose vulnerability? Expert attunement requires deep, comprehensive honesty with yourself about the experience of being you, even before you try to attune with another person. If someone asks you ‘how was your day?’ (often a code-phrase for ‘please attune with me’ in intimate partnerships) how can you give an answer, in a way that lets your partner react authentically and spontaneously to the expression of you-ness in it, if you can’t feel into the answer yourself?

With many such questions there is a fork in the road – one way is marked by upbeat generalisations, platitudes, and leaves both parties feeling vaguely like the question was a waste of time. The other is often marked by a pause, a moment to experience being you,so that you can funnel that feeling into sounds and gestures – into embodiment. It comes with a risk – a risk that when you open yourself to them they will not have the compassion to receive it. When people experience blankness, generalisations, or automatic gestures – anything that indicates a lack of open attention and responsiveness – in response, they learn not to give such vulnerable answers next time.

Habitual interactions become smalltalk through fear and closed-heartedness, and can be rescued from that forlorn state by a stubborn, courageous willingness to accept the other in front of you as is, and offer yourself openly in return.

This little model has allowed me to pinpoint why certain types of people make me feel so uncomfortable, or tired, or smothered. For some people (often those we’d describe as pushy or manipulative) the process of attunement is more like a race, where at best, you convince the other person to attune completely to your wants, and at worst, you have to force them to.

The most common mismatch I see looks like this:

One person makes bids, or requests for interaction. In the back of their minds, they are afraid of getting a negative response, which is a real possibility if they were to actually leave space for the other person to meet them in responsiveness. (The other person could decide not to! That’s scary!). In order to avoid this feared rejection, they, alone, do all of the work; they cover all of the ground between themselves and the other person in order to establish the intimacy they’re seeking. That way they know it will happen!

The result, though, is that this poor pushy person has no idea whether or not the other person actually wants to escalate things with them. And how would they? They just did the physical equivalent of never letting the other person get a word in edgewise! Regardless of how interested you are in what someone is saying, if someone never lets you get a word in you might feel quite frustrated with their lack of tact; in part because you don’t get a chance to play. You have moved from being a co-creator to being acted upon.

This pushy person might want to try to notice whether he is really, truly and openly leaving enough space for the other person to react at whatever pace she feels comfortable. It might be the case that, by ‘taking the lead’, or ‘setting the pace’, he is denying her the chance to drop in to her body and let it attune to him, because of fear that that would lead away from an outcome he is attached to.

Attaching to future outcomes seems to be much of where failures of attunement come from. The other part seems to come from either beliefs, a mismatch in relationship desires, or occasionally, social or sensory processing issues that stop someone from either seeing or interpreting the sense data in front of them.

When you expect something, your brain will scramble to rearrange the information in front of you so that you only see certain things. Things that help you get a yes/no answer to the question of ‘Will the event I anticipate happen?’.

Will you kiss her? If that’s what you’re thinking about, then you’re more likely to miss the signals that she’s cold, or tired, or wants to be held first, or wants someone to listen to her talk about her day. When both people are failing to attune because they’re worried about what the other person thinks of them, it becomes like that parable about the gift of the Magi. Because they are trying to force how they present themselves in reality to match what their head thinks the other person wants, each person’s attention misses the subtle, present-moment signals that are telling them exactly what they want.

There are other ways failures of attunement can happen – when someone is afraid of intimacy rather than rejection, or when they’re afraid of neither but aren’t good enough at sensing emotions, body language, and subtext to react accordingly in the moment. When I was younger, the thing blocking my ability to attune was knee-jerk attachment avoidance; a habit of protecting my intimate, vulnerable self from being exposed to others at the expense of building mutual loving connections with people I cared deeply about. This manifested as:

  • Feeling like everyone in the world was boring, feeling intellectually superior to everyone and losing interest in people quickly
  • Only falling for people who were emotionally, romantically or geographically unavailable
  • Falling out of love when someone showed intense feelings for me
  • Trying to resolve conflicts with others in my head instead of, you know, out in the world with them, to avoid expressing how hurt I was
  • Retreating emotionally and physically when I felt hurt by someone, rather than expressing my feelings to them (particularly when angry)
  • Using fantasy to substitute for connections with people in real life

Trying to attune with real life people while having these kinds of habits feels like playing whack-a-mole with constant subconscious attempts to dodge intimacy. Emotional blindspots everywhere! I have seen myself and other avoidant people literally get hit with an irrepressible urge to fall asleep when the need to open up arises. Having lived in this mode, I now often pick it up in others, even subtly. Learning about avoidant attachment styles helped, as did processing old traumas and introspecting on patterns as and when they showed up. Slowly, as I did this work, some of the walls started to fall down. Some are probably still up, and I rely on those closest to me to point them out.

I don’t have much to say right now on the failures that arise from a lack of sensing ability, other than – GO. TRY. MEDITATION. Pretty much everyone could benefit from improving their ability to notice and experience reality as it is.

How can we learn to attune better?

