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.


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?

Below the API

Riffing on Venkat’s newly-envisioned class structure in The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial

How do you survive the feeling of sensory deprivation brought on by having all your complicated, complex feelings expressed through the light emitted from a 7 inch by 3 inch rectangle?

Imagine a world where…

There’s an underclass who experience life only via screens. They work, relax and socialise via screens. Their bodies are numb, fat and weakened, their experiences are flattened and dead, and they live in physical wastelands that are too spread out and dangerous to travel in.

Everything they own is made from the same cheap polyester in different forms (injection mounded, extruded, 3D-printed, made into shitty brittle thread and woven into fabric that holds every transient stink forever). Everything they eat is made from the same cheap corn, wheat and soybeans in different forms, encased in saccharine technicolor labels with auto-generated imitation branding that litter blue-lit bedroom floors next to the desk and the bed.

Only two types of people spend any time outside – the vagrants and the luddites. The luddites are mostly older, although there will be an occasional precocious teenager, the kind of kid who you imagine in previous times would have gotten super into Shakespeare and the harpsichord when their friends were out getting hammered. The luddites live in remote oases in mostly deserted areas, in tiny communities of aging people perfecting a depreciated craft nobody needs anymore like macrame, carpentry and making ham radios. Perennially broke because of their commitment to ‘sticking it to the man’, some try to sell their goods to the mute smartphone users at roadside stalls, never making any money and stifling a vague sense that what they’re doing is pointless. Some are more cluey and have adapted to sometimes making artisanal crap for the elites, their souls hollowly adjusted over years to stomaching the poison of having ‘sold out’. They grow their own food and fix their own bicycles but they can’t afford their own health insurance and they tell themselves that the herbs are better anyway.

The vagrants are mostly addicted to drugs and numbed out from trauma – they scream on the street and everyone politely ignores them. Some push shopping carts and live in cobbled-together hovels; most people’s only interaction with them occurs when they rummage through suburban garbage bins like raccoons, and the bins’ owners summon up the courage to beat them away in a flash of aggression. Others wear the unstated hazard symbols of low-slung pants, gold teeth and blackness; they have colonized the outside to the quiet terror of the paper-pacifist elites. They are the only ones to really inhabit the outside, apart from the luddites who stubbornly ride bicycles and scooters and hack up a lung breathing the polluted air. It’s too hot and polluted to go outside, and the rich mostly don’t live there; but rather follow the trails of historical moneyed networks crisscrossing the world. While they live in secluded gated communities, they’ll fly in to megapolises, breathe clean air, have sex and fly out again.

For the elite, hyperconnectivity has uncovered and aggregated previously isolated intellectual and emotional jewels from every nook and cranny of the rapidly expanding global cultural empire.

Complex informal social networks form the backbone of hyper-specialized powerful subcultures with tentacles in every major city in the world, expressed as expensive fly-in-fly-out conferences, nourishing retreats and transformational festivals where close relationships flourish between people with the most unique and specific preferences imaginable. There are illegible clusters of people exploring the philosophy of the Tibetan golden age a millennium ago, or making millions on underground trades in incomprehensible crypto asset classes that most people have never heard of, or inventing new kinds of psychedelics and learning how to experience the non-duality of the universe through cultural rituals cannibalized from remote Peruvian shamanistic religions.

Every one of them has found their tribe, truly and deeply; taking advantage of the sheer categorical precision of the Internet age to discover their optimal lovers and allies, and then collectively burrowed deep into an illegible, analogue warren of private mansions, intentional communities and invite-only parties that no one could find unless they followed the same social rabbit hole down and spoke the same subtle, cryptic language that these communities originally used to signal their existence to one another. Every so often someone wrings their hands about how white they all are, and a vague collective guilt ripples throughout various performatively altruistic communities followed by the corresponding sombre and faux-vulnerable discussions of their own, icky privilege, but efforts to dismantle any exclusionary behaviours fail precisely because those inside the communities never wanted to deal with the traumatized and downtrodden anyway. Their communities are for people who have ‘done the personal work’ and won’t spill messy human suffering all over their tribe’s aesthetic and spiritual perfection.

Owning physical items made by hand is an expensive aesthetic luxury here. The elites experience all the richest parts of physical reality augmented by the wonders of the internet – illuminated interactive art, postmodern permaculture green spaces, visual fashion trends performed with the shifting emotional tempo of slam poetry and built with a combination of competitive thrift-store uniqueness-hunting and constant Amazon deliveries. They co-create ‘immersive experiences’ that embed historical riches into physical space, take drugs that open their eyes and ears to the cacophonous beauty of the universe, and fly around the world to have exquisitely curated one-night orgies. Million-dollar deals are made high on molly in a hot tub.

They eat meals made from hundreds of different therapeutic ingredients, grown or raised by artisanal farmers and then assembled into gluten-free, allergen-free epicurean delicacies sold by companies whose branding is built around proof-of-sustainability, proof-of-nutrition, and proof-of-taste. They zip in bubbles through highways and airports and air-conditioning from one private, lush space to another, without ever touching the acidic, incoherent world outside.

He ‘product manages’ the security of elections in 150 nation states (whatever those things are anymore) at Facebook. She optimises algorithms that keep the eyeballs of the underclass tracked on videos about pedophilia and Islamic terrorist plots at YouTube. Another tends to the giant server farms that store every piece of personal information ever created to be combed over, combined, re-analysed by looming ad algorithms that chase the underclass around the internet. He personally uses an ad-blocker and has disabled all retargeting.

At Burning Man none of them talk about what they do for a living.

The worst kind of work is work that’s boring but uncertain, or dangerous – air traffic controllers crammed into tiny boxes and doing the same thing over and over again until the unfortunate second when it isn’t and people might die from their lack of reaction. Much atomized work is like this – hours filling out paperwork that is boring but slightly different every time; driving the same routes but you’re in charge of a big metal box and people die in car accidents every single day. Most of the time, it’s an app telling you what to do, and you can theoretically log on and off when you want but you’re subject to market forces now so you really have at least as much restriction as a regular 9-5.

Few people have just one job, but the ones that do (with slightly fancier incomes) are at the mercy of bureaucratic algorithms when it comes to where they live. People are shifted all around the world for work, pulled through a tube into the same sanitized corporate box they were sucked out of in their previous city. Atomized employees are rarely relaxed or excited; they exist in a constant haze of semi-work that aches into the bones and seeps into the neural pathways. The ones with a paycheck worry most of the time that their job will disappear next week; the ones without one worry most of the time that their jobs will disappear tomorrow. It happens a lot.

Most of their time at work is spent either filling out forms for a byzantine corporate bureaucracy, or trying to sanitize or interpret the output of computer generated data they have no control over. They are under the API.

Some drive for Uber or Lyft, and their submission to the algorithm is made plainly obvious by the logo on their car. Others submit more subtly, trying in vain to stuff walk-in freezers to the brim with ice-cream that the inventory AI over-ordered on a hot week in summer. They open their inbox and every message is from a bot, demanding a reply on behalf of a company, which is probably owned by humans at some point in the chain, but maybe not. They live with one finger constantly scrolling; one feed for shiny, hyper-saccharine inputs (posted, scheduled and curated by bots), the other for outputs (fast-moving job postings – when that video game trigger finger comes in handy). Sleep is the only minor refuge from the constant pinging, invading one’s mind even in dreams. They huddle and daydream about getting offline, and trade secret location details for places with no wifi.

The atomites all conduct their romantic relationships over the Internet. Nobody’s making babies, but they’re doing a lot of sexting. Fingers constantly type bright but vacuous words and Silicon Valley’s emojis while the relationship slowly weakens from a lack of touch, like monkey babies dying of hunger while cuddling an empty breast. Their relationships are always either in a plastic, hyper-ok phase, or in a lull of despair – each thinks their long-distance relationship is abnormal, not realizing that their next-door neighbours are on Skype too, masturbating in sync with a lover on the other side of the globe.

At some point Facebook announced that those posting sexual content in messenger would be banned from the site (at Facebook’s discretion). Many spent a while mildly terrified that having sex with their lovers would get their public profiles destroyed. You can’t do gigs without a public profile – when you sign up for the service you have to Oauth into whatever network’s gonna be paying you using Facebook so they can make sure you’re not a rapist or a murderer or something.

Sometimes when she was moaning for him, strobing over a spotty internet connection, she was also wondering whether FB was recording their fucking in their database.

The future’s frontiers are all virtual, leaving peoples’ bodies abandoned in physical space.

The atomites live in a constantly flickering, dull haze of depression, fatigue and numb anxiety, guzzling down a constant stream of pharmaceutical cocktails and artificially generated rage-lust-envy sentiment.

The elites augment their environments with artificial intelligence; a lush, vibrating complexity interweaving living organisms with emergent technological phenomena; the creation of personal and communal artisans, curators and virtuosic technicians.

It’s hot, the air is toxic and searing, and everyone stopped trusting the news years ago. There might be an uprising or two of the most frustrated of the underclass in the works but it also might be the incessant wriggle of Twitter bots.

There isn’t a way of telling, really.

Anarchy in the desert: prototyping a culture of self-sovereignty

(I just got back from That Thing in the Desert and there’s playa dust in my playa dust. There are probably a handful of posts to be squeezed out of my first trip to Burning Man, so uhhh…if you don’t like BM, sorry. But not sorry. It’s just what’s happening.)

A culture where there are no strangers

I worked out pretty early on that I wasn’t a night burner – everything was more disorienting, it was harder to meet people and easier to lose your friends when they zoomed off on their bikes and didn’t hear you yell out for them to stop. But I considered my first year a tasting plate of Burning Man experiences, so I wanted to try it all before I rejected it for an early night’s sleep. The sound camps were booming and the music somewhat indistinguishable and muddled together, but I somehow ended up at a large DJ stage with the label Slutgarden and the music wasn’t bad so I decided to stay.

‘Safety third’ is a motto you hear a lot at Burning Man, and it typifies the principle of self-reliance embedded into the culture. A veteran burner I talked to once remarked ‘they [the Burning Man organisation, BMorg] really only do rigorous inspections on the pyrotechnics. All other structures, like rigging, well, they don’t really care. So it’s up to you to evaluate if you think something is safe enough to do. If you get on something, like a tower or an art car, and it feels unsafe, well, it probably is. No one is going to tell you what to do.’