The Tolstoy quote ‘happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way’ has continually come up when I’ve been thinking about personal and societal development. Expert attuners all probably have a similar set of foundational beliefs – they believe that they are deserving of love, that love is abundant; that it is okay to both assert your identity, your separateness, and connect deeply and wholly with another. They also probably have a similar set of skills – an ability to feel, whether consciously or subconsciously, the feelings and physical sensations that are going on in their bodies, and accept them as they are; an ability to slow down, and pay exquisite attention to the intricacies of social reality; an ability to find and get to know the kinds of people they feel good about attuning with.

What you need to do to grow is entirely dependent on what is blocking your growth. Someone skilled at untangling knots of human emotions, with a varied toolbox of techniques and processes, would be able to help you pinpoint the right strategies and fix it. But in basically every case, the cliche ‘first you must admit you have a problem’ applies. Very few ways of approaching attunement practice will work without an attitude of openness, even to fear.

My hope is that by framing intimacy and interpersonal power through the lens of attunement, we can start to shift conversations about relationships (like the ones playing out in Bay Area communities around consent, and in poly communities around relationship anarchy) from something that is defined by ideology and rulesets, to something different – something that recognises individual relationships as unique living things, and focuses on what they need to flourish.

Dancing with the Gods

What do we mean when we think of society as an ‘agent’? Or a state, or a culture, or any group of humans and human social forces?

We often think about the figurehead – the President is the country, the CEO is the company.
We might think of an emergent agentiness that exhibits some intelligence, like a swarm or a flock.
We might think of a structure of interrelated actors and phenomena, like a hive, an org chart, or a team.

We can’t conceptualise all 8 billion humans, and their contexts, and their relationships, and the structures they’ve built to manage their relationships, and the relationships between those structures, and the relationships between the structures and the people in them. Every conceptualisation, every simplification brings with it a set of attack vectors – if you want to destroy a group you destroy its symbols, the things it identifies as itself.

Each group also contributes norms and values that seep down into the wider cultural substrate and change it slightly, so that the context is slightly different all the time. CEOs as figureheads are vulnerable, but we somehow worked out a mostly-functional norm of not assassinating people and magically most people adhere to it. We haven’t gotten to the norm of not character-assassinating people but one could imagine it emerging slowly over time, as high-status people refrain from doing it and thus it becomes low-status.

We don’t have a good narrative handle for what it means to be a part of ‘humanity’, ‘the world’ or ‘the planet’ right now. Even within the terms themselves we see their ideologies shine through – humanity as opposed to animalism, the world as opposed to the non-materialist phenomena that we engage with, the planet as a passive victim of our atrocities to be saved.

How can we, as individual humans with brains designed to interact with agents that are mostly human-scale, even begin to conceptualise something as immense as the entire population of the planet, human and non-human, and the plant and physical environments the population is embedded in? We can’t think of a group of agents – it’s far too big for that. We can barely think of groups of agents, because humans don’t belong to only one group and the groups keep changing. We’ve taken to think in terms of ideologies – Blue, Red, religious, atheist, feminist, alt-right, and in doing so defined people and the world in terms of their rather arbitrary stances on complex social phenomena that change from context to context. That doesn’t seem to be working so well either.

Maybe it’s time to bring back the gods. Not the one big Abrahamic theist one, but the animist complex emergent phenomena that cannot be fully explained inductively. We are not them, but they are a part of us. And yes, the demons of ‘climate change’, ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘nuclear annihilation’ are a start, but they are generally only outside of ‘humanity’ and not a part of us.

How do you behave in front of the gods? Reverent, humble, and in awe of their mystery. We pray to them and in doing so, change ourselves; and in doing so, bring about the changes we wish to see. All the current gods are owned by various ideologies, but might it be possible to discover, to notice, to pay attention to the godlike forces that transcend all ideology?

Peoples’ understanding of the economy, of gender, of the environment all look very animist when you inspect them closely. Why not accept that, and bow in our humility? When we accept the ocean’s rage, and power, and immensity, when we submit to it, we can harness it ourselves and surf waves, sail boats, and ride currents. When we believe we are its equal (just ask the lifesavers at Bondi Beach) then we drown. Why do we treat emergent social phenomena differently? Why do we expect we can make the climate do our bidding, unless we meekly throw ourselves at its feet in submission and ask for its understanding in letting us dance with it?

What we might need are new myths. We have plenty of urban legends, anaemic tales cherry-picked from scientific studies and political narratives to bolster such-and-such an ideological position. None are believed by everybody – they are too tied up with particular coloured tribes. Stories that place the great expanse of humanity in relationship with both its own complex emergent properties and the many varied environments it inhabits – these are conspicuously absent. We have too many hero narratives, and not enough multi-player games.

Oral traditions provided the rich stratum from which myriad iterations and forks of the original myths could emerge. With the improvisational nature of communication on the internet, perhaps we’re getting this setting back again, after years of unidirectional broadcasting from the powerful to the powerless.

What other ways do humans begin to intuit complex emergent phenomena? What tools are available to create these understandings, and how might they be made available to all humans and not only the technologically gifted ones?