With this in mind I noticed a metal cage in the crowd in front of Slutgarden’s stage. It was tall enough for someone to stand in, and had a platform for someone to stand inside it. I wanted to climb on top of it. Knowing it hadn’t been evaluated by an external authority, I examined it to see how strong it was. Pretty damn strong, but not bolted to the ground. I climbed up and sat on the top, letting my head and shoulders doing some kind of laidback introvert dancing as I perched above the crowd.

Suddenly I felt the cage jerking and looked down to see some drunk dude grabbing the front of the cage with both hands and shaking it violently. In that instant I was terrified, because he could easily tip the whole thing over and throw me off onto bodies and hard playa below. All I wanted was for him to stop. Without thinking, I kicked out and connected with his head – much harder than I’d intended. He stumbled back and swore at me, shocked. I was shocked too. I didn’t mean to hurt him; I just wanted him to stop rocking the cage.

I climbed down and tried to apologise, but he was still shitty at me and he didn’t seem to feel bad for almost tipping over the structure I was sitting on. We apologised to each other but neither felt that the other had understood or really shown any remorse. I no longer wanted to be there so I went to go unlock my bike and started to leave. Tears welled up and my body was hot, with knots of energy pulsing in my chest.

‘Hey, if you’re staying, could you move your bike across the esplanade so we have more space?’ It was someone from Slutgarden, trying to keep the kaggle of bikes out of the way of flailing dancers. He took a closer look at my face and his expression changed.

‘You look like you could use a hug. Would you like a hug?’ I thought about it for a second and then said yes.

The instant I was wrapped in this stranger’s arms I burst into tears. He was open, and comforting, and just held me and let me let it all out. My very primal need to be seen, and to release the tension that had arisen from the kicking in the face incident gradually dissipated in the face of this stranger’s generosity.

As I became calmer and wiped the tears off my face we started talking. He introduced himself. I described what had happened and why I had become so upset. He said I should meet his friends and pulled his friends over to meet me. They were open and friendly too, and when they wanted to leave, I left with them to ride through the night together onto the next adventure. This little group adopted me and for a night I was one of them.

One of the nicest things about Burning Man is that so many of your conversations start at what would be the mid-point in the default world. While riding to the next venue I started talking to one of the guys in the group about playa relationships and how Burning Man had influenced his relationship with his girlfriend. We got deep into how we were negotiating insecurities, both ours and those of our partners, and offered heartfelt advice to each other. I never introduced myself, nor did I get his name.

After misplacing my watch earlier in the week I would occasionally ride up to people wearing watches on their wrists and ask them the time. They would respond, and sometimes I’d just say thank you and ride off. A ritual like that is completely normal, and even perhaps more intimate than normal street-stranger interactions in the default world off the playa. But in the desert I realised the words were hollow and I was often using them on autopilot, speaking magic words that would grant me the items I desired without interacting with the agentiness of the human I spoke to. The context offered the opportunity to re-imagine even the smallest interactions into actual chances to connect as human monkeys, rather than treating other humans as rigid, abstract phenomena. Noticing and reacting to real things as they happened let you be more alive in the presence of others.

People are more agenty at Burning Man; in front of your eyes they become real actors playing alongside you, rather than melting into a background of non-player characters. Any interaction on the playa or in Black Rock City is a real conversation, where you are talking to a real soul behind the eyes of a human animal. This starkly contrasts with the so-called ‘humans’ we interact with in our heavily bureaucratised lives. A person can have a full range of expressions, but a police officer has a limited set. (The contrast between the actual Nevada police officers and the Burning Man rangers illustrated this beautifully.) Any time you rocked up to a bar and asked the person behind it for a drink, you were talking to a real human who would behave the way they naturally wanted to. They would sing, start a conversation, or perhaps make fun of you. All of these things can theoretically happen in the default world but the overwhelming dominance of them at Burning Man was surprising.

On Sunday morning I watched a woman working on the Perimeter team tell someone he couldn’t enter the Temple (as preparations were being made to burn it down), but that if he wanted to write something to add she would be able to put it in the Temple before it was burned. She had some position of authority, but the interaction was strikingly different from authority interactions in the default world. She wasn’t merely enforcing a rule. She was doing work (preparing the temple for burning) and in the course of that work had created a boundary she needed others to agree to. But there was no authority-public relationship.

As she explained things to him in this momentary interaction, she recognised the humanity in him and in what he wanted. She saw that what he wanted was to pay his respects at the temple, not to cross her (rather arbitrary) boundary. Her offer let them fulfill both her need to protect the boundary and his need to get whatever catharsis the Temple gave him. The entire ten second conversation was a meeting between two fully sovereign beings, rather than an agent of authority (bureaucrat) and a subject of authority (citizen).

I saw intense flickers of this relationship dynamic, this lack of a subject-to-authority ‘public’ all across the playa. When my friend and I had scored good spots to watch the Man burn high up on a four-storey scaffolding ‘sky lounge’ and the people who ran that camp, (having spent the evening making sure the scaffolding wasn’t overloaded with people) wanted to come up and sit on the highest level, they asked us to leave as humans. They recognised what we wanted, honestly acknowledged what they wanted, and offered alternatives, (the lower levels did, in fact, have perfectly adequate views) and asked, not forced us to accept them. Conflicts of interest became a negotiation between relative equals, not an imposition of rules or policies.

Negotiating with people as agents rather than as representations of abstract phenomena like companies, communities and governments meant two things. One, that every human you encounter is, or is on the way to being, the fullest expression of humanity that that body, mind, identity, environment and cultural context can create. A bureaucrat or a service worker is a shadow of a human – not in the sense that the person is any less person-y in the remainder of their life, but that within that role their self-expression is limited to the sets of actions that carry out the explicit or implicit aims of the hierarchy their role exists within.

An usher cannot drop their usher-like habitus and give you a full-bodied hug as a stranger when you need it – the professional customs that define their role prohibit it, even if implicitly. We distrust public displays of emotion by CEOs and other executives precisely because they are a representation of an idea, and not a real person; thus any outburst of fear or sadness must merely be a tool serving the purpose their role was created to serve.

Second, being immersed in an environment of agents meant that there was no ground. There is an illusion of safety that comes with giving responsibility and ownership to someone, even an abstract entity. Anyone who has ever submitted as a D/s sub will have felt this feeling of release, where worries are gone once they are out of your sphere of control and in someone else’s. In a healthy dominance relationship, like the one we might have with our parents as young children, this translates into space for being less of an agent, and for growing into becoming more of one. When we don’t have to worry about where we’re going to live at age five, it gives us space to learn how to be a social animal, and practice skills in order to interact with others. Being forced into premature agentiness stunts the growth of less survival-critical skills. On the other hand, being bound to dominance relationships when we don’t need them, or when they are more overbearing than we need, leads to anxiety, depression, and limiting of our potential.

The kind of freedom offered at Burning Man (offered; I’m sure not everyone takes it) is the freedom required to truly access our wants, needs and values, and to engage with the wants, needs and values of other people around us without fear that they will be politicised (read: co-opted into a story that reinforces a dominance hierarchy we’re in or adjacent to). The structure of Burning Man  comes top-down from the publicly-visible ten principles and participants’ interpretation of them, as well as ground up from the decades of experimentation of the old burners who form the backbone of the city, both through literally serving important functions like being medics and trash collectors, and through serving as a model of the new culture for virgins to emulate.

This structure provides a minimal grammar for interaction between humans without proscribing what interactions should take place. In this way the culture fosters a healthy kind of sovereignty in participants that doesn’t demand subjugation of others, only freedom from their own subjugation.

People die at Burning Man. There’s often outrage at it, particularly in the outside world, but I think this outrage stems from either a misunderstanding or a disagreement with what the culture is and what it is trying to facilitate. People die in the default world too, from suicide, car accidents, heart disease, medical malpractice. it seems that people take death within a system as evidence that the system is flawed, but within all social systems there is a trade-off to balance between risk of death and harm and risk of oppression, stifling and stasis.

When we blame the Burning Man organisation for, say, a death by suicide at Burning Man, we are treating the BMorg like a regular Western organisation with sovereignty over its participants and a hierarchy that controls and determines the actions of those within it. In a collective hierarchy, yes, those with more power can be responsible for the deaths of those with less, in the same way we hold parents responsible for child neglect and politicians who refuse to pass more stringent gun laws responsible for school shootings. Because these hierarchies have taken away power from individuals, we blame those who have taken it when preventable incidents occur.

The BMorg takes nothing away from the citizens of Black Rock City, except the bare minimum it is required to by law, enforced on site by Nevada police, and not by Burning Man. It creates a few key incentives, such as determining camp placement by the cleanliness and participant activation of the camp in previous years, largely to manage externalities that otherwise don’t affect the camps themselves, but affect the whole city, or the environment in which it is created.

Burning Man does not, for better or worse, take away its citizens right to die, or to do risky things that might lead to death. And for the most part, people look after that bit themselves, with help from their friends and some excellent public institutions like the medics, rangers, and the Zendo (the psychedelic crisis management camp). And in this way, those with the most incentive to act have the power to act in any given situation. If I think a structure is unsafe, I get down. If someone is upsetting me, I leave. The culture provides the space to vote with your feet and exit situations you don’t like, and prevents unnecessary power accumulation so that your voice can reasonably be heard. Other than that, it’s up to you and your campmates to determine the course of your life in that short eight days.

There is a trade-off in societies and the institution that enable them between safety in the moment and longer-term resilience. A lot of the rage at governments like the US government is about the lack of short term safety. An experiment at anarchy, like Burning Man, is to some extent an experiment in refusing to build short term safety nets in the hope that it will build more resilience to risk in the future.

There are other trade-offs in protecting people from violence and death too that aren’t about personal decisionmaking. Lack of autonomy makes us sick and depressed, and forces us to rely more on the institutions that trade our autonomy for protection. Both literally and metaphorically, at Burning Man you are closer to the earth. Many of the civilisational bubbles we’ve settled into don’t exist in Burning Man, and as we are forced to directly reckon with duststorms, deathtrap artistic creations and the naked self-expression of 70,000 other fully realised human beings, we become more capable of dealing with those things.

This Burning Man culture is not quite real-world ready, and it’s constantly threatened with being overrun by flashy Insta-capitalism, but as it is, it creates spaces to process and heal trauma, relax out of hierarchically specified roles, and then provides the foundations for an iterative process of gradual expansions of autonomy. The most wonderful burners I met were the middle-aged men and women, particularly men, who still functioned as members of society and weren’t ‘crazy hippies’, but could breathe outside of Western society’s rather constricting definitions of what a ‘man’, ‘professional’, ‘leader’ or ‘father’ might look like. They were so alive and so much fun to get to know!

What might a civilisation be like, that actually helped its participants become more resilient and sovereign? Certainly not the one we have now, and most libertarian fantasies don’t have it right either. But this little anarchic experiment in the desert provides one glimpse into the necessary pieces we could assemble to make it happen.

Envisioning the future of effective altruism

Being an EA is a weighty undertaking; I imagine the title of Effective Altruist being something that is conveyed on someone after years of fruitful service like a knighthood, not something someone calls themselves by the time they’ve ordered Doing Good Better off the Internet. I do not call myself an Effective Altruist; effective altruism is one goal I strive for, but not the only one.

This prepubescent movement has, like all good social phenomena, experienced its fair share of growing pains. There are lots of ways the movement could easily go astray and only a few ways it could truly succeed.

What might the world look like, with Effective Altruism in it? Let me sketch out three visions of the future.


In the first, EA has grown big, with members in the seven or more digits. EA leaders shout new thoughts in blog posts and conference talks like through a megaphone, desperately trying to transfer the intricate and complex knowledge they’ve developed about their respective problem-spaces into the heads of people vastly different in experience, culture and geography from them. It’s still hugely an internet phenomenon, and many hardcore EAs have never met another one in real life.

The pockets of EA physical communities collaborate wildly, but there’s always a lag between the ideology of the capital and the ideology of the colonies.

In remote outposts like new university groups sometimes it takes years for people to hear that a previously promising career track has been devalued, or that a new and promising cause area has sprung up. There are lots of shouting matches about Earning to Give.

In many of the more remote places the groups recycle the same ten intro ideas over and over again, with a revolving door of fresh acolytes learning the mantras ‘how can we use reason and evidence to do the most good?’ and something less polite along the lines of ‘shut up and multiply’ and instantly becoming insufferable in their local communities. Local leaders find the rhetoric very hit or miss amongst newcomers; precise Facebook ad targeting reveals a tight demographic – aged 20-32, mostly Caucasian males, educated at elite universities, living in countries with high trust in the government; atheism, low neuroticism, high openness, high grades in maths.

The drone of the mantras drowns out the questioning, and in the colonies people don’t question, they just leave. People wring their hands about the too-small movement numbers but the churn is just as bad. Once the honeymoon period is over and the utilitarianism starts biting newcomers in the ass, they coalesce into depressive social circles when no one feels like they are effective enough to be worth anything; there’s an exit trail littered with the broken souls of those who couldn’t stand the self-flagellation.

In the big cities of the empire, the mood is different. EAs are highly specialised, and fly frequently to efficiently-run conferences to continually explain their niche to other niches. They’ve caught the tech bros’ reputation for simplifying complex societal issues into highly distilled models that tend to break things when implemented; that one test where they got rid of all the mosquitoes in Sierra Leone still makes Effective Altruism PR people shiver. All the while the mostly white, mostly male, mostly utilitarian and tech-fluent population in the capital spends half their time publicly boasting of their effectiveness and privately dying inside of the same feeling of worthlessness that traps the EAs in the outer colonial network.

They’re getting attacked by the diversity brigade relentlessly on social media. They really can’t, for the life of them, work out why people from poor and marginalised communities don’t want to adopt the EA mindset. Who wouldn’t want to save the world effectively with them?

In the second future, the EA movement has become influential in some sorts of public policy positions. EA doctrine became much more concerned with the need for surveillance in order to prevent unfriendly AGI being developed. They haven’t yet either made or prevented a real AGI, but they’ve harnessed the less-general AIs that exist – to implement government policy for the British and Canadian governments that optimises the happiness potential of peoples’ newsfeeds and does some minor law enforcement.

More and more EAs are standing for government on a platform that some sardonically refer to as ‘Well, we’re effective, and we’re altruistic, so we’re obviously better than those ineffective slobs you’ve currently got’. The Elitism platform. They’ve got some good policies, and they want to get rid of factory farming. They’re probably a good influence?

Ten years later and there’s been a surprisingly brutal famine in poorer parts of Canada when they banned factory farming in one go and diverted a bunch of taxes to AI safety research by firing a boatload of community service workers and healthcare administrators. Nobody’s really sure though if it was the EAs’ fault, because in the meantime they’ve gotten really good at PR, and because clearing the name of Effective Altruism in these incidents is obviously better for the world overall…

I mean. just think how worse off we’d be if the EAs weren’t able to continue their good work because regular people thought some accidents were their fault.

A few years later, the deadly influenza strain in an EA biosecurity lab jumps the fence and kills 20 million people in the US and southeast Asia. Several arrests are made and some EA figureheads are hauled in front of the UN to explain themselves. They patiently explain existential risk mitigation frameworks to the simpleminded, irrational UN Assembly and assure the legislators that the chances of such an event occurring were less than 0.01% in their risk mitigation models.

Google hires a taskforce staffed entirely by EAs and throws millions at them on the condition they make a good AGI in 18 months. A handful of retired senior FBI people are hired to construct incontrovertible evidence that this is the most effective cause in existence based on the Effective Altruist literature to wave in front of the hopelessly anxious EA AI researchers. The EAs pore over the final memo but can’t find the flaws in the model, so they throw themselves into the work in earnest.

A few attempts at public arguments are hashed out online but no utilitarian objections can be found to the memo.

No one in the inner circle of EA questions the project after that.

In the third future the EA movement doesn’t exist. The idea of ‘doing the most good with the resources we have available’ is pretty common knowledge now – it’s not just a cultural meme, but embedded in the dominant political and social institutions. Givewell-like evaluators are a fundamental part of every major national policymaking institute and development agency.

There are a handful of small but well-funded international taskforces that monitor and protect against every kind of existential risk imaginable; somehow someone has made news that ‘We didn’t get hit by an asteroid this year,’ both palatable and entertaining within the news cycle and it’s a regular and welcome part of the media conversation. Major progress in slowing down the rate of development of dangerous technologies has meant that the national x-risk institutions are able to continually react and adapt and the best researchers are optimistic about humanity’s chance of survival.

We’ve stopped asking kids what they want to be when they grow up, and instead ask gentle questions about their moral values; many people pick causes to spend their entire lives on, regardless of income, and institutional programs pick up the slack to fund their work whenever the market doesn’t.

Nobody calls themselves an effective altruist; but there are historical records of the movement existing. Most of it just became the way we collectively thought about the world, and seamlessly melted into the fabric of the biggest and most widespread institutions. There’s even EA art now, even though there’s no real movement anymore; people feel genuinely grateful for the singular focus these types of questions have given to humanity and their own personal lives, and feel compelled to express that in a way that allows lots of people to share in and experience their gratitude.

Altruism, the concern and compassion for all life, present and future, is a key part of what stabilised society after the rocky 2020’s, and the ‘effectiveness’ part of EA grew a lot more nuanced and incorporated a lot more counterintuitive insights before it blossomed into a core feature of business, government and civic life. The nations look slightly different for geopolitical reasons now but the one-world, one-mission viewpoints espoused and developed by the EA movement made some lasting impact on how humans thought of themselves over the longer term.

This EA-flavoured world has learned to see suffering as its enemy, its only enemy; and with work and compassionate collaboration one that can be muted, if not destroyed.

Effective Altruism, as a movement, has its roots in positivist science, orthodox economics, and institutions glowing with privilege like Oxford with a tendency to espouse beliefs that aim at universalism. But as a social movement, it is also subject to pressures to be politicised, to grow as large as possible, and to accommodate diverse and often incompatible aims. It has also become a haven for weird ideas, about radical ideas like eradicating the malaria mosquito using gene drives and using artificial intelligence to maximise utility. The movement also has a tendency towards self-fulfilling insularity; there’s a tautological assumption that the Effective Altruism organisations working on cause X must be the most effective players in the field of cause X by virtue of being EA organisations, and that no other organisations or actors are making important progress or have valuable knowledge. I think this is myopic and likely to make EA as a movement much less effective in the long run.

Defining what is ‘altruistic’ is a group activity, and the EA movement needs to continually re-engage with this process, and encourage engagement with it at every level and in every location and not only in the inner circles of top EA organisations. Similarly, understanding how the needs, desires, biases and worldviews of the initial founders of the movement have grown out into the limitations, focus areas, and ideological frameworks that now define the movement is necessary if we want people who don’t look or think like us to be a part of it.

I think there’s an important project to be pursued in spreading the principles of effective altruism into the non-EA institutions where they can help, and inspiring people already in do-gooder roles to adopt this lens in their work. That’s a vastly different project than either growing or intensifying the Effective Altruism movement, and, I think, a more sustainable one – more of a percolation than an expansion. But it requires separating the EA identity from the movement from the values and principles that people within the movement uphold, and being willing to adapt and remix them to different contexts, in collaboration with the people who are already there.

Fluid mode via Holochain: putting theory into practice

I’ll be talking about Holochain, a crypto project I’m particularly interested in, and how it relates to how we make and share meaning in society.

This is an attempt to synthesise two illustrations I’ve previously made that point at a theoretical cluster some of us are calling metarationality, metasystematicity or fluid mode with what I think is currently one of the clearest attempts to make that theoretical cluster into a reality. I’ll try to be clear with the tech, but it does help if you understand a bit about how blockchains work and what makes them useful for decentralisation.

There is a lot of theory and implementation detail about Holochain that I’m leaving out – if you are interested I recommend you read this super clear introduction by my friend Moritz, check out more of Holochain’s online material or take a stab at their technical but well thought-out whitepaper.

Hierarchy versus grammar

When I’m ‘thinking in systems’ I’m thinking of the system as both a set of things – nodes, objects or agents – and the rules for interaction between the things. We can use this model to think about technical systems (computer networks), social systems (communities and institutions), and belief systems (ideologies and paradigms). Both the loosely-defined metarationality community and the Holochain team are rethinking how these human-made systems are designed, and what it even means for a system to be ‘designed’ at all.

I wrote in an earlier essay about existing as a human within two different types of systems – formal and playful – using the metaphors of ballet and contact dance. Within the context of being a ballet student or ballet dancer, there is a set of clear aims and a linear, planned process for training your body and mind to work together to achieve those aims. The aim is an abstract direction, a platonic ideal – the ‘perfect ballet dancer’ does not exist, but the abstract idea is largely the same for all dancers. In contact dance there is no abstract ideal. There are qualities of beauty, expression, aliveness that you might be aiming towards, but each dancer’s conception of that ideal is different. What the system provides is a grammar; rules for building interactions between dancers. There are no ‘mistakes’ in contact dance, in the sense of things that are not predicted by a formal system of movement. There are, definition, mistakes in ballet. In ballet, the purpose of the system exists outside of the movement – the goal is to be a beautiful or excellent dancer, or to perform for an audience. In contact dance the purpose is inherent in the movement; it’s just to dance.

A lot of the systems we exist within in modern society act more like formal systems, which is excellent for coordinating large groups of people or objects but not as good for maximising the flourishing of each person or organism within the system. Moreover, each formal societal system thinks it is the best, and must beat out all the other systems for the prize of becoming ‘how society works’. I’d argue that we’re in the process of noticing (slowly from the perspective of humans, quickly from the perspective of history) that no one system can actually be ‘how society works’ and that we need a new way of thinking about how these formal systems influence and relate to how society is organised.

What is the current paradigm?

In another earlier essay I discussed David Chapman’s clear but simple model that maps Robert Kegan’s stages of adult development to the organisation of society.

Stage 3 – Pre-modern, relationship-driven, pre-theoretical stage, where coordination of groups of people happens by appealing to relationships and the emotions that go along with them. (e.g. tribalism, many corporations, extended families). Group size is limited by peoples’ ability to keep track of relationships.
Stage 4 – Modern stage, theoretical stage, where coordination of groups of people happens by the evolution of a single shared belief system or set of values, and appealing to that set of values. E.g. Christianity, capitalism, democracy. Group size is often limited by the surveillance/control ability of the leaders, and their ability to suppress competing narratives.
Stage 5 – Metamodern or fluid stage, after there’s a realisation that no one system can adequately explain all of reality (*cough* the death of the metanarrative). A stable version of this metamodern stage allows people and groups to share parts of belief systems through shared grammars, and tools that help one system interact with another.

Chapman’s argument is that the postmodern movement of the last 50 yrs or so marks a transition between the modern stage and whatever this stage 5 is, after a loss of faith in belief systems we used to think were infallible and at the cusp of a larger transition to a new mode of being, and that right now there’s an opportunity to help society build a new way of relating to meaning that doesn’t rely on 100% shared data and rules.

The founders of Holochain, with a wealth of knowledge in systems thinking, mechanism and currency design, seem to be steeped already in this Stage 5 thinking. They’ve long ago somehow already drunk the Kool-Aid. They’ve argued that the fundamental shift that needs to happen in order to bring this kind of meta-system about is from designing in terms of data to designing in terms of agents. Holochains are agent-centric, which contrasts with blockchains, which are data-centric.

Hang on, since when are blockchains ‘modern’? Aren’t they meant to be all about decentralisation and not letting any centralised actor take control?

Well, Holochain argues that blockchain-based systems are just as formal and restrictive as their centralised counterparts – just in different ways. What blockchain people mean when they talk about consensus is that everybody considers the same piece of information to be true. The aim of a data-centric approach is to create one single shared data reality or truth amongst all nodes in the system (in this case, computers connecting to the network). What this means is:

‘Blockchains don’t record a universal ordering of events – they manufacture a single authoritative ordering of events – by stringing together a tiny fragment of local vantage points into one global record that has passed validation rules.’

Holochain whitepaper

In a blockchain, every single node must follow the same set of rules about what can be added to the chain, and must hold an identical copy of the whole chain. In practice, as we’ve already seen with Bitcoin and Ethereum, this means that nodes rapidly become huge, expensive and unwieldy, and require specialised equipment to run. This limits participation to a few big actors (e.g. a handful of mining companies taking advantage of cheap Chinese electricity in Inner Mongolia). Running a Bitcoin node now takes 125GB of disk space, and reports say it’s difficult, if not impossible, to run a full Ethereum node on a consumer computer. This problem will only get worse as these blockchains become more popular. In smaller blockchains it is also possible to just spend a bunch of money (with a 51% attack) in order to have complete control over the chain’s data reality.

In a data-centric system, disagreeing with the consensus is costly – you have to hard fork the entire blockchain (and lose the advantages of the network effects), or you are just evicted from a given space (in the case of centralised systems like Facebook and Twitter). Because there is only one reality, who controls that reality becomes incredibly important.

What is Holochain’s suggested alternative?

‘The term consensus, as normally used, implies deliberation with regard to differences and work on crafting a perspective that holds for all parties, rather than simply selecting one party’s dataset at random.’ 
Holochain whitepaper

According to the Holochain founders, the problem with blockchain mechanism design is the need for for ‘absolute confidence’ in order to create a trustless system.

We might be able to agree that a certain ordering of bits was placed somewhere at a certain time, but disagree on the meaning at the level of real-world identity, ownership, agreements or collective decision-making. Agents can only be sure that they see a certain piece of data and that it matches a certain model they already had. Essentially, meaning-making is a continually contested, partial and evolving activity.

The aim of an agent-centric approach is to allow nodes to share independently evolving data realities or truths. In a Holochain each node has their own personal chain, which has its own rules about what can be added to it, and what the threshold is for trusting a given data source (including other nodes). Every agent keeps track of their representation of that portion of reality that is of importance to them – given they need to manage trade-offs between the desire for trust and the cost of validation for particular circumstances. Each app asks that users use a particular set of rules in order to contribute to its shared reality, and different apps have different needs for security and cost-effectiveness. E.g. checking whether an email is spam or not and validating that a large financial transaction was sent require different levels of trust and different levels of willingness to spend resources on preventing a trust violation.

How is this metarational?

In a Holochain-based system, nodes do not need to agree to one singular set of rules and create one unified system. They only need to agree on enough rules between individual nodes and groups of nodes to establish the level of trust needed for each application they use together. As pointed out in the Holochain whitepaper, a given group of nodes could agree on a set of rules identical to those of a blockchain like Bitcoin or Ethereum – they think of a Holochain node’s parameters as being on a spectrum of highly trusting to trustless where on the ‘trustless’ end you could theoretically just replicate a blockchain within the Holochain paradigm.

On the practical, technical side, this means that from the outset Holochain avoids the scaling problems that blockchains like Bitcoin (that require validation by all nodes) are currently experiencing. On the philosophical side, this means the system does not demand a single, unified ‘truth’. You and I could run Holochain nodes on our phones that each validate the other’s data using the cryptographic hash functions that were iriginally developed as part of blockchain systems like Bitcoin. We wouldn’t need to pay to store data on the Holochains, if we were storing the data ourselves. Moreover, no two nodes would hold the same set of data, but they would share parts with each other in order to form consensus for particular applications.

I would argue that the fully realised vision of Holochain is a playful system. Each node is interacting with other nodes to build its own individual set of truths, and clusters of rules that multiple nodes follow in order to coordinate constitute ‘grammars’ or ways of playing together – rather than complete top-down recipes for defining consensus on reality. You could imagine a Holochain app being more like a grammar or a defined way for people to interact with each other in a way that is truly peer-to-peer, rather than a central ‘location’ where people connect (which is the current metaphor for apps, social networks and ‘platforms’). A truly decentralised holochain Twitter, for example, might allow you to choose your thresholds for parameters about message length, spamminess, or who can connect with you, and you wouldn’t be reliant on a central party to host your data, or protect the platform on your behalf. You could imagine it becoming easier for communities to split when differences emerge without losing network benefits – they’d just change their validation thresholds (how strict they are on who they accept) and let their membranes breathe differently – as opposed to centralised networks like FB with strictly defined, opaque membranes.

There is still a lot more to think about, and a lot more for me personally to learn about Holochain, fluid mode and agent-centric models more broadly. I don’t know how well the Holochain paradigm (and it is more of a paradigm than a single system) hold up when faced with zero-sum actors who essentially provide centralised services for simplicity and security, like Coinbase increasingly does in the regular crypto community. It doesn’t matter if the system is decentralised if you access it using a wallet whose private keys are controlled in a centralised way by a private for-profit company. Other blockchains inadvertently rely on trust in the central actors, like Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin, in lieu of social trust in the mathematic security of the system. It remains to be seen whether Holochain as a concept could see widespread adoption without a correspondingly broad paradigm shift into positive-sum, fluid-mode thinking by a large fraction of the population. Because if it does, then adoption will be a gargantuan task, and educating app developers about the new development paradigm will require a lot of effort.

What’s next?

Personally, I’m going to continue to learn more about the Holochain paradigm, how to build apps using it, and its intellectual influences. I think the question of ‘how does an application designed for fluid mode from the outset behave in practice?’ is fascinating and a question I definitely don’t have an answer to yet. Other crypto communities like Ethereum and Bitcoin have struggled to make the user experience simple and easy, and doing so in complicated crypto systems while giving the user full control of their data and experience is hard. I also don’t really know what the developer incentives are within the system (other than ideological) – what incentivises developers to build apps that truly maximise the agentiness of their users? What happens when developer and user interests clash? I don’t know yet. Developer business models also seem tricky, and I’d like to learn more about that.

I’d also love to hear about other projects that seem to be doing this playful, fluid-mode thing in practice. One of the tricky parts is that there are so many groups with so many influences that often you have no idea that a nearby group is working on a similar thing because the language is so unfamiliar. If you know of projects like this, let me know!